This has been a rather unfortunate week for proponents of fracking, the drilling operation that involves pumping chemical brine underground to loosen deposits of natural gas from shale formations. First, Cornell University released a study indicating that natural gas from fracking is not a cleaner alternative to coal. Then over the weekend, word leaked out of a forthcoming report on fracking from the House of Representatives, which lists all of the known ingredients in fracking brine. Suffice to say, it ain’t a pretty picture.
Why Isn’t Natural Gas from Fracking Cleaner than Coal?
To those of you familiar with fracking issues, the first thing that comes to mind may be the millions of gallons of brine that can be needed in a typical fracking operation. It’s all got to be pumped into trucks, and trucked onto drilling sites, many of which are pretty remote. Then the wastewater has to be disposed somehow, and it all adds up to one big carbon footprint – but that’s not the problem. The problem, according to Cornell’s research, is the amount of methane gas that escapes during the fracking operation. If the Cornell report bears out, it means that coal-fired power plants have no incentive to switch to natural gas, at least not gas sourced from fracking operations.
Fracking and Water Supply
On its face, pumping a chemical brine underground does not sound like a very good idea, at least not in areas where drinking water supplies could be affected. The new fracking report (pdf), issued by the minority party in the House of Representatives, concludes that from 2005 to 2009, 14 companies used fracking products containing 750 different compounds. Of the 2,500 products reported, 650 contained chemicals that are “known or possible human carcinogens…or listed as hazardous air pollutants.” The kicker is that some of the fracking companies themselves don’t even know what they’re pumping into the ground, because they use off-the-shelf products for which the ingredients are proprietary (and they can do that because fracking is exempt from basic federal water protection laws).
Fracking and the Marcellus
Fracking is not a new practice, but it has largely taken place in sparsely populated areas. Still, reports of drinking water contamination have been emerging . What is new is the discovery of a gas-rich shale formation called the Marcellus, which affects large populations in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other states. The alarm has already been raised over potential threats to New York City’s water supply from fracking, and it is among several states that have begun to take action to limit or ban the practice.
Fracking and National Security
Access to clean, safe drinking water is a no-brainer for us civilians, and it’s also a national security issue. In its Army Strategy for the Environment (pdf), the U.S. Army puts forth a long term plan asserting that “To sustain the future Army we must implement effective policies and practices that safeguard the environment and our quality of life in a manner that our nation expects of us.” As the U.S. military transitions to a sustainability mission, it’s not too much to expect that the civilian world offers its support.
Image: Natural gas by stevendepolo on flickr.com.
- Department of Justice to Water Polluter: Frack You! (cleantechnica.com)
- BREAKING: NJ Senate Passes First Bill to Ban Controversial Hydraulic Gas Fracturing (Fracking) (cleantechnica.com)
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.