British scientists have declared hydraulic fracturing safe, and yet political opposition to shale and other fossil fuels rages. Ohio and New York have vigorously opposed shale drilling. Despite 2.6 quadrillion—that’s 2,600 trillion—cubic feet of natural gas that is buried under the U.S., which could easily solve many future energy concerns, many view hydraulic fracturing with fear. Natural gas now makes up about twenty-three percent of total global energy expenditure in BTUs, and it will become more important amidst oil price volatility.
Before the development of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing shale gas drilling was unproductive. But with the development of those two techniques extraction of gas increased by magnitudes. A water slurry containing sand, mud, and some common, but often toxic, commercial chemicals, is pressure washed into the well, forcing open fractures made in the shale, further increasing the surface area and permeability of the shale rock. Significant precautions are taken to prevent contamination of any water basin in the drilling area. However, like all of life, it involves some risk.
People have two concerns: earthquakes and groundwater contamination.
Recent studies produced by British scientists determined that while hydraulic fracturing does cause tremors they are so minor as not to pose a threat. They are likely to be around a 2 on the Richter scale, which humans can’t normally feel and is detectable only by scientific equipment. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that 1.3 million earthquakes from 2.0 to 2.9 on the Richter scale happen annually. We notice none of them. Similar tremors were reported in the past due to coal mining, yet concern was not great enough to cease operations.
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The more publicized concern is groundwater contamination, over which British scientists also show little worry.
No source has suggested that groundwater contamination comes from the actual fracturing process. Hydraulic fracturing happens thousands of feet below the aquifer water basin, so vertical contamination is extremely unlikely.
The concern is also not in drilling through aquifer water basins, as the precautions used are well proven. The American Petroleum Institute has determined risk of aquifer contamination to be in the millions to one range.
The more credible concern is that some hydro-fracturing fluid pumped out of the wells may escape via evaporation or rainwater runoff during storage. Complaints generally emanate from a small minority, specifically those for whom drinking water is supplied by a well, which is fed by rainwater before it reaches the water basin. It is important to note these individuals have not had their property violated, but only possibly affected, and have been offered compensation for any trouble they have been caused. Yet some complaints continue.
Some opponents of hydraulic fracturing dramatically ignite tap water, showing it contains methane contamination, and conclude that this proves contamination because of hydraulic fracturing. But this is nothing new. Reports of flammable water have existed for decades in regions where shale exists; some reports go back to the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, the hydro-fracturing fluid is proprietary and reusable, so there is significant incentive to keep track of it.
These two concerns about shale drilling have either been appropriately addressed or are not justified, but there can be great harm in stopping shale drilling. Inexpensive energy is necessary to a modern, industrialized society that makes long life and prosperity possible. The costs of shale drilling are small and easily addressed, but the capacity and abundance of natural gas is too big to pass up.