Outdoors commentary: Consequences of fracking

USGS photo, "Hydraulic Fracturing Operation Underway, southwestern Pa."
USGS photo, "Hydraulic Fracturing Operation Underway, southwestern Pa." (Submitted photo , Carroll County Times)

"It may be years before the full consequences of the drilling and fracking are clear."

-Gregory Zuckerman

in "The Frackers"

Part two of two

Part 1 reviewed the claimed benefits and risks to high volume hydraulic fracking (HVHF), commonly called fracking, to extract natural gas from Appalachian shale deposits know as the Marcellus Shale. At the invitation of Trout Unlimited, the author toured some active fracking sites near Slate Run, Pa., last October. Pennsylvania has more than 7,000 fracking wells, while Maryland is studying the issue.

My observations of Pennsylvania fracking operations included: Extravagant water usage; road destruction; sedimentation; breakup of state forest tracts with roads, wells, gas and water lines; noisy, 10-acre and larger fracking pad "factories" and water basins in the middle of state forest and game lands; lots of out-of-state license plates in pad areas; significant hiker/biker activities and excellent trout fishing in adjoining state forest areas, the kinds of resources Trout Unlimited is trying to protect.

Returning from the trip, I continued to monitor reports of environmental impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. I found reports of accidents and traffic congestion, but the major complaints focused on water problems. Several hundred claims of pollution of well water due to fracking have been filed and are being investigated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Sorting out some claims can be problematic, since naturally occurring methane and other pollutants are widespread. The flaming faucet phenomenon, as depicted in the documentary "Gasland," and many websites, has been going on for decades before fracking in parts of Appalachia.

A better documented problem in Pennsylvania is wastewater, known as "flowback," returned to the surface after the fracking process. As Vikram Rao states in "Shale Gas: The Promise and The Peril," this issue has never been adequately addressed in Pennsylvania or anywhere in the Marcellus Shale area. Some wastewater has been accidentally spilled or improperly dumped, and some has been sent to municipal water treatment facilities totally incapable of properly decontaminating it. A true horror story occurred in Blacklick Creek near a wastewater disposal site, where radioactive radium was discovered in concentrations 200 times greater than background levels.

While fracking activities increase, with scrutiny from governments across the United States and the world, and the former state governor lobbies on behalf of fracking companies, legislation has been proposed in Pennsylvania calling for more limits on fracking on public lands and recent court rulings allow greater local control.

Water issues have been the focus of environmental concern in Pennsylvania, but some environmentalists see a larger, some say intractable, concern with "fugitive methane release," release of methane gas into the air during fracking or conventional oil and gas drilling, production, processing and transportation/distribution.

A Feb. 14 article in the journal "Science," authored by scientists from universities, national laboratories and government agencies reviewing over 200 methane emission studies cautioned. "If natural gas is to be a 'bridge' to a more sustainable energy future, it is a bridge that must be traversed carefully: Diligence will be required to ensure that leakage rates are low enough to achieve sustainability goals."

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell warned in a New York Times article last July that fracking-related methane leaks could change the "'bridge' to a renewable energy future" to "a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy."

A 2011 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that unless methane leaks can be kept below 2 percent, the advantage of burning natural gas over coal disappears. Methane release is not only a cause for opposition to fracking among some environmental groups in Maryland, it's also the basis of much of their opposition to the proposed development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) producing facilities at Cove Point in Calvert County.

Another contentious issue is the long-term effect of fracking. A major concern is maintaining the integrity of the well liners and cement during the decades the well is in production and after it is decommissioned, problems also found with conventional oil and gas wells. Again, there are conflicting estimates of wells "leaking" methane and fracking-related fluids. One can also read opinions in scientific publications on methane and fracking-related fluids migrating into aquifers, even without liner and cement failures, ranging from "nearly impossible" to "inevitable."

So where do we stand with fracking the Marcellus Shale and elsewhere? Perhaps business writer, Gregory Zuckerman, summarizes the most widely-held (and industry-supported) view:

"It's just not realistic to expect a nation still suffering the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression to ignore some of the largest energy fields in the world, forgo the substantial savings that result from drilling in those domestic spots, and keep funneling money to Russia, Iran, Qatar and other energy powers."

Zuckerman, Rao, and some environmental groups contend that far more stringent regulation of fracking from drilling through distribution is required. Likewise monitoring, environmental remediation techniques and site selection need to keep pace with gas developmental technologies.

"It's all totally fixable, but just because the problems are manageable doesn't mean they will be managed," says Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund in "The Frackers." "It's going to take action by state regulators, industry, and citizens to make it happen." And some find even this view too optimistic.

Can our country deal with shale resources wisely and patiently, using the best scientific and engineering resources or are we doomed to endless dueling of lobbyists amid political and cultural opposition to regulation and oversight?

Possible fracking sites in Maryland are Garrett and western Alleghany Counties.

Repeating from Part 1: Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley authorized a 15-member commission to: "Assist State policymakers and regulators in determining whether and how gas production from the Marcellus Shale can be accomplished without unacceptable risk of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources." See http://www.mde.state.md.us/Pages/Home.aspx for the commission's makeup and the state of their work.

With so much environmental and social risk, Maryland's moratorium and deliberate, science-based approach may well be a model for other jurisdictions.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun