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Hydraulic Fracturing Controversy Makes Discover Magazine

The April issue of Discover, published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., contains an article on the potential environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing in gas shales, “Fracking Nation,” by Linda Marsa. Much of the article simply repeats allegations being made by environmental groups and landowners of alleged groundwater contamination by shale wells. But the article mentions four newer topics and recent allegations being made by opponents of shale gas development:


First is a study by geologist Tracy Bank of the State University of New York at Buffalo on potential uranium contamination of returned frac water. Ms. Bank’s study, presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver on November 2, says that significant uranium deposits may exist in shales, and that those uranium deposits and other heavy metals are chemically bound to the hydrocarbons released when the wells are frac’ed and produced. The returned frac water “could contain uranium contaminants, potentially polluting streams and other ecosystems and generating hazardous waste,” according to a summary of her paper on the Buffalo university website. Since returned frac water in the Marcellus is not disposed of by injection but by discharge into surface waters (after treating), Ms. Bank’s study has lead to additional investigations of the treatment of frac water in municipal water treatment systems in Pennsylvania.

Second, the Discover article quotes Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, expressing concerns about the dangers to the environment of frac’ing, and a study done by Dr. Ingraffea and others at Cornell concluding that the production of shale gas, taken as a whole, produces more greenhouse gasses than coal. Tony Ingraffea has given a series of talks in New York opposing shale gas development in that state.  One of his talks to a local community on the adverse impacts of shale gas development can be found here. The Cornell greenhouse gas study has not yet been published, but a “pre-publication” copy can be seen here. The effect of the study is to call into question assertions by the industry that natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel that should be used in vehicles instead of gasoline and can serve as a “bridge fuel” in the path toward reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.  The study concludes that, “considering the 20-year horizon, the GHG footprint for shale gas is at least 20% greater than and perhaps more than twice as great as that for coal when expressed per quantity of energy available during combustion.”  The reason: fugitive emissions of methane during the drilling and completion process, and leaks of gas during the gathering and transmission process. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, per unit of volume, when released into the atmosphere. The Cornell study has already been criticized by the industry.  “These guys weren’t about to let a silly thing like data get in the way of a good story,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth. “Reading the paper, it’s tough not to get the impression that the fix was in from the start, that they set out with a series of conclusions and then just worked backward from there, moving the parameters in and out as needed to get where they wanted to go.”

Third, the Discover article says that recent tests have been conducted on more than a dozen gas wells in Texas by a company named GasFrac using “gelled liquid petroleum gas” as the frac fluid, rather than water. According to the article, when the gelled liquid is pumped into the well it converts back to gas and can be produced with the formation gas after the well frac. The article says that almost 100 percent of the gelled LPG is recovered after the frac.

Finally, the article says that more environmentally friendly drilling and completion techniques are being developed and studied by the Houston Advance Research Center, which has launched an “Environmentally Friendly Drilling Scorecard” to rank drilling and completion techniques based on their potential environmental impact.  The Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program was developed with the participation of a large group of environmental organizations, industry participants, academics, and state and federal agencies, to develop “best practices,” which will allow scoring of drilling practices by shale operators. Those techniques should be studied by landowners interested in reducing the environmental impact of drilling on their lands and considered for inclusion as requirements in oil and gas leases of their property.


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