Fracking 'a bridge to renewables' or another barrier?

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2015 - Fracking - injecting a high-pressure, sand-water-chemical mix to tap natural gas by fracturing deep rock formations - is boosting natural gas supplies, lowering prices, and promising a bonanza in revenue and jobs for 31 states with proven or projected shale gas reserves. Fracking is also touted as a useful transitional fuel, easing the U.S. shift from petroleum to biofuels and from coal to using more solar, wind and other renewable energy sources to generate electricity.

Passionate defenders see huge economic benefits from using fracking to boost industrial output by lowering energy costs, to create jobs, and to jet-propel the nation toward energy independence. Proponents also cite the environmental benefit of “backing out” the use of coal because the surge in natural gas supplies has driven prices down enough to prompt electric utilities to shift more power generation from coal to less polluting natural gas.

Together we can feed the Bees"

Fracking's champions argue that the technique has been used without major problems for 40 years, after being launched in the 1970s by a $92 million Department of Energy research program. They insist that since fracking is working well, don't choke off the bonanza by imposing federal regulations. They want regulatory control to remain in state hands, the result of Congress having exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Release Inventory, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and other federal regulatory oversight.

New York State Rep. Chris Collins insists that New Governor Andrew Cuomo should lift the state's fracking moratorium which has been in place since 2008 pending reports on fracking's health and safety impacts. Collins argues that while other states reap fracking's benefits, New York's moratorium is “holding our state back from prospering with hydro-fracking and also having lower energy costs.” Cuomo's response has been that he's waiting for scientific verdicts on fracking because, “Literally, on a weekly basis, you can get academics and reports saying it's totally safe and then the next week you get a report saying it's the most dangerous thing since a nuclear explosion.”

The other side of the debate is equally passionate, linking fracking to groundwater contamination, earthquakes, and other problems. As noted in last week's issue of Agri-Pulse, recent studies showing high levels of airborne toxic chemical levels at school playgrounds in Denton, Texas, may prompt voters there to approve a local fracking ban in the Nov. 4 elections.

Another concern is that the surge in fracking is draining government and industry investment that otherwise would go into renewable energy including wind, solar and biofuels. A September report on “The effect of natural gas supply on US renewable energy and CO2 emissions” from researchers at University of California, Irvine, Stanford University and the energy nonprofit Near Zero concluded that “abundant natural gas may actually slow the process of decarbonization, primarily by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies.”

Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, contended in an Agri-Pulse interview that fracking has had a chilling effect on investing in renewable energy. He points out that while current players like DuPont, Abengoa Bioenergy, POET-DSM and Quad County Corn Processors continue to invest in cellulosic ethanol, newcomers struggle to find financing because “cellulosic ethanol doesn't have a tax incentive but investments in fracking most certainly do.”

A further argument is that even if there are net short-term benefits from fracking and cheaper natural gas, there will be huge long-term costs to clean up the hazardous wastes being generated now without adequate disposal requirements.

Fracking supporters see the 80-page Sept. 15 report on fracking from the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory as vindication of their position. The report concluded that for the six wells at the Pennsylvania site studied over the eight months following fracking, “fracture growth ceased more than 5,000 feet below drinking water aquifers and there was no detectable upward migration of gas or fluids from the hydraulically-fractured Marcellus Shale.”

There's also possible vindication from Maryland, one of the states overlying the vast, gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation. The Marcellus “play” is being actively drilled in Pennsylvania today while other states like Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut have blocked fracking until there is scientific confirmation of its safety.

Last week the Maryland Environment and Natural Resources departments released a joint “Assessment of Risks” report on whether to allow fracking in Maryland. The report concluded that although possible contamination of ground and surface waters is a significant concern, “Risks associated with water contamination were rated most commonly as low.” The report points out, however, that water contamination is a low risk based on complying with four “best practices” requirements:

1.         “preventing accidents and spills by managing traffic flow and ensuring a nearly spill-proof pad design;”

2.         “siting the [drilling] pad far away from sensitive areas, underground hazards, geologic pathways and drinking water sources;”

3.         “requiring stringent casing and cementing standards followed by integrity tests and extensive monitoring to ensure the safest and most leak-proof wells are being developed; and

4.         “strict standards for transporting and disposing of waste.”

The Maryland report's most compelling part for fracking's opponents may be the information on the effects of living alongside a drilling rig. Opponents point out that fracking's benefits often go primarily to people and corporations located far away while the hazards and harms directly impact homeowners who may have a brightly lit fracking operation drilling 24/7 only 250 feet from their front door.

The report notes that “For each well pad, which supports six wells, 9,358 one-way trips for heavy trucks and 3,616 one-way trips for light trucks will be required.” Few homeowners would welcome that volume of truck traffic in their neighborhood - or welcome the surge in drilling activity which can take place once drilling begins.

(For more information on fracking issues, see “Fracking unleashes vast gas reserves - and heated debate” in last week's Oct. 8 Agri-Pulse newsletter.)

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