Friday, September 2, 2011

What price energy?

Not too long ago some Pennsylvania geologist discovered very large deposits of oil or natural gas deep down in shale deposits. This oil will not come up to the Earth's surface by itself. It needs to be forced out by injections of very large amounts of water mixed with various chemicals through a process called “fracking.”

These new deposits and new extraction techniques have inflamed a passionate debate about the wisdom of trying to extract these energy sources. The energy companies, true to form, are telling us that this is a totally benign process. We have nothing to lose and a great deal of energy to gain. They promise gas to make us less dependent on foreign producers. They add that all this new drilling, building of pipelines, storing and distributing domestic gas supplies will create several hundred thousand new jobs. It will also provide us with cheaper energy.

The new gas and oil exploration is a complete and unmitigated bonanza for all of us, not just for the energy companies.

But not everyone believes this.

As the energy companies tell it, fracking has not polluted a single drinking water well or produced any other environmental problems. Against that, environmentally concerned organizations have produced maps of every documented occurrence of some environmental problem where natural gas has been produced by drilling wells and extracting the gas through fracking. Those maps show many problems.

Is someone telling us lies – once again?

Well, not quite. The energy companies use the word “fracking” to refer only to the process of forcing out the gas through pumping liquids and chemicals down the well. The gas is located at at about 8000 feet and, the energy company's spokespeople say, the liquids pumped to that depth will not get back into our water supplies. Well no, perhaps not. But there are plenty of documented cases where of the drilling had negative effects on drinking water supplies. It may not have been, strictly speaking, the fracking that did it but rather the drilling but that is cold comfort to the people whose water is no longer drinkable.

Fracking uses millions of barrels of clean water, that will no longer be available for drinking water or agricultural irrigation after it has been pumped into the deep shale deposits. What we know of the chemicals used in fracking is all bad news: a number of them are known carcinogens. “A 2011 investigation by the New York Times based on various leaked EPA documents found that hydraulic fracturing had resulted in significant increases of radioactive material including radium and carcinogens including benzene in major rivers and watersheds. At one site the amount of benzene discharged into the Allegheny River after treatment was 28 times accepted levels for drinking water.[40]” (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing) The energy companies tell us not to worry about those chemicals but no one knows what illnesses and birth defects fracking will produce in the long run.

We do know that drinking water wells in the vicinity of natural gas wells have been polluted. We know that some of the wells went up in flames. When wells have blown up, large amounts of fracking chemicals were released into the air. Scientific studies suggest that the environmental damage caused by burning natural gas is very serious.

The energy companies may be making a killing—and we and our children will be the victims.

Would you not rather put a windmill in your backyard or solar panels on your roof?