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Monday, January 9, 2012

Fracking and the menace of methane

Posted by on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 3:32 PM

If anyone in the General Assembly listened to the scientists at the hydraulic fracturing workshop at Duke University today, then any pro-fracking legislation should be dead in North Carolina. That’s not a given: Last week, the GOP-led majority threatened a midnight override to Gov. Perdue’s veto of Senate Bill 709, which would have opened the door to fracking in North Carolina, but the party couldn’t muster the votes.

Considering the Legislature’s shenanigans over the past year, we shouldn’t assume the majority would base a vote on facts. But for the rest of you who don’t have campaign coffers to fill and political favors to return, here’s the take-home message about fracking: Based on available data, which admittedly is limited in some cases, fracking is fraught with environmental hazards, including air and water pollution, and it may contribute to, or even accelerate the pace of, climate change.

The public event was five-and-a-half hours long—you can watch an archive of the livestream—so I’ll touch only on the main environmental points:

Fracking requires water, a lot of it, to combine with other chemicals so drillers can force the fluid into cracks below the ground, thus releasing the gas. How much water? Around 2 million to 4 million gallons per well. Pennsylvania has 1,400 of these wells, and if you do the math, said Avner Vengosh, Duke University professor of geochemistry and water quality, fracking operations in that state use an average of about 15 million gallons of water per day. For comparison’s sake, he noted that Durham customers use 20 million to 25 million gallons of water per day.

It’s not just the water quantity that suffers; the water quality does, too. The flowback from the well—think of it as the well’s acid reflux—contains water, fracking chemicals, oil and toxic elements including barium, arsenic, lead and bromide. Disposing of this water also presents problems: Injecting it back into the ground can contaminate groundwater. (Pennsylvania no longer allows new drilling of injection wells, and haulers are taking the water to Ohio, where geologists believe the injection wells are linked to earthquakes in the region.)

Discharging the water into rivers and streams can harm ecosystems. Few municipal treatment plants can adequately filter and clean the wastewater. And there is a limit to the water’s reuse because of the chemicals and high salt content.

Kelvin Gregory, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, noted there are no cost-effective technologies to treat the water, and even reusing it creates problems: storage, transportation and the unknown effect of high salt content on the other chemicals.

Methane is a crucial part of the fracking issue. The gas is vented from the wells, and inevitably some of it escapes into the atmosphere—or it can leak beneath the surface into groundwater. When it comes to greenhouse gases, methane emissions are a bad actor, with the potential to accelerate climate change even more than carbon dioxide.

Vengosh of Duke is updating a paper he and co-authors Rob Jackson, Stephen Osborn and Nathaniel Warner published last year that concluded drinking water wells in Pennsylvania near fracking operations were more likely to have higher levels of methane in them than wells that were farther away. Why? Improper well casings, possibly, that allow gas to leak into naturally occurring cracks.

And shale gas, which is produced from fracking, contains more methane than other fossil fuels, even coal, says Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, who published a paper with that conclusion. (The paper, he acknowledged, is quite controversial within the scientific community.)

According to his analysis, methane emissions are 40 percent higher from shale gas than conventional gas because of venting. The EPA says that number is 60 percent, but there are a few scientists who say there is no difference. (Howarth disputes their findings; might we see a scientific fisticuffs?)

But if Howarth is right, he wins the award for the most ominous prediction of the day: “We need to control methane immediately or within the next 15 to 20 years we meet the irreversible tipping points in the system.”

Now the question is: Will the North Carolina Legislature listen?

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