Weighing potential costs of hydraulic fracturing

The recent expansion of hydraulic fracturing across the nation has set off a debate among oil and gas industry officials and conservationists and environmental scientists. During a recent House Space, Science and Technology Committee hearing, Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) outlined the points of contention: “You have one group that’s got long experience with hydraulic fracturing [contending] it’s very safe” and “you have another group that’s new to it and is having to analyze the potential of risks associated with it.” Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. Advances in fracturing technology have led to a dramatic surge in gas extraction nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the United States has 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, about 60 percent of which is “unconventional gas” stored in low permeability formations such as shale, coalbeds, and tight sands. In 2010, production of this “shale gas” doubled to 137.8 billion cubic meters, up from 63 billion cubic meters in 2009. A Pennsylvania State University study stated that deployment in 2008 of hydraulic fracturing technology in the Marcellus Shale region generated more than $240 million in state and local taxes for Pennsylvania, 29,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in total economic development. The oil and gas industry falls into the camp of those who contend that decades of practice show that hydraulic fracturing is important economically and poses no discernable threat to public health or the environment. In the other camp are conservationists and some researchers who say that fracking could pose a risk to drinking water supplies. During the recent congressional hearing, the committee’s majority Republican members repeatedly asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s $12 million study on the safety of hydraulic fracturing is wasting taxpayer dollars. “The study intends to identify the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water without ever taking into consideration the probability that such an effect may occur,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). A key part of understanding different views of the potential risks of “fracking” is how it is defined. Many in the oil and gas industry use the term to describe not the drilling process but, more specifically, the completion phase where chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas. Companies assert it is a safe practice since so far there has been no indication of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising above the mile or so of rock layers to reach drinking water aquifers. Others outside the industry typically view fracturing and drilling as interconnected. Consequently,...

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