All fracked up

In a poor attempt at a balanced Baltimore Sun oped on hydraulic fracturing or fracking—the process of extracting natural gas from shale deposits deep underground—state delegate Heather Mizeur (D Montgomery County) can’t help but devolve into environmental fear mongering. If we don’t act as Mizeur says, the Chesapeake Bay could be set ablaze.

A flood of natural gas companies has swept into Appalachia, bringing the promise of both economic development and an American energy revolution. New technologies now allow them to extract gas from deposits long thought untappable.

And yet at least a few of these same companies have had to provide bottled water to whole neighborhoods. Why? Because in the shadow of new drilling operations, some families have discovered that their tap water is now flammable.

Yes flammable.

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Water is so fundamental to our health and well-being that it is difficult to imagine the consequences of living in a world where it became more like lighter fluid….

But it is the method of extraction — not the fuel — that has raised red flags. When combined with advances in deep drilling techniques, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has enabled companies to extract these once untappable natural gas deposits. Wells are drilled into the shale first vertically, and then horizontally, at a depth between 5,000 and 20,000 feet. To release the gas, the rock is injected with a highly pressurized mixture containing at least 2 million gallons of water, 200,000 pounds of sand and 80,000 pounds of chemicals.

That would be like putting three Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water, a sand volleyball court, and enough chemicals to outweigh five African elephants into the ground — for just one well. And according to some studies, 70 percent or more of this mixture stays in the shale and is neither recovered nor reused.

While these dangerous chemicals stay underground and threaten our water supply, complications from fracking continue to rise to the surface. Gas companies claim that the process is safe. Here’s what we now know. Fracking chemicals contain known carcinogens. Water wells are exploding, and tap water is flammable. Fish kills and dead farm animals have been documented. Worse still, little reliable data is available about the long-term effects of shale gas drilling on water quality, wildlife, livestock or human health.

Mizeur’s proposes a state moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling permits “until until the state can assess the risks that fracking poses to streams, rivers, lakes, groundwater and the health of Marylanders.” The Marcellus Shale deposit stretches from New York south through Pennsylvania, western Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.

Given the “evidence” she supplies in her argument however, Mizeur’s call for a moratorium is thinly veiled desire for banning the process entirely.

Mizeur’s argument is nothing more than a regurgitation of the HBO “Documentary” Gasland, a greatly flawed Michael Moore-style polemic. In Gasland the flim’s director, Josh Fox traipsing through the Marcellus Shale region filming residents, who claim fracking, has contaminated their well water, setting the water from their kitchen faucets afire. John Hanger, the Pennsylvania secretary of the environment featured in the movie, labeled it “fundamentally dishonest, a deliberately false presentation for dramatic effect.”

Furthermore, Mizeur isn’t entirely honest with readers about ground water contamination. As Reason’s Ronald Bailey points out:

A 2008 report by the Groundwater Protection Council, a nonprofit organization whose members consist of state groundwater regulatory agencies, found that the layers of impermeable rock over top of the Marcellus Shale act as a barrier so that the water and chemicals used in fracking could not migrate upward into groundwater aquifers. In addition, a September 2010 report by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reviewed its complaint database and concluded “that no groundwater pollution [PDF] or disruption of underground sources of drinking water have been attributed to hydraulic fracturing of deep gas formations.”So if fracking is not the cause of flaming tap water and groundwater pollution in Dimock and elsewhere, what is?

Since 2006, Cabot Oil and Gas has drilled nearly 60 wells in a nine square mile area around Dimock, using the fracking technique. In January, 2009 several homeowners noticed that water from their wells was now bubbling. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection investigated and concluded that natural gas was in fact migrating from several Cabot gas wells into local groundwater and into homeowners’ wells. But poor well construction was to blame. A properly cased well prevents drilling fluids, fracking fluids, or natural gas from seeping into an aquifer and contaminating groundwater. The casing also prevents groundwater from leaking into the well where it could interfere with the gas production process.

In Dimock, gas was escaping through defective casings and cement that lined some of Cabot’s gas wells. To make matters worse, in September 2010, Cabot spilled 8,000 gallons of stored fracking fluids which drained into nearby Stevens Creek. Earlier this month, Cabot agreed to pay affected homeowners more than $4 million which amounts to twice the value of their houses. Cabot’s blunders illustrate an important point: Fracking, that is, the actual act of fracturing the shale below Dimock, did not directly pollute ground and surface waters.

In fact, even the Environmental Defense Fund admits the safety of properly regulated fracking.
Indeed, as environmentalists try to connect fracking to health hazards, their false claims keep colliding with the truth as it did in Texas. Anti-fracking advocates in Dish, Texas claimed the process led to high levels of chemical contamination in local residents, including Benzene. Yet the Texas Department of State Health Services own investigation found that “residents’ exposure to certain contaminants was not greater than that of the general U.S. population.” The report noted that the only residents who had higher levels of benzene were smokers because cigarette smoke contains higher levels of benzene.

Also, Bailey fully illustrates a really important point, which Mizeur only glosses over.

In its Annual Energy Outlook 2011 [PDF] report, the Energy Information Administration estimates that the United States possesses 2,552 trillion
cubic feet (Tcf) of potential natural gas resources
, of which for 827 Tcf resides in shale formations. Shale gas reserves are more than double the estimate published last year. The EIA notes that at the 2009 rate of U.S. consumption (about 22.8 Tcf per year), 2,552 Tcf of natural gas is enough to supply approximately 110 years of use. The EIA further notes that shale gas supplied 14 percent of the gas used in the U.S. in 2009 and projects that it will constitute 45 percent of U.S. total natural gas supply in 2035. In addition, burning natural gas produces half the greenhouse gases that coal does and the EIA projects that supplies will be so abundant that the price should remain low for the next 20 years. That’s if fracking is not banned.

An elected official proposing to shut off a cheap, reliable source of energy may seem bizarre. However, it makes sense if you understand that in supplication to environmental special interests Mizeur, her Democratic colleagues, and Governor Martin O’Malley have done everything to increase the cost of energy in Maryland.

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