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Aerial appearance of the Jonah accustomed gas acreage in Wyoming. Photo: Peter Aengst

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Over the aftermost decade, advances in technology accept fabricated it assisting to abstract accustomed gas from shale, arch to a bang in shale gas development. With Obama’s new rules for abbreviation carbon emissions from ability plants, the accustomed gas industry is acceptable to get a added boost.

Natural gas, a deposit fuel, was formed over millions of years as layers of corrupt bacilli were active and apparent to acute calefaction and burden beneath the earth. The activity of the sun that these plants and animals captivated is embodied in the gas.

Traditionally, accustomed gas was extracted by conduct into absorptive zones from which it could calmly be pumped to the surface, but abounding of these assets accept been broke out.

Newer technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” accept enabled activity companies to admission “unconventional” assets of gas, already advised too difficult or cher to extract, such as gas begin abysmal underground, in bound closed bedrock formations, in atramentous beds, or trapped in layers of shale, aerial sedimentary rocks. Some anatomy of fracking is now acclimated in 90 percent of all new onshore oil and gas development, and currently accounts for 60 percent of accustomed gas assembly in the U.S.

Because of its abeyant ecology and bloom impacts, fracking has become a advancing issue. According to a 2013 Pew poll, 44 percent of respondents abutment fracking while 49 percent are opposed.  Beizhan Yan, a geochemist and abettor analysis assistant at Lamont-Doherty Apple Observatory, acclaimed that both abandon sometimes blooming aces accurate affirmation to abutment their own views. “It’s important for both abandon to accede the abstracts objectively,” he said.

So let’s try to attending at the facts with an accessible mind.

Hydraulic fracking is not new. Back the mining address began in the 1940s, gas companies accomplished vertical wells and pumped pressurized baptize into rocks to absolution the gas. Accustomed gas development absolutely took off in the 1990s back accumbent conduct was developed and accumulated with fracking; this enabled drills to alight bottomward to 10,000 feet, again ambit to assignment angular bags added anxiety so drillers could admission gas trapped aural shale layers. Accumbent conduct is 3 to 5 times added advantageous than vertical drilling.

Here’s how it’s done. Aboriginal a aperture (or wellbore) is accomplished 1,000 to 4,000 anxiety deep. Afterwards animate casings are placed into the well, the amplitude amid the case and the aperture is abounding with adhesive to assure groundwater and anticipate gas leaks. This action is again several times, with abate and abate bore casings actuality inserted, bottomward to a abyss of 6,000 to 10,000 anxiety (way beneath aquifers), area the gas can be accessed. A perforated aqueduct gun is beatific into the accumbent allotment of the wellbore, bearing explosions that actualize fractures in the shale. Fracking fluid, 3 to 5 actor gallons of baptize fatigued from groundwater or apparent baptize assets alloyed with chemicals and sand, is again pumped at aerial burden into fractures, which aggrandize and absolution the gas.

Fracking in the Bakken Shale

Ninety-eight to 99.5 percent of the fracking aqueous is baptize and beach acclimated to accumulate the cracks open; the blow is fabricated up of chemicals that advice abate friction, annihilate bacilli that ability clog the well, anticipate aqueduct corrosion, and acids to abate conduct mud damage. Some are carcinogens and chancy pollutants, but the exact chemicals acclimated are usually alien because the industry contends its fracking aqueous formulas are barter secrets. The capacity of a fracking cocktail depend on the accurate altitude at the well.  

Once burden in the able-bodied is released, gas flows to the surface, as able-bodied as “produced” or “flowback” baptize (between 3 and 80 percent of the baptize used) absolute chemicals, alkali and radioactive abstracts that action artlessly in shale. The flowback is stored on-site in tanks or pits afore it is advised and appear into apparent waters, injected into abysmal wells for disposal, or recycled with or afterwards analysis to be reused in added fracking.

The U.S. Ecology Protection Bureau (EPA) does not adapt fracking fluids alike back they access our baptize accumulation because in 2005, fracking was accustomed an absolution from the Safe Bubbler Baptize Act; alleged the Halliburton Loophole, it was alien back Vice President Cheney’s above employer, Halliburton, was affective into fracking.

The U.S. accustomed gas industry is the world’s largest. According to the U.S. Activity Advice Administration (EIA), in 2012, the nation had about 323 affluence cubic anxiety of “proved” (able to be produced economically accustomed accepted bazaar prices) accustomed gas and accustomed gas aqueous reserves. The EIA estimates that there are 2,203 affluence cubic anxiety of “technically recoverable” (able to be produced with accepted technology afterwards attention to economics) accustomed gas. The U.S. consumes accustomed gas at a amount of about 24 affluence cubic anxiety per year, so 2,203 Tcf of gas could apparently aftermost 92 years.

The bigger shale deposits in this country are the Marcellus Shale beneath the Appalachian Basin, Barnett Shale in Texas, Bakken Shale beneath Montana and North Dakota, Antrim Shale in the Michigan Basin, and Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. The Marcellus Shale, one of the bigger sources of accustomed gas in the U.S., and conceivably the additional bigger in the world, may accommodate 500 affluence cubic anxiety of gas. Today, there are 45,000 shale gas wells operating in the U.S. and accustomed gas assembly is accepted to access 56 percent amid 2012 and 2040. The affluence of accustomed gas has fabricated it a about bargain activity source.

The Allowances of Accustomed Gas

Natural gas generates 25 percent of our electricity, and about two-thirds of the accustomed gas produced in the U.S. goes into authoritative chemicals, pharmaceuticals and fertilizer, and is acclimated for heating and cooling.

The bang in accustomed gas has helped accomplish the U.S. abundant beneath abased on countries like Russia and the Average East for energy, and appropriately added our activity security.

A 2011 abstraction by IHS, a all-around advice provider, begin that shale gas assembly in the U.S. accurate over 600,000 jobs in 2010, and is projected to abutment 870,000 jobs by 2015. It boosts bounded economies with jobs, royalties for landowners and tax revenues. IHS estimated that, over the aing 25 years, shale gas assembly could accomplish added than $933 billion in tax revenues for local, accompaniment and the federal governments.

Manufacturers of accustomed articles and the animate industry additionally account from bargain accustomed gas and accretion a aggressive bend in all-around markets, consistent in added exports and jobs. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that shale gas assembly and low accustomed gas prices will advice manufacturers apply 1 actor workers by 2025.

Natural gas can advice apathetic altitude change because it emits beneath carbon dioxide back austere than any added deposit fuel; and back we are application added accustomed gas, we are bearing beneath emissions from bedraggled coal.

The Problems with Accustomed Gas

The altitude change allowances of accustomed gas are conditional, however. If the availability of bargain and abounding accustomed gas makes cleaner activity sources such as nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables beneath competitive, and if activity ability becomes beneath amount effective, altitude change allowances could be negated and the surer methods of combatting all-around abating could lose headway. Indeed, new investments in renewables aftermost year at $56 billion were the everyman back 2010, while gas and oil investments were $168.2 billion, accepting added than angled back 2009.

Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that, over 20 years, accessories added than 84 times added calefaction in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. About one-third of the all-around abating we are experiencing today is acquired by concise altitude pollutants including methane, and in 2012, accustomed gas assembly was the additional bigger manmade antecedent of methane emissions in the U.S.  So unless the methane emissions associated with accustomed gas assembly can be curbed, the altitude allowances of accustomed gas could be undone. The botheration is that no one knows absolutely how abundant or area in the action methane emissions are occurring.

The Ecology Defense Fund (EDF) and about 100 ally are now researching how abundant methane is appear beyond the absolute accustomed gas accumulation chain; the 16-part study will be completed at the end of 2014.

Catching methane from a gas well. Photo: Andy Revkin

Methane is appear into the atmosphere back it escapes via aeriform valves that ascendancy operations at the able-bodied site, added accessories at the assembly site, or back balance gas is vented. These problems can be anchored with low- or no-emission valves and bigger aperture apprehension and repair. Blooming achievement accessories can balance balance methane, action it and accelerate it to a activity so that it can again be sold. In January 2015, the EPA will crave blooming completions for all accustomed gas producers; until again they can blaze the gas. A abstraction by ICF International assured that emissions-control technologies and practices could save accustomed gas companies over $164 actor a year.

Natural gas development has additionally resulted in added emissions of airy amoebic compounds (VOCs) like benzene and formaldehyde, and chancy air pollutants, which can accept bloom after-effects for those active adjacent or alive in the industry. VOCs can account blight and respiratory problems, chapped amount can affect the affection and lungs, nitrogen oxides acknowledge with VOCs to aftermath ozone, and hydrogen sulfide can account affliction or afterlife at some concentrations. These air pollutants arise from diesel- or accustomed gas-fueled trucks and equipment, gas production, and leaks from accumulator facilities, pipelines and valves.

In Wise County, Texas, which sits aloft the Barnett Shale, Bob and Lisa Parr are amidst by gas wells. Afterwards several years of experiencing nosebleeds, nausea, campanology aerial and rashes, which they aspect to baneful emissions from gas production, the Parrs sued Aruba Petroleum and were afresh awarded $2.9 actor in damages. The case is cogent because it is the aboriginal acknowledged U.S. accusation bond baneful air emissions from oil or gas assembly to bloom impacts on adjacent residents, but Aruba will claiming the ruling.

The adjustment of oil and gas abstraction avalanche mainly to the states, including administration of the federal Clean Air Act, but rules alter broadly from accompaniment to state. The EPA’s aboriginal air abuse adjustment on fracking is the 2015 claim for blooming completions, but abounding accept it’s not enough. In May 2014, 64 ecology and association groups petitioned the bureau to use its ascendancy beneath the Clean Air Act to advance “robust discharge standards” attached the amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and added adverse chemicals that can be emitted by oil and gas wells and equipment.

Water tanks advancing for fracking.

There are abounding ecology risks accompanying to the ample amounts of baptize acclimated in fracking. The huge volumes of baptize fatigued for fracking can attempt the availability and affection of bubbler water. Fracking fluids can alloy apparent and groundwater food if agitated or leaked.  If wells are not complete properly, fracking aqueous ability acquisition its way to aquifers or groundwater accustomed metals or radioactive abstracts artlessly begin underground. Flowback amnion can bleed into apparent or groundwater from trucking accidents or on-site accumulator leaks. And if wastewater is not appropriately advised afore actuality released, it could alloy apparent baptize bodies. The EPA is currently studying fracking’s impacts on bubbler baptize assets at every date of the fracking cycle. A abstract address will be out this year. It could be the aboriginal footfall appear boxy federal regulations on fracking.

Because of the advance in fracking, added and added radioactive decay is advancing to the apparent added bound from the shale, which artlessly contains radioactive metals. Some radioactive metals may deliquesce into the fracking fluid, communicable it; some may abide in the clay and bedrock actuality accomplished that are eventually brought to the surface.  Regulations about the auctioning of fracking decay are altered in anniversary state, but often, radioactive decay ends up in landfills ill-equipped to handle it, from area it can alloy groundwater.

Geochemist Steven Chillrud, a chief analysis scientist at Lamont-Doherty, said, “We are ambidextrous with an industry that has done fracking for decades afterwards any oversight. It was bound before, but now they are aggravating to aggrandize rapidly, and the ecology and blank is way abaft the ball.” Chillrud and Yan are alive on groundwater testing and air abuse ecology in heavily fracked areas of northeastern Pennsylvania. They accept aloof amorphous to assay baptize samples and analysis air quality. ”Monitoring is key to accomplishing fracking in a rational way,” said Chillrud “We charge added abstracts to apperceive how we charge to adapt the industry and at what level. Analysis and ecology programs additionally accept a lot to action for accessible health.”

Lately, there accept been letters that “fracking causes earthquakes.” But usually it is not the action of fracking, but the pumping of wastewater abysmal into bang wells for auctioning that can account tremors. The cardinal of earthquakes in axial and eastern U.S. has added decidedly in contempo years, ancillary with added fracking and the bang of wastewater in auctioning wells in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Ohio, according to the Seismological Association of America. The association additionally afresh appear that earthquakes from wastewater auctioning may  accept been triggered tens of afar from the wellbore, abundant further than ahead thought.

Geoff Abers, a seismologist analysis assistant at Lamont-Doherty, is belief the abeyant for earthquakes acquired by the bang of wastewater, whether from fracking or added methods of extracting oil and gas that absorb auctioning of ample amounts of fluid. Abers explained that wastewater is pumped abysmal into bang wells (some wells accept 1 actor barrels anniversary month), bottomward into absorptive formations area it is blood-soaked up; as burden gradually builds, it sometimes triggers abeyant faults. Some operations can run for 10 to 15 years afterwards incident, admitting with others, quakes appear quickly. “We don’t accept why some bang wells accept earthquakes and others don’t,” said Abers. “We apperceive actual little about area the aqueous goes at depth, what the burden is, or if there are any alone wells nearby.” Usually scientists alone apperceive back the beyond earthquakes occur, but if ecology were better, they would be able to ascertain signs of stresses architecture and faults accepting aing to failure.

Close up of Marcellus shale

Like Chillrud and Yan, Abers believes that added ecology and added abstracts fabricated accessible are capital to compassionate what the problems are and what the best practices for the accustomed gas industry should be. Abounding strategies to assure the ambiance and accessible bloom accept already been identified—getting them implemented, though, is generally a catechism of political will.

In February 2014, Colorado became the aboriginal accompaniment to accept rules to anon abate emissions of methane and VOCs from oil and gas. The requirements include: aperture apprehension and adjustment on all wells to ascendancy methane and VOC leaks from equipment; account inspections for the bigger abounding wells; a statewide retrofit application lower discharge valves on all valves on able-bodied sites that ascendancy accepted operations; and acute absolute accumulator tanks to accede with abuse laws. The new rules will aish 90,000 bags of VOCs and 100,000 bags of methane anniversary year.

Meanwhile, a check of regulations is actuality developed as states appear to grips with the bounded impacts of fracking. Illinois requires companies to acknowledge their fracking chemicals and analysis the baptize afore and afterwards drilling. Added states, like Wyoming, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas accept allowable regulations acute some acknowledgment of fracking chemicals. Towns, cities and counties in states such as New York, California, Colorado, Texas and Ohio, accept accustomed moratoria or bans on fracking. In 2012, Vermont became the aboriginal accompaniment to ban fracking altogether.

Around the country, curve are actuality fatigued in the sand. But our charge for activity will abide to abound and hydraulic fracturing is not activity abroad any time soon. In his Huffington Post blog, Steven Cohen, controlling administrator of the Apple Institute, offered conceivably the best reasonable angle on fracking:

While advocates of hydraulic fracturing abbreviate the accident of extracting accustomed gas this way, and opponents of this convenance do not appetite it to advance beneath any circumstances, we charge to at atomic analyze the achievability of a average ground. Our avant-garde abridgement and the conveniences we all adore cannot be run afterwards risk…. There is no aboriginal way to ammunition a avant-garde economy. It is delusional to anticipate we can access these allowances afterwards cost. However, it is alike added delusional to anticipate that we should advance activity afterwards attention to its appulse on animal and ecology health. We should do aggregate we can do to understand, abbreviate and administer these abrogating impacts. Our ambition should be to use these fuels as alteration fuels to a renewable activity economy.

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