THE STORY OF FRACKING
At first glance, it doesn't seem smart to cause havoc deep in the earth if you don't know the consequences.
But humans have always been curious about the unknown.
...as in, what's under our feet?
Beneath us lie layers of soil with its living creatures, sand, rock, silt, salts, other minerals, water, and remains of plants and animals in the form of coal, oil and gas (otherwise known as fossil fuels).
The layers vary.
Digging up and burning coal, oil and gas empowered us.
We drilled offshore.
As demand grew and easy supplies dwindled, the fossil fuel industry came up with directional drilling and some violent (exploding, dissolving) technologies for wrestling oil and gas from their hiding places.
Aboveground, many of us enjoyed our fossil-fueled lives.
Coal mine cave-ins and oil spills from tankers, off-shore rigs, freight cars and pipelines raised temporary public outcries.
The worst threat associated with burning fossil fuels--global warming--was met with yawns, no matter how clever its warnings. This was partly because its dangers seemed far in the future. But it was also due to the success of a disinformation campaign promulgated by the fossil fuel companies and their supporters which called climate science "a hoax."
For decades, the oil and gas companies weren't able to economically tap the oil and gas secreted in vast deposits of impermeable shale.
Then, beginning in the late 1990s, the oil and gas industry used advances in directional drilling and pumping power to make hydraulic fracturing (fracking) profitable. They touted the vast amounts of natural gas, known as a "clean" fuel compared to coal, that could be obtained from previously impermeable shale rock.
In fracking, millions of gallons of (usually) fresh water are forced down narrow wells to crack open resistant rock. The water is laced with a variety of chemicals, some toxic, and sand (or other 'proppants') to prop open the cracks and allow the oil and gas to emerge. Some of the water returns to the surface with the fossil fuels. This wastewater is no longer potable, can not be treated by wastewater plants because it may now be radioactive (per the EPA) and usually is dumped back into the earth in special "injection wells."
Here Thumper meets Thumper Truck. These huge and intimidating vibreosis trucks have replaced dynamite as a way of mapping the rock layers underneath us. Their availability encourages those with mineral rights to search for fossil fuels whatever the terrain, whether urban, rural, forested or jungle.
The administration, aware of the climate risks of burning fossil fuels but unable to persuade Congress to put a price on carbon (carbon tax or fee, carbon "cap and trade"), embraced a switch from coal to natural gas. Natural gas, when burned, produces only half the planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) of coal.
With the nation's renewed status as an energy-producer (the U.S, had provided two-thirds of the world's oil in 1940) and a natural gas powerhouse weaning itself from foreign oil and dirty coal, environmentalists and climate scientists found their urgent appeals to leave fossil fuels in the ground and embrace renewable energy unheeded. Instead, fracking became ubiquitous, used to stimulate old oil wells, extract gas from near-surface coal seams, and, using acid, tear into limestone and other permeable rock. A reckless, 'anything goes' attitude was reminiscent of the early days of Texan wildcatters and roughnecks.
Inevitably, problems arose. Here, in an iconic scene from Josh Fox's 2010 documentary "GasLand," a Pennsylvania man lights his tap water on fire. Flammable natural gas had leaked into his water well from a nearby fracked gas well.
The environmental movement protested the careless fracking business and argued for a switch to renewables (wind, solar, hydro, etc).
From Oklahoma came reports of a major increase in earthquakes blamed on the disposal of millions of gallons of fracking wastewater in deep injection wells.
In 1958 a scientist named Charles Keeling began monitoring the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere. Here he is on top of a Hawaiian volcano, collecting clean air in a flask. His readings, which showed the greenhouse gas was steadily rising, became the underpinning for climate science and its emphasis on cutting CO2.
In 2002, the European Space Agency launched an environmental satellite Envisat. Readings from the satellite over the years led scientists to detect a sudden alarming rise in the percentage of a second greenhouse gas, methane.
The rising methane discovered by the satellite correlated in the U.S. with the rise in fracking for natural gas (whose main component is methane.) Leaks from fracking well heads and pipelines had already been detected. A giant natural gas leak from a storage well, which had sickened residents in Porter Ranch, California, had been widely covered in the national media.
The Sierra Club, which once welcomed fracking, now said, "Fracking poses unacceptable risks to our communities, our environment and our climate."
But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had signed off on fracking and the administration's 2016 Clean Power Plan included natural gas along with renewables in its energy forecast.
As some environmentalists cheered the demise of coal, others thought the methane (CH4) leaks from natural gas drilling and transport might cancel out any benefits from cutting coal.
Protesters grew more frustrated. Global warming was already close to drowning island nations, the average temperature of the earth was rising each year, storms and droughts seemed more ominous and yet governments, as they were wont to with other less urgent issues, settled for compromise.
As the threats to drinking water, quality of life and climate action goals increased, a few countries and states, as well as thousands of communities, passed fracking bans. The industry responded to local bans by pushing state legislatures to pass bills outlawing them. Such bills have already passed in Texas and Oklahoma and other states, including Florida, are being targeted.
Environmentalists continue their fight against fracking.
But fracking continues. This map shows where most of the fracking is going on. Estimates vary as to how many wells exist altogether, but there are over 300,000 fracked natural gas shale wells and 305,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. Whether these and others can be regulated and maintained to stop methane leaks (with their health risks for both people and the planet), drinking water pollution, depletion of fresh water resources, associated seismic activity and problems still to be discovered remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, electricity generated by "everything that is hot without being heated and that moves without being pushed" is gaining ground every day. America's first five offshore turbines will start producing wind power this fall (2016) off Block Island in the northeast. Solar and wind power are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels. If we can fine tune the grid to handle these variable sources of energy, if batteries or some yet undiscovered way of storing electricity can be embraced and perfected, if the subsidies enjoyed by fossil fuel companies are discontinued, perhaps the market itself will bring an end to fracking.
The more I hear about fracking, the less I like it. But sun, wind and water--that's the ticket. Thanks