The spectacle of protesters descending on New York’s capitol to pressure Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support a ban on fracking earlier this week has prompted various interested parties to revisit the question of what lies ahead for the controversial natural gas drilling technique.
The stakes are high.
If fracking – the process of injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture deep deposits of shale, allowing trapped gases to be released and drilled – is an acceptable way to extract natural gas, then the U.S. and much of the world will have a bounty of fuel for generating electricity, heating and perhaps transportation, for generations.
But environmentalists fear that precious groundwater aquifers could be destroyed by fracking fluids and collateral releases of methane. In response, industry leaders say such fears are based on misinformation.
New York Times environmental blogger Andrew Revkin sees the “quieter corners” of what the environmental community is seeking. Instead of a ban on fracking, they say they are looking for regulations that will “give the greatest social and economic benefits with the least risk of environmental regrets.” However, rhetoric at the rally suggests that people at the grassroots don’t want compromise.
Fracking has significance far beyond the borders of New York State. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are 5,760 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable” shale gas resources in 32 foreign countries, about 15 percent of which is in the U.S. There are immense deposits in a Northeastern belt running from Ohio through Pennsylvania to upstate New York, in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, in Michigan and in the Rocky Mountains.
The reason many environmental organizations stop short of calling for a fracking ban is the nature of the end product, natural gas. Per BTU, the Environmental Protection Agency says natural gas has just over half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, which it is increasingly displacing to produce electricity. With the stubbornly high costs of renewable power, some environmental leaders embrace natural gas as a transitional fuel to reduce CO2 emissions and slow the effects on climate.
But such concessions tend to be abandoned in the immediate vicinity of proposed fracking projects, as demonstrated by Monday’s rally, during which New York State Sen. Tony Avella, author of the fracking ban, shouted “Shame on you!” to environment groups that didn’t support him on the issue.
In the U.S., there are temporary fracking bans in New Jersey and New York, but no permanent prohibitions. Bulgaria has voted to ban fracking and revoked a fracking permit it had granted to Chevron. France has also banned fracking despite its wealth of shale gas deposits.
In his account of a recent Duke University workshop on fracking, “the Green Grok,” a.k.a. Bill Chameides, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, posed the key question for environmentalists: “Does fracking undermine drinking water?” His answer: “This is a huge question with only a tiny bit of data – enough to raise some questions, but not enough to provide definitive answers.”
Meanwhile, the EPA began a study of the impact of fracking on drinking water in 2010. That study is still underway. The agency’s final word won’t necessarily be definitive and certainly won’t persuade everyone, but the matter will likely remain in a holding pattern until the study is finished.
John Stodder is the roving Web editor at The Dolan Co.