Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s commonly known as, is the method used to drill into natural gas-rich shale rock. Natural gas has been seen as the transition fuel for the United States, moving from fossil fuels to more efficient and renewable energy sources. There are several benefits to using natural gas to fuel the country, but there are also some drawbacks and unknowns that require more research and testing. What is certain is that natural gas use is on the rise at a rapid pace with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
We all know that oil reserves are finite, but while natural gas is also finite, the United States has enough natural gas reserves to last about 110 years since 2009. This should be more than ample time to transition to cleaner, more efficient energy sources. In the meantime, we can continue to use natural gas, which actually burns cleaner than oil and coal. By switching over to this “unconventional” energy source, the United States will actually put itself on a path to energy independence. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the US could be 97% energy independent by 2035. There are more than 7.4 billion barrels worth of oil under North Dakota and 262 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale beneath Pennsylvania. This untapped energy could really stabilize the country’s energy needs as it continues to strive for more efficient technologies.
On the downside, there are worries about fracking causing havoc with water supplies. The movie Gasland shows a man lighting the water from his kitchen faucet on fire. The movie implies that this is the result of methane seeping up from the ground due to shale drilling. In actuality, the man’s own water well was drilled into one of these naturally occurring methane pocket. Still, there have been other reported incidents of methane seeping into water supplies. One such incident was in Pennsylvania, where Chesapeake Energy was fined $1 million for not properly cementing the holes created by drilling. By implementing stronger cement and processing casings, this issue can be avoided.
Beyond the concern of contamination, these unconventional energy options of drilling into shale are more expensive than coal or oil operations. This inherently drives up the cost of energy sources. However, shale drilling and fracking is still cheaper than the development of renewable energies, such as solar and wind power. An unfortunate side effect of this is that growth in the renewable sector has been stunted.
There are still some points that need more research and development to make fracking more viable. The waste water from the fracking fluid needs to be treated. About 7 million gallons of fracking fluid is used on a single well, and contaminates in that fluid could have negative effects on the environment. They can’t simply be buried deep in the wells after the gas is extracted, because it is believed this can cause small to moderate earthquakes. As it stands, treatment facilities aren’t able to keep up with drilling, and with drilling expected to increase, it’s likely they will fall well behind.
The methane that environmentalists worry about contaminating water supplies also causes concerns when it comes to climate change. Methane can trap 25 times the amount of heat that carbon dioxide can, and it is uncertain how much escapes into the atmosphere during drilling. Fortunately, EPA reports suggest that the amount escaping has decreased more than 30% since 2007.
As the industry grows, practices and technology improves. The industry is kept in check by regulations to reduce pollutants, but they will need to weigh the risks and rewards as well as the cost effectiveness of drilling with all of these regulations in place.
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