Thursday, March 22, 2012

fracking 101

From the Valley News (slightly altered -- the editors removed "no fracking way" for being crass. I opted to keep it in. Also, this is a "daily" written in a few hours, so it's basically reporting on what was said on this particular evening, and isn't a well-researched, in-depth article. Not that I'm making apologies.)
Norwich -- For an issue that hasn't quite hit Vermont yet, fracking is nonetheless garnering a lot of attention in the Upper Valley. More than 150 people showed up at the Montshire Museum last night to learn more about the controversial practice of using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from underground shale, and the general consensus was: no fracking way. Not in this state.

Though fracking has become a hot-button issue in Pennsylvania and New York, both of which lie above North America's largest natural gas deposit – the Marcellus shale – Vermont has been largely ignored by natural gas companies. A few exploratory wells were drilled in the 1980s, but currently, Vermont's relatively small natural gas supply is pumped in from Canadian wells. 

So far, anyway. State geologist Laurence Becker said in a telephone interview yesterday that the geology in northwest Vermont is very similar to that just across the border in Quebec, where large deposits of natural gas were found and wells were drilled in 2007 before the province put a temporary ban on fracking last spring to better study the issue.

“We do have the shale,” Becker said. “It's also east of Lake Champlain, close to the interstate. There's more than 4,500 feet thickness of shale.”

Still, it's unclear if Vermont's shale holds the kind of natural gas deposits that would attract commercial interests. No one has yet applied for a fracking permit through the Agency of Natural Resources, and it seems that some of Vermont's legislators would like to keep it that way – at least until environmental regulations catch up with fracking technology. The Vermont House of Representatives passed a three-year moratorium on fracking earlier this year, and the issue is now before the Senate.

New York also has enacted a temporary ban on fracking, but 27 other states, including Pennsylvania, allow it to occur, and the federal government exercises virtually no oversight in the process. The Bush administration exempted fracking from compliance with the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations, because the drilling occurs deep below groundwater aquafers, according to presenters from Vermont Law School last night.

Proponents of fracking, like Vermont lobbyist Joe Choquette of the American Petroleum Institute, who was also interviewed by telephone, say that natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than oil or coal, that's it's domestically abundant and therefore cheaper than other petroleum products, and that fracking technology is becoming ever cleaner.

But Vermont Law School environmental law professor Pat Parenteau, who addressed a largely like-minded crowd at the Montshire Museum last night, said that the amount of methane emitted by fracking negates any savings in carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas.

Not only that, Parenteau said, but the other health and environmental impacts are equally distressing. There is evidence that fracking contaminates drinking water with methane and other chemicals, and the process itself is so water intensive that it undermines critical water supply issues, especially in the West.

The Environmental Protection Agency (which is at the tail end of a two-year fracking study) estimates that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used annually to fracture 35,000 wells in the U.S. To put that into perspective: that's equivalent to the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities, each with a population of 50,000.

To release natural gas, such vast quantities of water are mixed with sand and chemicals and piped up to 8,000 feet below the Earth's surface. Then extraordinary pressure is exerted to literally crack the geologic formations in which the gas is bound. All of the water that flows back out of the ground is ultimately contaminated, and states do not require companies to report on the levels of such water or where it is stored, Parenteau said.

In addition to water use and contamination, he added, fracking can result in earthquakes, explosions and the degradation of undeveloped land. And projections show that levels of fracking are due to increase exponentially from 2010 on.

“This is the gold rush of the 21st century,” Parenteau said. “It's not a bridge to a new energy future, it's a bridge to nowhere.”

Though hydraulic fracturing has been around for at least 60 years, the reason for the recent boom is that new technology allows for horizontal, not just vertical, drilling, opening up new deposits to exploration, Choquette explained.

Cordelia Merritt, of Hartland, was among the 150 or so people who showed up for the discussion at the Montshire Museum – which had volunteers scrambling to set up extra chairs as a line of people streamed through the doors.

“I'm concerned about this because I have four grandchildren,” Merritt said. “I just think this is almost the most important environmental issue there is.”

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