Energy is kind of a “perennial” issue in American politics, economics and media. It has been that ways for decades. Finally there may be some progress in dealing with this issue. New technology is credited by experts as the reason the United States is within a few years of again becoming the biggest oil producer in the world, and perhaps two decades away from full energy independence.
Hydraulic fracturing, fracking, is the “lead” technology in this technological revolution. Fracking is an economically more feasible way of drilling for oil or gas in harder to reach geological formation. The petroleum may be less permeable, or conventional drilling damaged the formations. Within the past decade or so, combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling has opened up shale deposits across the country. It has large-scale natural gas drilling to new regions. Fracking has been called game changer.
As might be expected, fracking has become very controversial. Some critics are concerned with the lax regulation of fracking. California and New York, with major methane supplies, are looking into legislative limits. We can expect the fracking debate will heat up as the Middle East, and other oil producing trouble spots, heat up.
Many of the problems with fracking come with any large scale energy extraction operations. One reads of many more disasters with coal mining than with fracking. Offshore oil spills can be epic in their scope. Fracking may require more care, and more regulation. In United States political climate recently, however, a strong case would have to be made to put more regulations on fracking or, for that matter, on anything else.
Methane gas leaks, to cite the major reported problem with fracking, can happen, but not usually to a great enough extent to pose a significant risk. Methane already leaks into the air from other sources. Chemical laden water has polluted land and water in fracking areas. Natural gas recovery has been linked to earthquakes, but more from waste water recovery than the fracking itself – the solution to one problem helping creating another problem. But we are talking “technical” earthquakes, measurable only with new and highly sensitive equipment.
Methane is explosive, and has no natural smell. The familiar “smell” of methane is actually an additive injected for safety reasons – to detect leaks. The bottom line is that in large enough amounts Methane can be dangerous. There is evidence that methane can leak into groundwater and into the air from fracking. But there is debate over how much methane leaks from fracking projects, and the precise sources of the leaks.
The unfortunate tendency in much of the debate over fracking has been to balance the pros and the cons, and see who make the most convincing case. This is logical, but not the best way to go. It is also not sufficient in considering a way to achieve all the advantage of energy independence. We should look at the problems with fracking, and see how the problems can be solved. The energy security potential of fracking, balanced with the environmental risks, make it important that it not be a yes-no question, but rather than we try to find a solution.
Perhaps the most likely cause of methane leaking from fracking is from the cement used in the fracking progress. When a steel pipe is lowered in the fracking process, cement is also injected into the well to seal the steel pipe to the rock through which it is moving. The cement might be cracking. This allows the methane to leak between the pipe and the ground. Methane in the air is a greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming. But methane, unburned or burned, contributes less than other gasses. Methane in the water, however, is a problem with conventional drilling. We should research how much more methane, if any more, ends up in water from fracking than from conventional drilling.
We should encourage cement makers to see if cracking cement is causing the problem with methane leaking during fracking. Then they can work to solve the problem. Surely, the cement maker who finds a way around this problem will appreciate the front page, top of the fold, headlines in the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as the nice gain in their stock price when that trading day is over on Wall Street.
Perhaps some entrepreneur can come up with the solution. Think of how many jobs this might create.
We can use American ingenuity, which has proven so successful in the past, to solve the problems with fracking. We should not just balance risk. We should try to pinpoint where the risks lie and find ways to lessen the risks. This is the American way, which has worked so well in the past and can work again in the future.
But what if the problems are not solved? What if the dangers of fracking are not balanced by the advantages? Then we stop wasting time and move on to other solutions to our energy needs. I don’t think this will be the case. I think with a little American ingenuity, and a little effort, we can fully and safely develop this promising new technology.
Bruce Brager is an experienced freelance writer and ghost writer with an extensive record of publications. His most recent major piece is an e-book on the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo.
Mr. Brager’s e-book Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo can be found at www.collca.com