Hydraulic fracturing provides method to extract gas from rocks, could potentially harm people
Article courtesy by Paul Solin | February 17th 2013 | The Daily Targum
Although the demand for energy resources is high, methodologies used to extract these resources could potentially be harmful to both people and the environment.
About 50 people attended the “Hydraulic Fracturing of Shale and Water Quality” lecture sponsored by the Rutgers Energy Institute yesterday at the Wright-Rieman Auditorium on Busch Campus to listen to a seminar by Pennsylvania State University Professor Susan L. Brantley about her research on hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing is a mining technique energy companies have used since the ’40s to extract natural gas from rocks, and is utilized especially in places like Pennsylvania where Brantley said she has done most of her work.
Pennsylvania has utilized newer high-pressure techniques since 2004, she said.
Methane is the natural gas that companies mine for energy. Methane is created when organic matter is trapped and processed underground between rocks over the span of 260 to 389 million years, she said.
The United States Energy Information Administration estimates a total of 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable methane in the U.S., Brantley said. Sixty percent of it is located in low permeable rock formations, which are hard substances that are difficult to drill through.
The biggest of these is the Marcellus formation, found throughout New York and Pennsylvania, she said. Gas found at these sites could satisfy U.S. energy demands for 20 years.
Companies drill thousands of feet into the ground and pour cement into a well so that gas does not escape into the water supply. But Brantley said the drilling alone could also cause complications.
A mixture of roughly 94 percent water, five percent sand, and less than one percent of chemicals and other additives are used in the fracturing process to separate rock layers of varying depth below the earth’s surface, she said.
Each company uses a different proprietary mix of these “frack fluids” to draw the gas up from the wells, which include ingredients such as walnut shells and coffee grounds, she said.
Sometimes gas and water in the rocks overflow and are pumped to surface, Brantley said. Saltwater flows back up through rock fractures as a result of the mining.
The number of wells in development has grown rapidly in the past decade, including new areas where people are not used to seeing these kinds of operations, she said. Public pushback has been significant — about 3,000 reports of land spills over the past decade.
The number of violations reported has scaled down compared to the number of new sites created in recent years, she said.
Many communities and environmentalists also expressed concern about water contamination from the chemicals and other environmental detriments. Fracking caused a stir of controversy last December, when a tractor-trailer driving through Salladsburg, Pa. spilled fracking fluid into a nearby watershed, she said.
John Reinfelder, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, said he is concerned about fracking’s effect on the environment.
“We’re creating a situation where we’re trading cleaning up air pollution with creating water pollution,” he said.
The government only filed two official cases of contamination created by fracking. The first was issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1987 but was later dismissed as inaccurate, Brantley said. Another case concerning a site in Pavillion, Wyo. is ongoing, Brantley said.
Penn State researchers have published studies on fracking and discovered that 23 percent of private wells had contaminants before drilling, she said, but a separate study suggested the number could be as high as 85 percent.
The statistical gap is probably the result of the United State’s diversity of topographies, varying enough to make a general assumption about the flow of contaminants inconclusive, she said.
Brantley said she and other researchers have teamed up with government agencies such as the National Science Foundation to build the Shale Network, a database that shares information about ground water quality in affected communities.
Ben Jellen, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences graduate student, said University students should be concerned about this issue as well.
“This is obviously a national issue about energy,” he said. “We really can’t say no to everything — fracking, the keystone pipeline … we’ve got to say yes to something.”