The rush to frack ourselves

Perhaps the time has come for a pause in the natural gas boom until we know a little bit more about hydraulic fracturing and its impact on the environment and people.

I’m not tree-hugging environmentalist, but I’ve seen and read enough to know the rush to “fracking” may eventually see the evils outweigh the good.

The good is easy to see: A new source of energy less damaging to the atmosphere than traditional fossil fuels, plus fracking creates jobs and billions of dollars in profit. Natural gas has great potential for slowing, if not halting, global warming. But is there a trade-off on the production side that negates those positives?

Consider this recent story from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio:

NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — The first time Judy Pack felt the earth move, she was asleep in her house in rural Mahoning County, just a few houses from the Pennsylvania state line.

A natural-gas processing plant had recently been built across the street; Hilcorp Energy, a Texas oil company, had started drilling and fracking for gas about 3 miles away.

Judy and her husband, Ralph, had almost become used to the lights blazing from the plant and the trucks rumbling down their usually quiet road. This felt different.

Mrs. Pack awoke; their bed was shaking.

It was about 2:30 a.m. on March 10, and a magnitude 3 earthquake had just rolled through the area. The epicenter of that quake was near one of Hilcorp’s wells.

The follow-up was that Ohio officials made a link between the earthquakes and fracking. Perhaps this will help the cause of the folks in Azel, Texas, to get a little more attention out of the Texas Railroad Commission. And in Oklahoma, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on.

Some rattled nerves and a few nick-nacs bounced off the china cabinet might be the price we pay for progress. However, let’s consider the real China.

China, with its reliance on coal, is one of the world’s leading contributors to air pollution and global warming. Natural gas from fracturing may be the answer to a lot of China’s energy problems. Extraction is fraught with peril, though.

The shale deposits in China are about 13,000 feet below the surface, twice as deep as in the United States. And while it only takes weeks to drill a well here, the first well in China took 11 months. And then there’s the location of the drilling: the Sichuan basin in southwest China. The problem is this area also has some of the most active, and the most dangerous fault lines in China.

Sichuan, an area the size of Spain, lies on some of the world’s most active fault lines and has suffered two major earthquakes in the past five years, including the Wenzhou quake in 2008 that killed at least 70,000 people.

Sacrificing the sleep of folks in Azel or Oklahoma or Ohio is one thing, but would we really want to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of people as an up-front solution to global warming?

Unlike Ohio, Texas official so far have taken a head-in-the-sand approach to questions involving earthquakes and air pollution potentially caused by the hydraulic fracturing process. And today’s Austin American-Statesman has a disturbing example of that:

The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area — and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

It is understandable that the state agency may be upset that the Alamo Area Council of Governments released a report paid for by the state before giving it to the state. But, frankly, this looks like the state agency is doing more than just punishing the Alamo COG; it looks like the state doesn’t want the Alamo COG doing any more studies on hydraulic fracturing.

I’m not advocating a knee-jerk response to the problems of hydraulic fracturing. There is more than ample evidence, however, that the time has come for a true cost-benefit analysis of hydraulic fracturing and the production of natural gas.