Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fracking the Marcellus Shale: Disaster ahead?

Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

After a stray drill bit banged four natural gas wells in 2008, weird things started happening to people's water in Dimock, PA.  Some flushed black, some orange, some turned bubbly. One well exploded, the result of methane migration, and residents say elevated metal and toluene levels have ruined twelve others. Then, in September 2009, about 8,000 gallons of hazardous drilling fluids spilled into nearby fields and creeks. The contamination and related health problems have prompted fifteen families to file suit against Cabot Oil and Gas, the primary leaseholder in the area, alleging fraud and contract violation and seeking to stop the damage from spreading.

Welcome to the natural gas gold rush in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania, and perhaps to a preview of what lies ahead in New York where state environmental regulators have been slower to open up the formation to the gas industry.

In The Next Drilling Disaster?, The Nation magazine takes a look at hydrofracking, the controversial process that requires "blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep underground to create fissures that open the pores and free gas to rise to the surface."

Escaping federal environmental regulation

Hydrofracking has enabled drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation to generate about 10 percent of US natural gas production, up from
1 percent in 2000. But it also is exempt from all significant national environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The most notable exemption, The Nation reports, was introduced by Vice President Dick Cheney as an amendment to the 2005 energy bill.

"The so-called Halliburton Loophole, named after Cheney's former employer and the company that pioneered the fracking process in the 1940s, stripped the EPA's authority to regulate hydrofracking through the Safe Water Drinking Act. Companies were essentially given free rein to drill however and wherever they see fit, and to use and dispose of proprietary fracking fluids without any disclosure or safety requirements. The only remaining shred of federal oversight was a voluntary agreement with the three largest companies not to use diesel fuel—which they proceeded to ignore."

Natural gas as a 'bridge fuel '

Hydrofracking is bolstered not only by a powerful lobby "but also by growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change and America's dependence on foreign oil," The Nation reports.

"In recent years, a broad coalition of energy analysts and government officials have embraced domestic natural gas as a promising "bridge fuel" that could help smooth the transition from more carbon-intensive fossil fuels like oil and coal to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Of course, all this valuable, national energy production comes with a catch, The Nation reminds us.

"The catch, though, is that the natural gas industry shares the same history as other energy industries operating in the United States. A string of recent disasters—including the TVA coal ash spill, the Massey coal mine explosion and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—have demonstrated all too vividly that failure to regulate and oversee resource extraction can lead to catastrophe. Some fear that Dimock is the first natural gas casualty, an early warning of what could happen on a much larger scale if fracking spreads unchecked to other residential areas in the Marcellus region and across the country."

A new push for regulation

Efforts are under way at the national level--and in New York and Pennsylvania--to draft regulations subjecting  hydrofracking to tighter controls. The gas industry is pumping barrels of money into campaigns designed to limit any new regulation. The outcome of this political war has major implications for the nation, the economy, the environment and future generations.

What do you think?

Should the federal government and/or the states play a more active role in regulating hydrofracking?  Or  are environmentalists exaggerating its potential consequences?  Use the comment box below to share your opinion. If one isn't visible, click on the tiny 'comments' line.    

Out-of-control well spews--in Pennsylvania

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