Controversial path to possible glut of natural gas
Water and chemicals injected at high pressure can extract more gas – and possibly pollute drinking water.
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“The wells we drill ... are insulated with concrete,” says Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon Energy, an Oklahoma City-based gas company that pioneered hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett shale formation beneath Fort Worth, Texas. “The purpose is to protect any kind of aquifer or ground water layer. Those processes are controlled by regulatory agencies, and that keeps us safe from any kind of aquifer pollution.”Skip to next paragraph
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A pioneer in “best practices,” Devon has also developed a way to purify and reuse frac water. But those techniques are costly and not widely used at present. Whether such practices will be required elsewhere is an open question.
Targets for this new kind of drilling
One huge target is the Marcellus shale basin that spans large parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. States are eager to get to get new revenues – and so are many landowners lining up to sign leases.
“I’ll be glad to welcome the crews with open arms,” writes Al Czervic in the Catskill Commentator, an online publication. “Drill here, my friends,” he writes, “Drill here. And then, drill some more.”
But amid this gold-rush-type fever in the Delaware and Susquehanna River Basins, voices warn that environmental safeguards and industry standards need to be beefed up before drill bits hit – or the great gas boom could exact a steep price in polluted water.
“Decades ago, we weren’t careful with coal mining,” wrote Bryan Swistock, a water resources specialist with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, in a recent statement. “As a result, we are still paying huge sums to clean up acid mine drainage. We need to be careful and vigilant or we could see lasting damage to our water resources from so many deep gas wells.”
State environmental agencies and industry experts say multiple systems will be in place to safeguard water.
“The current balanced management approach works – allowing for effective state regulatory programs that appropriately protect the environment while providing for the essential development of oil and gas,” wrote Stephanie Meadows, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington trade group, in an e-mail response to Monitor questions on hydraulic fracturing.
Where safeguards failed
Still, one can point to examples where those safeguards did not work. New Mexico and Colorado, which have struggled with leakage from frac-water waste pits involving gas exploration, are now moving forward with legislation.
“There are numerous instances in various states of surface water and drinking water contamination from hydraulic fracturing,” says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. “Nobody, including the industry, has done any in-depth examination to find out the impact on ground water. We are seeing some bad stuff coming out of individual wells and taps.”