The Key Thing Nobody is Saying About Fracking

If natural gas truly is intended to be a “bridge fuel” as renewable electricity generation and storage technology improves, shouldn’t the 60 year supply of natural gas that does not require fracking be enough to fill that role?  

It has become impossible to talk about natural gas in 2013 America without talking about the controversial practice of horizontal-high volume hydraulic fracturing – fracking. Between spokesmen for the gas industry touting gas as the cheap, squeaky-clean “fuel of the future” and Josh Fox broadcasting images of flaming hoses, faucets, and the like to suggest the dangerous implications of gas development, it’s too easy to forget a simple fact.

Two-thirds of American natural gas reserves do not require fracking.

Hose on fire!

The natural gas debate summarized in one misleading image (Or, what happens when you hook your hose up to a gas vent and light it)

The Energy Information Agency (EIA) says that the United States has 97 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of proven, recoverable shale gas. That’s the type that you need to frack. The type that requires a drill to go through about 3000 feet before turning sideways, blasting apart the bedrock, flushing it all with water, sand, and chemicals, and collecting the resulting product. That gas has been associated with a number of dangers: earthquakes caused by the high-pressure lubrication of the bedrock, water contamination caused by faulty cement casings, and the leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, to name a few. There’s no reason to suggest that these problems can’t be alleviated by proper regulation and oversight. But is the risk even necessary?

Fracking has provided an economic boom for much of rural Pennsylvania and several Western states. This effect seems to be fading in the face of rapidly depleted wells and persistently low prices. The pace of drilling in the Marcellus Shale has leveled off, and there’s adequate evidence that many of these operations aren’t even profitable at current market prices. To compensate for this, many operations have shifted their focus to wells that also contain more-profitable crude oil and Natural Gas Liquids (NGL). That alone shows why New York State’s gas development moratorium may have been a smart choice: why take the risk without much in the way of a reward?

In the meantime, the United States has more than 60 years supply of proven, recoverable natural gas reserves not locked in shale plays, most of which is in onshore basins in the lower 48 states. If natural gas truly is intended to be a “bridge fuel” as renewable electricity generation and storage technology improves, shouldn’t that be enough?

There is no reason to turn away from natural gas altogether. It is much cheaper and cleaner than other fossil fuels. It is displacing the construction of coal-fired plants and has helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Renewable technology like wind and solar are not yet at the point where the grid can rely on them without the backstop providing by quick-firing natural gas plants.

The groundwater contamination has been overdramatized by stunts like those in Gasland I and II, which, respectively, attributed water issues that existed before fracking to the practice and featured a hose attached directly to a gas vent instead of an actual water line. The EPA even recently revised its estimates of methane leakage, lowering their original numbers. Josh Fox and, indeed, many homeowners have a very emotional, personal perspective on this issue, and that has in some cases led to serious factual distortions. On the other side of the coin are property owners and impoverished rural farmers who have benefited immensely from the royalties that they’ve received from selling their mineral rights to the gas industry – property owners who could barely meet a mortgage before the shale gas book.

Matt Damon would like to buy your gas.

Matt Damon would like to buy your gas.

But at the same time, it’s also becoming clear that some of these wells do leak, that the companies have little regard for the well being of the people whose land they are working on, feel little need to adhere to norms of transparency, and blatantly manipulate the political process in order to secure their desired outcome of few regulations and even fewer taxes. So as the debate over the practice continues to rage in the United States and globally, it might be worth asking – why, if these companies are pitching natural gas as a temporary bridge to a clean energy future, are they spending so much money trying to squeeze every last hydrocarbon out of the earth’s crust to send it skyward?

It might be worth asking if fracking is even really worth the trouble.   


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