Proponents of the oil and natural gas industry point to new developments in extraction technology, namely “fracking”, as the solution to America’s energy woes. While natural gas may be the best bet for the time being, there are some issues, namely fracking, that warrant discussion.
As a nation, and as a people, we could have taken dwindling supplies and rising prices as our cue to move on to renewable forms of energy, such as solar, wind, or hydro power. But, alas, our death-grip addiction to fossil fuels simply won’t be denied. Like a desperate junkie, we search far and wide, from the icy shores of Alaska and even under the ocean to get more hydrocarbons. However, as conventional oil becomes more and more expensive, difficult, and dangerous to extract, natural gas has become a very attractive temporary alternative. In fact, natural gas is expected to displace King Coal as the primary fuel of choice for generating electricity.
The Darkside of Natural Gas
Natural gas is the rising star in the energy sector. It appears to be a perfect compromise between environmentalists, industrialists, and concerned citizens everywhere. Unlike coal, natural gas burns nearly 50 percent cleaner, and as a fossil fuel itself, doesn’t suffer from the new-kid-on-the-block stigma that most renewables have had to overcome. It also helps thats it’s currently dirt cheap, domestically produced, and widely available. So available, in fact, that many oil and gas companies simply burn off the stuff in the form of flares in order to get to oil crude. With the gas boom in full swing, harvesting that otherwise wasted fuel would not only help fuel America, but reduce needless greenhouse gas emissions. Gas is expected to play an increasingly important role in the nation’s drive towards energy independence. However, while prospects for natural gas burn bright, a host of dangerous consequences may be lurking just around the corner waiting to burst its bubble – chief of which are concerns over how the gas is extracted.
To get gas, drilling companies employ a technique known as Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking”. Fracking generally involves shooting fracking fluids (water, sand, and until recently, undisclosed chemical mixtures) at high pressure into seams in the rock layers below in order to release hydrocarbons.
Any logical individual would immediately see the potential hazards of blasting the rock formations beneath our feet with up to a hundred million gallons of potable water and other undisclosed toxic chemicals. For one thing, fracking is a perpetrator of earthquakes. As many as 38 quakes were reported in B.C. Canada as a direct result of hydraulic fracturing activity. In the United States, Youngston, Ohio reported a 4.0 magnitude earthquake as a result of an uncapped, fracking waste injection well.
A more pressing concern is how fracking fluids will affect precious ground water. Reports indicate that as much 70 percent of fracking fluid stays in the ground, absorbed into surrounding rock formations, perforations, and most worrisomely, aquifers. The other 30 percent of fluids bubble back up to the surface, carrying along with it a lethal cocktail of heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and radioactive isotopes. Surface fluids from fracking activities have been known to wipe out vegetation.
Ideally, fracking fluids are recovered and quarantined in sealed containment ponds. Unfortunately, ideal situations are rarely the case in reality. Things always find a way to happen with potentially disastrous results. Fracking fluids put into containment ponds often find a way back into the environment, whether through leaks in barriers, cracks in well walls, or as gaseous vapors.
This is a major concern. Fracking fluids are nothing to be trifled with, which may explain the oil and gas industry’s staunch reticence about the ingredients of their proprietary fracking cocktails. Research conducted by Cornell University showed a mortality rate approaching 50 percent of cattle exposed to fracking wastewater. In Louisiana, 17 cows died within 1 hour of exposure to contaminated waste water.
Obviously, human consumption of contaminated waters could result in dire consequences and possibly death. For denizens of cities and towns as yet untouched by fracking activities, consider this: the very food we eat could kill us. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 head of cattle under suspicion of having consumed waters contaminated with strontium, which is radioactive.
There are no safeguards in place against this. Scientists don’t know how long chemicals will remain in animals, farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of contamination, and the FDA currently has no protocols for identifying these chemicals in slaughterhouses. The worst part is, no one but the oil and gas companies know what these chemicals are. Since there is no law that requires them to disclose their fracking formulas, they simply don’t disclose – which leaves farmers, ranchers, and affected communities guessing at what exactly killed their crops and cattle, or is sickening the town.
Hidden Costs of Cheap Gas
While natural gas may be cheap in terms of dollars and cents, there is always a hidden price to pay. In the case of natural gas, it appears that the health of our nation’s people and livestock may be too high a price to pay for what is essentially an extension of the fossil fuel legacy. Whether it is coal, oil, or natural gas, hydrocarbons all operate under the same mantra: fuel now, pay later. In the case of affected communities across the nation from which fracking is already exacting a toll, paying can be painful. Natural gas may be an economical and somewhat cleaner alternative to other fossil fuels, but in the end it must be viewed as a temporary measure – a stopgap until renewables can be widely implemented. It is also worth noting what we consider cheap gas today, may very well become considerably more expensive in the near future as the industry kicks natural gas exports into high gear. Domestic national gas prices will increase once we start exporting it to other countries.
Regardless, as long as we are extracting non-replenishing fuel sources from the earth to quench our thirst for energy, we are working with inherently short-term, temporary solutions. Future generations will undoubtedly wonder why we sacrificed our planet to mine, drill, and frack our way to finite C02 emitting energy sources when we had the understanding and technologies available to prevent it.