Natural Gas, Hydrofracking it Up for the Rest of Us

“Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers”, published in The New York Times, Sunday, February 27, 2011, reports on the public and environmental health impact of hydrofracking and the pursuit of natural gas.  Public water sources are being contaminated with hydrofracking wastewater that often contains radioactive elements and carcinogens like benzene.  Adding to the list of negatives for carbon based fuels, it is a curiosity why anyone would seek to develop natural gas sources today. The U.S. state of Pennsylvania provides access to a formation holding enough natural gas “to supply the country’s energy needs for heat and electricity, at current consumption rates, for more than 15 years.”  Even if per person electricity usage is reduced through efficiency, the overall amount of use will increase as the global population increases.  Don’t forget to include the cost of converting to systems, such as coal fired electricity plants to use natural gas.  Is the investment in natural gas needed to transition to a carbon-free renewable energy future or is this financing and effort wasted in the wrong direction? Air quality in Wyoming is moving in the wrong direction as a result of natural gas drilling.  Wyoming is one of the least populated states in the U.S. and yet in 2009 failed to meet federal air quality standards, for the first time, “partly because of the fumes containing benzene and toluene from roughly 27,000 wells, the vast majority drilled in the past five years.”  Wyoming now also competes with Los Angeles and Houston for high levels of ozone.  Thanks to vapors from wells, Wyoming even “wins” some days. Wyoming, Colorado, and Pennsylvania are states reported to have problems with gas seeping into underground aquifers which supply drinking water.  Hydrofracking uses water under pressure to break rock underground.  By doing so, pockets of gas which were sealed from each other flow together, allowing greater extraction from a single well.  The number of wells being permitted and built has exploded in the last several years, doubling or more in some areas. This explosion has brought jobs and needed revenue flowing into many rural counties, bettering the community.  Hydrofracking discharge has also been allowed to flow into waterways which are used for drinking water.  Regulations need to catch-up as some areas have not required testing for radioactive contamination at drinking water treatment plants directly downstream of waste management plants handling the contaminated hydrofracking discharge.  Water treatment plants have noted that the high level of salts being discharged upstream is corroding their machinery. The levels of contamination being allowed into the waterway is often in excess of established standards.  Almost every waterway around the globe flows into a larger channel and ultimately out to sea.  Like the atmosphere, the global water system can only absorb so much human impact.  The impact of natural gas is considerable and we haven’t even discussed burning it.  Natural Gas may want to be tomorrow’s fuel but does it make sense for it to be?

Photo Credit: Daniel Foster