Fracking Fracas: A New Method of Extracting Natural Gas Has Yielded a Bounty of Supply, along with Health and Environmental Concerns
Pless, Jacquelyn, State Legislatures
No energy is produced without some consequences.
Natural gas is a perfect example. Despite the tremendous economic benefits created by the recent abundance of cheap natural gas, critics are raising alarms about how it's extracted.
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," combined with horizontal drilling, is a leap forward in technology, allowing energy companies to tap into previously inaccessible resources. The technology has opened up reserves that were too expensive to develop just a decade ago. The process pumps millions of gallons of a liquid--usually water mixed with sand and chemicals--underground to force open cracks in the rock so the natural gas can be removed from the shale rock formations.
Rapid expansion of fracking near densely populated areas, however, has shifted focus to its potential effects on public health and the environment.
"Natural gas is very important to the well-being of New Yorkers, to our economy and, to an extent, our environment," says Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D). "While deriving more of our energy from New York sources would certainly serve many public policy goals, it is not something we should advance at all costs and without regard to the environmental threat."
A growing concern is the contamination of drinking water. Some fracking fluids contain hazardous chemicals that, if mismanaged, could spill into groundwater, rivers or streams. Another worry is that fracking requires large amounts of water, which could lead to damage of aquatic habitats or reduce the amount of water available for other uses. Fracking also produces wastewater that must be regulated and treated properly before it is disposed. Treatment and disposal remain a regulatory challenge.
Its effects on air quality and climate change also are concerns. During the drilling process, chemicals such as benzene and methane are released into the air. In fact, natural gas producers are among the largest methane-emitters in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency proposed a rule--not yet in effect--in July 2011 to reduce smog-forming chemicals released during oil and gas production. Wildlife and plants also may be disturbed in the process. Finally, recent rumblings in Ohio and Oklahoma have drawn attention to a potential link between earthquakes and pumping fracking waste into deep wells.
The natural gas industry supports "state regulation of key environmental challenges," says Christopher B. McGill, managing director of policy analysis for the American Gas Association. The industry would like to see more collaboration between state and federal regulators, he adds.
The hydraulic fracturing debate has turned into a balancing act. State legislators and regulators want to protect the environment and public health, but they also recognize the benefits from the revenue the industry brings to state and local economies. A study by IHS Global Insight estimates shale natural gas production generated $18.6 billion dollars in federal, state and local government taxes and federal royalty revenues in 2010.
At least 137 bills in 24 states have been introduced that specifically address hydraulic fracturing, and legislation has passed in Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee.
Most of the legislation this year would require better monitoring of chemicals and additives in fracking fluid, stricter disclosure of ingredients, and better monitoring of water withdrawals and waste treatment and disposal.
At least nine states already have some form of disclosure requirement, and 15 states have proposed related legislation this session. In June 2010, Wyoming became the first state to approve rules requiring public disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluid. Colorado has the most comprehensive rule so far. It requires drillers to disclose not just chemical names, but also their concentrations. …