Tag Archives: Fracking

Methane Leakage

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When first introduced as an alternative fuel, natural gas seemed to be the perfect solution.  Unfortunately, new reports show that the natural gas, often described as the cleanest fossil fuel producing less carbon dioxide than oil and coal plants, is now leaking methane into the atmosphere.

Natural gas production releases methane gas, which is 25 times more powerful in warming the climate than CO2. Over the long-term, natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel more than coal is because it emits far less CO2, however, if we’re leaking a lot of methane we’re counteracting any sort of beneficial impact in the near-term.

Scientists have estimated that across all the various stages of natural gas production, such as drilling, extraction, processing, storage, transporting, and distributing the fuel, anywhere from 0.71 to 7.9 percent of the methane produced ends up escaping into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as “methane leakage.” A study in 2011 demonstrated that the leak rate of methane was high enough to jeopardize its global warming advantage over coal. The problem is no one knows exactly how much methane is leaking into the air from natural gas production in the U.S.

Although there are no issues with the actual use of natural gas, obtaining this resource, through a process known as fracking, is what poses a problem. Initially, complaints about fracking were in reference to its contamination of local groundwater but the new research now indicates that groundwater isn’t the only victim.

This poses a major problem for our environment, due to methane’s efficacy at trapping heat.  Natural gas was chosen to replace coal because we wished to reduce carbon emissions but due to the “methane leakage,” what we lose in carbon dioxide will be replaced by methane.

Fracking is not the only one responsible for the release of this harmful greenhouse gas. It turns out that many natural gas locations are purposely allowing the natural gas to escape known as flaring.  The release of methane occurs because of the lack of pipeline networks to and from remote locations. This process not only unnecessarily adds to the increasing amounts of methane in our atmosphere, but also represents a waste of money and resources.

With the U.S. increasingly relying on natural gas to generate electricity displacing dirtier coal has laredy helped the U.S. dramatically lower their carbon emissions.  And yes, although it is abundant and clean there are some concerns with the process that need to be overcome.  The bottom line is that natural gas, abundant and clean should have less an effect on the climate compared to coal-fired power plants.

The Blame Has Shifted

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Droughts have become an increasingly larger problem throughout the Southwest, than years before. Up until now, the blame was placed on global warming, increased consumption and decreased availability. Culpability is now being shifted to fracking.

While the reasons for fracking  make perfect sense and will help the US out of their dependency on foreign oil sources, the process itself is extremely water-intensive.  The high consumption rate has spelled trouble for towns throughout the Southwest.

A story out of Barnhart, Texas sums up the devastating effects of fracking.  Two years ago the town of Barnhart, Texas became the residence of large fracking companies, who began tapping into the city’s natural gas reserves. Shortly after they appeared, water began to vanish.

Residents in the town began noticing their own personal wells drying up after the frackers’ appearance, but they made no mind of it. Resident Beverly McGuire made note of her own well running dry, but simply ignored it and hooked up to the town’s central supply.

As opposed to complaining about their quickly decreasing water supply, the citizens of Barnhart simply adjusted their own lifestyles. Statewide water rationing became a norm for these people, forcing them to cut down on their daily consumption. This rationing not only killed trees and lawns, but it also has had devastating effects on the economic situation of Barnhart’s citizens. Ranchers who used to run 500 cattle and 8,000 goats had to dump most of their herds. No longer able to feed and water their herds, ranchers were forced to reduce their numbers. And while local businessmen and farmers were forced to downsize, the fracking and oil companies are taking as much water as their hearts desire.

At its worst, the citizens of Barnhart were forced to live without a single drop of water for five days. Fortunately, a local work crew was able to revive a local railway well and begin pumping water back in. Though functional for now, this solution is only temporary, and soon enough the town will be forced into another dry spell.

Barnhart is not the only town running dry. Communities all around the Southwest are preparing for the worst – and the worst is yet to come. Extreme measures are being taken to find water to sustain populations. San Angelo, Texas with a population of 100,000 had to dig an underground pipeline to retrieve water from a well more than 60 miles away.

Alone, droughts can be devastating. When paired with the process of fracking, it is merely impossible to predict what will happen next.

Fracking under Monterey’s Vegetable Patch

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Under California’s central valley lies a vast field of shale oil that’s ready to be exploited thanks to the hotly debated oil and gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Known as the Monterey Shale Formation, the unconventional oilfield lies underneath the lower half of the San Joaquin Valley. The farmland sitting on top of the shale is known for producing raisins, nuts, fruits, vegetables and cotton.

The oil-rich Monterey Shale deposit represents a tantalizing opportunity for the oil industry, as unlike elsewhere, oil, not natural gas, is to be extracted. As the deposit lies, in part, over the Central Valley (aka our national vegetable patch) there is some urgency to bring regulations to bear before a new shale boom erupts.

For those accustomed to the inch-by-inch slog of the fracking debate in states like New York or Pennsylvania, it seems as though California is moving at warp speed.

On September 20th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law, which will regulate fracking in the Golden State as of January 1, 2014. The bill means – for now – no moratorium (as environmental groups had hoped) nor unrestricted easy, breezy access to drilling in the Monterey Shale (as the oil industry had hoped).

California will be home to the nation’s toughest fracking regulations, requiring permits to be filed for drilling wells, notification of neighbors living near wells, groundwater testing and more study of fracking’s effect on the environment. These requirements will also apply to acidizing, or the use of chemicals to dissolve shale rock formations.

The bill further requires that by January 2015, state officials must complete their environmental study and the state Department of Conservation must create the new fracking permitting process. As a part of that process, oil companies must fully disclose which chemicals are used in fracking, a provision to which the oil industry did not object.

This may just be the tip of the iceberg with fracking in California. While producing a lot of unconventional oil and gas may boost the economy, without the proper regulations and oversight, fracking could do a lot of harm to the state’s farmland.

Given California’s rich oil history, oil and agriculture interests have co-existed for a long time, but fracking could pit the two against each other for the first time.

Is Fracking to Blame for the Contamination?

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Currently, the majority of our world is dependent upon fossil fuels. In order to diminish this dependency, many have advocated for the use of natural gas as a replacement. Although natural gas can be cost-effective and exists in abundance in the US, obtaining this resource can be the cause of many environmental issues.

The main way to acquire natural gas is by the process of fracking. In this process, water and other compounds are pumped deep underground at high pressure to create cracks (fractures), which will release natural gas into collector wells.  As this process is extremely effective in removing the natural gas from the ground it also releases many harmful pollutants into the surrounding groundwater.

Researchers have discovered elevated levels of heavy metals in the groundwater surrounding natural gas extraction sites. These metals include strontium, selenium, and arsenic, which an already be found in groundwater in trace amounts which is okay, but elevated levels of these same metals can prove problematic, which is occurring in extraction sites all over the nation.

Back in 2009 in Dimock, Pennsylvania 18 families who lived near a natural gas extraction site banned together to file a complaint about the quality of their drinking water. They stated that the nearby drilling site had polluted their water supply with toxic chemicals and as a result suffered poor health. In response to these allegations, the EPA began testing the water. After almost five years of testing eleven wells, the EPA concluded that “methane and other gases released during drilling apparently caused significant damage to the water quality.”

Colorless, odorless, and highly flammable, methane is the primary component of natural gas. It is not regulated as a drinking water contaminant, but it poses potential health and safety hazards.

Scientists at Duke University have also conducted independent studies proving the same findings.  Drinking water wells located near natural gas extraction sites are at a greater risk of methane contamination. They believe that the chemical “fingerprint” of methane found in the drinking wells matched that of the natural gas’s methane composition. Of course, members of the drilling company argued that methane is naturally found in wells, but the scientists disagreed claiming that the type of methane found does not naturally occur in drinking water.

It is no coincidence that areas surrounding these facilities are discovering more and more issues with their water supply as evidence supports the idea that natural gas extraction sites are the ones to blame for increased contaminants in those supplies.

Unfortunately, there is just not enough data to support whether natural gas extraction contaminates groundwater, if fracking is to blame or how to keep it from happening elsewhere.

Ultimately, safer fracking operations will benefit the industry as well as the families living in fracking territory.  Until the public has full confidence that its drinking water is being safeguarded from contamination, they will continue to protest fracking’s expansion. Natural gas, what we thought to be an excellent solution, is crumbling before our eyes in regard to its process and value.