For some Americans, it is our energy dreams come true. To others, it is an environmental nightmare. Ever since a new drilling technology, called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, made it possible to extract natural gas from shale deposits about a mile underground, a new gold rush has been under way.
While fracking has created jobs and contributed to record-low natural gas prices, it comes with another kind of potential cost: risks to our environment and health that some say are far too high.
The fracking process begins with a bore hole drilled some 6,000 feet below ground, cutting through many geological layers and aquifers, which tend to be no more than a few hundred feet below the surface. The shaft is then lined with steel and cement casing. Monitors above ground signal when drilling should shift horizontally, boring sideways to pierce long running sections of shale bedrock.
Millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are then blasted into the bedrock, the pressure creating cracks that release trapped natural gas from the shale. The gas and water mixture then flows back up to the surface, where the gas is separated from the water. While most of the water stays in the well bore, up to 20 percent is either reused for more fracking or injected into disposal wells thousands of feet underground.
The wellpad and related infrastructure take up to eight to nine acres of land, according to the Nature Conservancy. Fracking is currently occurring in Texas and Pennsylvania, the two largest gas-producing states, as well as in North Dakota, Arkansas, California, Colorado and New Mexico. And the oil and gas industry is eager to expand its fracking operations into New York, North Carolina, Maryland and Illinois.
Bruce McKenzie Everett, F70, F72, F80, an adjunct associate professor of international business at the Fletcher School, says fracking provides substantial economic benefits and its problems are relatively small compared to those benefits. He worked at the U.S. Department of Energy from 1974 to 1980 before beginning a 20-year career with ExxonMobil, working in Hong Kong, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. His research has included gas-to-liquid conversion technology as well as the economics of oil, gas and coal production and use.
On the other hand, John Rumpler, A88, argues that we are making a mistake in thinking that fracking is worth the damage to the environment. He is a senior attorney at Environment America, which is leading a national effort to restrict, regulate and ultimately end the practice of fracking. He has fought for clean air in Ohio and advocated to protect the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. This fall he is teaching the Experimental College course Fracked Out: Understanding the New Gas Rush.
--Reprinted from TuftsNow
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