May/June 2011 Clean, Cheap, and Out of Control

Why natural gas could be the fuel of the future, and how the industry could blow it all up.

By Jesse Zwick

One example is a blowout, like the one that occurred at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico. As we learned from that catastrophe, you can’t just take well integrity for granted in the absence of effective regulation. Moreover, the process of fracking can itself contribute to the likelihood of blowouts in poorly constructed wells. “What do these [well integrity] issues have to do with fracking?” asks Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the NRDC. “The process of fracking creates a lot of high pressure in the well. A well that fails—whether it’s the casing, cementing, or what have you—did it fail during fracking or would it have failed anyway? Sometimes it fails and fracking is not a contributing factor, and sometimes it happens during fracking. Industry will always say that it doesn’t have to do with fracking, just well construction.” But that is not necessarily true.

What to do with all the wastewater produced by fracking—which contains all sorts of chemicals the industry refuses to disclose, as well as carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, both of which also exist naturally underground—is also a big problem. In some states companies send their drilling waste to injection wells for storage deep underground, while others are learning to recycle it for use in future operations, but in states like Pennsylvania the majority of wastewater is dropped off at water treatment plants illequipped to handle such contaminants. While we do not yet have the science to be sure how the discharge of such wastewater into rivers may affect downstream drinking supplies, many people are understandably concerned. Industry resistance to further monitoring and regulation is a surefire way to stir up hysterical opposition to more drilling.

In addition, fractures induced in the shale rock, while rarely extending beyond several hundred feet, have the potential to interact with nearby abandoned gas wells or naturally occurring fractures in the deposit. This could lead to gas and fracturing fluids rising up and finding their way into the water table. A three-year study completed in 2008 by Garfield County, Colorado, one of the most intensely drilled areas in the United States, indicated in new detail how a system of interconnected natural fractures and faults could extend from gas layers deep underground up to the earth’s surface. “It challenges the view that natural gas, and the suite of hydrocarbons that exist around it, is isolated from water supplies by its extreme depth,” Judith Jordan, the oil and gas liaison for Garfield County and former hydrogeologist with DuPont, told the nonprofit news organization ProPublica at the time of the study’s release.

The natural gas industry has also long resisted disclosing exactly what chemicals it is inserting into the ground when it engages in fracking, arguing that disclosure could expose trade secrets; there is no public need to know. Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, states that the less specific data already provided on worker-safety documents are sufficient. Any more detailed disclosure, he told a panel at the Heritage Foundation, would “put at risk the ability to then convince the public that fracturing is safe.”

But Fuller’s line of reasoning—that disclosure will jeopardize public confidence in fracking—misjudges the level of distrust generated by the industry’s efforts to keep its chemical formulas secret. Without detailed disclosure, argues Anderson at EDF, government agencies and third-party scientific studies have been unable to properly carry out investigations of complaints of water contamination near well sites, leaving the door open for continued speculation about the role of toxic chemicals employed by the industry. Moreover, “nothing good will happen for the natural gas industry in terms of public acceptance until the gas industry puts behind it the issue of disclosure,” adds Anderson. “It’s not as if it looks like the industry is hiding something. They are hiding something,” he told Reuters.

Beyond those posed by fracking itself, there are other environmental threats caused by gas drilling. These, too, must be addressed if America is going to succeed in moving to cleaner energy sources, including wind and solar power, whose full development depends, as explained above, on the greater use of gas in electricity generation.

Certainly local communities deserve some compensation and/or protection from the disruption gas exploration can cause. Says Eileen Millett, a lecturer in environmental law at Syracuse University, “You have the number of rigs coming into communities, the miles of pipelines that will be required, the hundreds of heavy trucks, the pumping of thousands of gallons of fresh water. All of those are issues that as a small municipality you’d want to be concerned about.”

In addition, natural gas production can release substantial amounts of methane into the atmosphere unless properly regulated. This can occur either through intentional venting or from leaks throughout the system. At present, oil and gas systems are the second largest source of methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 23 percent of methane and 2 percent of total greenhouse gas pollution. There are proven ways for industry to capture and harvest these fugitive methane emissions, but until it is required to do so, it’s harder to make the case that natural gas production represents a huge improvement over burning coal.

Given the current composition of Congress, much of the push for greater regulation of gas production is now being directed at the state level. In 2009, Colorado became one of the first states to update its regulations for gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and Pennsylvania, too, overhauled some of its antiquated regulations. Last year also marked the passage of the first mandatory chemical disclosure laws in two states— Wyoming and Arkansas.

At least some large independent producers are pleased with these developments and see the need for still more regulation. Southwestern Energy has agreed to collaborate with the Environmental Defense Fund, for instance, on devising stricter guidelines for the integrity of gas wells that undergo hydraulic fracturing. The goal, says Mark Boling of Southwestern, is to create a guide for states in setting higher standards. “The problem with having voluntary standards is first, it makes people say, ‘Oh, yeah right,’ and second, our industry is only as good as its lowest common denominator,” Boling adds.

But a patchwork of state laws is a poor substitute for a strong federal law that would set a uniform minimum safety standard for industry. Moreover, state laws, no matter how tough, mean little if state governments are too cash-strapped to enforce them. A study by ProPublica of twenty-two gas drilling states found that between 2004 and 2008 the number of new wells drilled increased 42 percent, while enforcement staff grew by only 9 percent. New York State reduced field inspector staffing in its oil and gas division by 20 percent during the same period, while its Department of Environmental Conservation allowed a 676 percent increase in new wells drilled each year. Since the recession, most states have been forced to make cuts to their regulatory budgets, further ensuring that they have inadequate staff to investigate, inspect, or monitor gas wells.

Jesse Zwick is a writer living in Washington, DC.