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Hydraulic Fracturing: Intro & Issues

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Hydraulic Fracturing for fossil fuel mining has many new technical features, some of which are quite amazing, allowing sensitive control over drill bores at many depths and distances from the well heads and allowing extraction of gas from rocks previously thought impractical. Also amazing is the extreme polarization of opinion that has taken in place in New York State, with rural communities divided and aggressive propaganda campaigns, pro and con Marcellus Shale fracking, all of this ahead of any active drilling so far in NY.  Many nuanced perspectives are involved, ranging from interpretations of individual land rights to evidence of global climate instability. 

The undeniable facts are (1) Marcellus shale gas exploration has quickly proliferated in other states, most notably Pennsylvania, where tens of thousands of wells are predicted to be operating in the very near future.  (2) Natural gas prices have declined, and this has led to a major shift away from coal-burning electrical generation in the U.S.  (3) Burning natural gas emits far less air pollutants than coal or oil combustion, and generates more heat energy per molecule, but it does emit carbon dioxide.  (4) Global average atmospheric CO2 concentrations have now surpassed 400 ppm, a level not seen in the geological record for 2.5 million years.  (5) Methane itself is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – 25 times more potent over a 100-year period.

The question I ask here is, how different is gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing from other fossil fuels?  That question includes differences in extraction methods, transport, and environmental impacts, at local to global scales.  Several points of debate are worth exploring, as government officials ponder the fate of New York’s Marcellus Shale regions.

  1. Landscape and ecological degradation are inevitable outcomes, but are they worse than other forms of resource exploitation?  Even the best-intentioned safeguards have failed in other circumstances, and although a long legacy of messes has left us with a skilled workforce of damage responders and restoration experts, they may be unprepared for unique problems associated with hydrofracking operations.  In addition, some of the degradation will be permanent, in the form of road expansions and pipeline rights-of-way.  As with other industries, the most important questions may be how and when damages get addressed, and who pays.
  2. Effects on water quality have been noted for both surface and ground waters.  Most effects so far observed may be preventable, and compared to consequences of large-scale mining operations on watersheds, contamination from hydrofracking seems to be localized.  However, high densities of drilling sites could overwhelm rural watersheds.  In addition, plumes of groundwater contamination can persist and spread undetected for long periods of time.  In both cases, monitoring will be necessary, and rigorous monitoring will need to start with baseline, pre-drilling studies.
  3. The promise of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” appears to be more than a marketing slogan (Ridley 2011).  U.S. emissions have hit a recent plateau that coincides with large-scale replacement of coal-generated electrical power (see: International Energy Agency).  However, the virtues of natural gas seem to get overstated.  First, estimates of gas escape to the atmosphere run as high as 9% of extraction volumes (Tollefson 2012).  Losses of around 4-5% will wipe out any advantage over coal as an electricity generating fuel, because the higher efficiency of natural gas would be overwhelmed by its greenhouse gas effect.  Second, cheap supplies of natural gas are apparently suppressing efforts to develop a renewable energy infrastructure.  Energy choices are highly dependent on price, and without a system of carbon taxes, alternatives cannot compete, setting back national and global efforts to stabilize emissions.  Third, as supplies of natural gas grow, and historically volatile prices stabilize, incentives for energy conservation shrink, in the face of lower costs per Therm and Kwh.
  4. Property owners may be separated into winners and losers, in part by chance and in part by choice.  A 25-year drilling operation may yield substantial royalties for some, while burdening neighbors with industrial zones that affect property values and quality of life.  Some of this dilemma may be unique to hydraulic fracturing, because large volumes of materials are deployed and extracted from small surface footprints.  Further, the large numbers of individual leases to be contracted may pose challenges for government agencies, particularly given uncertainties over jurisdiction (Jacquet and Stedman 2009; Jacquet and Stedman 2011).
  5. Honest companies are likely to offer reasonable estimates of capacities and market values, manage operations relatively carefully, and handle hazardous waste effectively.  Cheaters will not, as with other similar industries.  One looming concern is the very brief track record for the shale gas industry as a whole.  At this point it may be difficult to identify the cheats, and even honest firms will have learning curves.
  6. Perhaps the least-discussed aspect for most New York residents is that we have been largely insulated from the environmental consequences borne at the sources of most of our energy supplies.  With the possible exception of hydropower, which is probably viewed more as public works than as landscape degradation, we have escaped direct exposure to the devastation related to the acquisition of our fuel supplies.  Marcellus shale exploitation brings those impacts home to a large part of the state, and although the impacts will occur in lightly populated regions, public scrutiny promises to be intense.  Both proponents and opponents should understand fossil fuel chains, recognizing that all fuels are globally-traded commodities, so all fuels carry a mix of environmental footprints beginning at points of origin.  If out-of-sight remains out-of-mind, we will lose a critical opportunity to evaluate the true costs of fossil fuel dependence, whether or not Marcellus Shale gas mining starts up in New York.

[Editor's Note: Please provide your input on Fracking issues in this 3 question, 3 minute OEIC Survey. Thank you.]

George Robinson: Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at UAlbany, and Associate Research Scientist, New York State Museum. Ph.D., University at California, Davis. Dr. Robinson has no affiliation with any business or organization that advocates for or against Marcellus Shale gas exploitation.  His academic research is conducted in the public interest and funded by state and federal agencies. For more information and downloadable publications go to George's Research Gate. For more information about George's role at UAlbany go to his University Portal. You can comment publicly on this blog below or privately via member email.

Comments on "Hydraulic Fracturing: Intro & Issues"

  1. OEIC default avatar John Carson July 01, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Dr. Robinson,

    Thanks for an excellent contribution.  I especially appreciated point #6, something I think about every time I turn on my (natural gas) heat in the winter - or watch someone else’s son/daughter being deployed to the Middle East to protect our energy supply.

    We have been “Free Riders” to an extent, and I am not comfortable with that.  It needs to be part of the discussion.

  2. Dan Gibson's avatar Dan Gibson July 07, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I’m not sure if this is a Fracking issue or a civilization issue, but what I’d love to see is the analysis of or discussion on how the total costs of conventional energy stacks up against what it would cost to fully implement a renewable energy world. By total cost I mean the costs of the structural infrastructures as well as the less obvious costs, such as incremental military costs to support our oil supplies, the health costs associated with burning fossil fuels, the costs and risks associated with the storage of nuclear hazardous wastes, etc. Plus, the upcoming costs of a worse versus better Global Warming scenario that further exploitation of fossil fuels will render. Any light you can shed on this issue, or if not this issue then the total costs of Fracking versus its benefits, would be most appreciated.

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