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Natural Gas - Not All It's Frakked Up To be

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The craze of late has been that natural gas will be a primary solution to the energy problem in the United States. This news has come as supposedly vast natural gas reserves have been found, and the natural gas industry has found that its interests conflict with the coal and oil industries. The environmental community has also been thrown this bone that natural gas is an attractive alternative because of lower CO2 emissions, and is less destructive than the devastation of mountain top mining. This "alternative" falls in the category of "too good to be true," just like the vaporware of Obama's support of "clean coal."

The truth of the vast reserves comes in an article by John Dizard of the Financial Times. In his article "Shale gas numbers may not add up," Dizard writes: (emphasis mine)

From one end of the known world to the other, which is to say from Boston to Washington and some points in between, there is a consensus among the well informed that one part of a national energy plan is in place. Thanks to the discovery and mapping of huge reserves of gas in shale formations, we have an alternative to dirty old coal, and, possibly, imported oil for transport fuel. A 40 per cent increase in the country's gas reserves! You can thank advanced American technology for that.

Well, you can thank advanced American something, but along with the technology you can also thank the advanced American ability to extract money from investors. The key element of this national characteristic is the willingness to listen carefully to determine what people with money want to hear, and then tell them that. Again and again.

Money, that thing we are told "makes the world go round." If one wants to extract money, then one must convince folks that the "product" is worth buying. In the world of investing, that "product" is making money - not natural gas, or cars, or grapes. In the case of oil and gas, the risks are higher because the failure rate is higher. There are hypotheses that oil and gas should exist some place, but drilling may end up "a dry hole," or far less resource than was thought. Therefore, to get investors (or government/tax payer) money, one has to engage in overselling the potential. This has become more difficult as oil has stayed below $100 a barrel (though that is unlikely to continue).

There is another obstacle. Namely, that the extraction of natural gas (and oil) raises its own problems regardless of how available - or profitable - that might be. The extraction of natural gas (and oil) comes with its own destructive side with toxic chemicals and redirecting and contamination of water supplies.

There is some degree of irony that the term used for extraction is "fracking." Fracking is a mining process where water and chemicals are pressure forced into the ground (or well) to both force the natural gas or oil to the surface, as well as to ease its movement through the ground and pumping process. Fracking potentially pollutes water sources as the fracking mixture escapes into ground water, and by the waste sludge that is pumped up. This is also a water intensive process and therefore diverts fresh water supplies from natural, agricultural, and human use.

This means, that while vast supplies of natural gas may lie just below our feet, the process of obtaining those resources may cause unacceptable damage to human populations and the environment. Fracking may also cause another problem - earthquakes. Increased levels of quake activity in Cleburne, Texas in the wake of fracking activities raises the level of concern about the practice. Given that the process does break down underground rock and soil, it is not a stretch that it could cause earthquakes.

Drilling and extraction companies have largely refused to say what the ingredients of the fracking mixture are by claiming that it is proprietary, and the EPA does not require them to disclose this information because the mixtures are claimed to be "proprietary." However, some energy company executives have also asked for this information. As reported at ProPublica, at least some of the mixture has been determined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. While, the mixture is broken down, the actual chemicals have not been released. In the NY samples, the composition included 90.6% water, .11% acid, .05% controller, .08% subtractant, etc. In other words, the purpose of the chemicals used, but not the chemicals themselves.

As noted in the ProPublica article:

At issue is whether hydraulic fracturing, and the chemicals it requires, might be responsible for water contamination incidents in drilling areas across the country. The process, which is currently exempt from federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act, forces millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and small amounts of chemicals, into the earth to break rock and release gas. Scientists, including some at the Environmental Protection Agency, have said they can't thoroughly investigate the contamination incidents because the names of the chemicals are protected trade secrets.

The expanded exploration and drilling is meeting increasing resistance from East Coast to West. In the news of late, public protest and activism in Pennsylvania has stopped the plans to drill for natural gas in the northern Pennsylvania watershed. Likewise, a "plan to drill of the Colorado plateau" is meeting strong public resistance.

The impacts of oil and gas exploration in Wyoming is increasingly becoming publicly known. A new documentary, "Split Estate" is bringing attention to the multiple problems being faced by Wyoming residents. There are water contamination issues resulting in health problems, use and contamination of scarce water supplies, and encroachment on property rights and living conditions. The property rights issue ties to the fact that many people own the surface of their property and not what lies beneath it. This is not a new problem and has been an issue in water poor states such as those in the Southwest for quite some time. However, the issue in Wyoming is that drilling operations are being set up within feet of people's homes as exploration rights are granted to oil and natural gas companies. Below is a clip from the documentary "Split Estate:"

Or see at YouTube

We are in an age of global warming which is threatening water supplies across the planet. Even those in water rich areas such as the Pacific Northwest look to shrinking supplies and loss of water reservoirs as winter snowpack and glaciers dwindle. Therefore, massive new drilling expeditions across the country pose a significant threat, and that may exceed concerns about oil and gas supplies. Fracking, and perhaps for resources that are more hyped than real? No frakking way!

Related Articles of Interest
Don't Frack with Our Water!. Polly Howells. In These Times. 10/04/2009.

Water Worries Threaten US Push for Natural Gas. Jon Hurdles. Reuters. 10/01/2009.

DemocracyNow! 9/03/2009 segment Fracking and the Environment: Natural Gas Drilling, Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Contamination


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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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