By SAMANTHA FOSTER
Hydraulic fracturing may be a solution to energy production despite the undisputed environmental challenges, according to experts. This week a New York State advisory panel delayed the establishment of regulatory bodies that would oversee fracking, the use of pressurized fluid when drilling for natural gas.
St. Lawrence Geology department chair Jeffrey Chiarenzelli points out that despite the environmental challenges, “we have an insatiable demand for energy.” According to many geologists, this makes fracking almost inevitable. “Of course regulation is needed to insure environmentally responsible practices,” says Chiarenzelli.
“There are positives for using natural gas instead of oil,” said Scott Cline, a former employee of Gulf Oil, which is Chevron today, and an energy industry consultant. “There has not been a single incident of water contamination due to fracking,” according to Cline, who argues that fracking is done underground, away from the pathways toward ground water.
Aaron Chesler ’14, a member of the St. Lawrence chapter of the geology honor society Sigma Gamma Epsilon argues that as a society we need to move away from oil and gas. “We should avoid fracking at all costs.” Joe Riley ’14, a psychology major, said, “I am personally against it because of the damage it does to the environment.”
The Marcellus Shale formation, at center controversy in the facking debate, which runs north from Pennsylvania into central New York in the Appalachian Basin, is rich in natural gas. But extraction is complex, expensive and can be environmentally risky. Environmental groups have lined up against hydraulic fracturing as a result.
Describing the industrial economics of fracking, Cline said, “Typically, a well is four acres in size and six to eight wells are drilled. There is five billion cubic feet of gas per well. And, noting industry costs, he explained, “Fracturing and drilling are both expensive processes, for a typical Marcellus well, it costs $4 to $8 million per well.”
Yet, despite its cost, fracking goes on routinely, occurring thousands and thousands of times each year in the Marcellus Shale, argues Cline. Broken flow lines and valve malfunctions are the most common issues associated with fracking. But the fracking process itself goes on a mile below the surface while such malfunctions have occured so far only on the surface. “I am not aware of any accidents involving fracking,” defended his industry Cline. Yet he admitted that a valve malfunction in the past caused an incident at the Chesapeake well.
Chiranzelli admits that the gas yield of organic-rich shales could be improved dramatically with the use of fracking. This may have implications for aquifers, the network of underground water distribution systems and formations. “One of the biggest environmental worries is the cross-contamination of aquifers,” said Chiarenzelli. However, he continued , “in the Appalachian Basin, fracking is currently done nearly 3,000 feet below the near surface aquifers used for water production.”
Technologies and techniques can decrease the risks associated with fracking according to a 2010 briefing paper, “Addressing the Environmental Risks from Shale Gas Development,” published by the team of Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback. The study further indicates that fracking lowers energy prices and – by replacing coal and oil as our main source of energy – reduces carbon dioxide emissions. Increased government regulation could be implemented in states to protect the environment while fracking occurs, according to the report.
Chiarenzelli is convinced that strict regulations “must be in place for fracking in order to do it safely and without impact.” And perhaps most important to the SLU community, he points out that fracking does not seriously impact the St. Lawrence Valley as the valley does not have the geologic foundation for shale gas. Despite of all arguments supporting the idea of fracking, the SLU Geology chair is still convinced that “more money should be invested in alternative energy sources.”
Congressman Ed Markey, D – Mass, the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, sent recently a letters to several important institutions in which he questions risks of fracking accidents on Federal mortgage holders.