Fracking Could Work if Industry Would Come Clean
Resistance to hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. has risen steadily in recent months. Citizens and politicians are worried that fracking deep shales to extract natural gas can contaminate groundwater, trigger earthquakes and release methane, the potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. But a panel of experts not tied to industry told a large audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting here yesterday that the primary concerns can be solved if drilling and gas companies would impose tougher controls on their own operations, and if regulators would stiffen safety rules and crack down on violators who break them.
That realistic but optimistic tone arose primarily from conclusions made in a new study released a day earlier by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. The study of shale drilling and gas extraction in Texas and Pennsylvania determined that three basic operations at the surface of wells have the greatest potential to taint drinking water with chemicals or methane. “We did not find that fracking the shale itself was likely to contaminate groundwater,” said Chip Groat, a geologist and professor of geoscience at the university who led the study. “We did find contamination from surface spills and leaks” at the top of the well.
The main culprits were above-ground spills of chemicals used in fracking; poor installation of metal casings and concrete in the top of the well that are supposed to prevent chemicals sent down the bore hole that later come back up, as well as the methane itself, from leaking; and sloppy handling of that “flowback” water plus other wastewater when it is transferred and stored in open pits or closed tanks.
Several concrete steps (pun intended) could clean up this act, according to David Layzell, head of the University of Calgary’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economics.