It looks like one of the more controversial methods of gas extraction is coming under greater regulatory scrutiny: New York is considering becoming the first state to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” The state assembly voted 93-43 to impose a temporary moratorium on the practice which would extend until May 2011, giving the state more time to investigate environmental and safety concerns. Governor David Patterson has 10 days to consider signing the bill into law.
If signed, New York would become the first state to ban the controversial practice, which involves drilling deep into the earth and pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells at extremely high pressure. This process fractures the shale enabling natural gas deposits to flow more freely.
The problem is that this process can be highly destructive. First of all, the chemicals pumped into the wells – upwards of 596 undisclosed, proprietary chemicals – leach into the groundwater creating contamination that is difficult at best to clean and manage. The water used in the drilling, which can be as high as eight million gallons per well, becomes highly toxic. In addition, the fracturing of the shale deposits can cause gas leakages that extend through the surface of the ground and into water supplies. Some residents along the Delaware River Basin, which runs through Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania and supplies half of New York City’s water, have even been able to set their tap water on fire.The river has recently been named the most endangered in the US because of the natural gas threat.
Filmmaker Josh Fox has released the highly acclaimed film Gasland about the fracking process. Fox was approached about leasing his land for drilling and set out to explore the Halliburton-developed technology and its environmental and social impacts. The film won a Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film festival, and will be running on HBO through 2012.
In the carbon-constrained world, natural gas has proven to be an interesting source of contention in the environmental community. With 43 percent the carbon emissions of coal and a third the emissions of oil, it has shown itself to be a promising transitional vehicle fuel. The infrastructure is mostly in place as a liquid or compressed fuel source, and fleet use is expanding greatly throughout the US.
The biggest argument for natural gas as a replacement fuel for petroleum is rooted in energy independence. Estimates suggest we have enough to support our transportation system and stop importing foreign oil. There is an expansive natural gas pipeline network in place and fracking technology has increased our reserves estimates by 35 percent.
Natural gas use also plays directly into the potential electric vehicle infrastructure. Currently about one-third of the electricity produced in the US comes from natural gas, and that looks to expand if carbon becomes more regulated. About 40 percent of California gets its energy from this resource. The natural gas movement has been boosted by people like T. Boone Pickens whose “Pickens Plan” calls for a transition to wind and NG power for electricity and transportation, although his land acquisitions have been criticized as an attempt to gain water rights in many areas.
The natural gas debate will not be settled anytime soon. There is no doubt great potential for us to unlock our domestic supplies in order to minimize or eliminate foreign energy imports. But if we are going to make this necessary transition, we need to do it right. Unlocking a potential firestorm of environmental damage can not be the solution to our energy crisis. We will closely watch the New York decision and its impacts on whole fracking industry. Now is not the time to frack ourselves.