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The Fate of Fossil Fuels

It hasn't been a good month for fossil fuels in the U.S.  First, the massive (and still gushing) crude oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico had the federal government impose a 6-month moratorium on deep-water drilling (though a federal judge in New Orleans just overturned that moratorium).  The spill has people from President Obama to Thomas Friedman to Bill Gates imploring that we reduce our dependence on oil.

Then a debate that has been raging below the headlines came to the surface this week as the documentary film Gasland, which won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, aired on HBO.  The film highlights controversy over the process of extracting natural gas from shale - known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

There's a great diagram of the fracking process here, but basically it involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to break up rocks and release natural gas.

Proponents tout the benefits of fracking - natural gas is a "cleaner" way to produce energy than coal is, and by some estimates there may be enough natural gas trapped in the country's shale to supply us for 100 years.  Opponents cite exploding tap water and a long list of chemicals infused into the ground during the fracking process, many of which are reportedly appearing in people's well water.

My brother, Jay and his family live in Arlington, Texas.  You can see three gas rigs from his property and he told me that another drilling rig was recently sited "unbelievably close" to the WalMart near his home (he promised to send pictures). Fortunately, in the urban area where he lives, fracking has not resulted in contamination of the groundwater. He did, however, mention that there have been reports of minor earthquakes nearby, with some speculation that re-injection of the fracking wastewater into deep underground wells might be a contributing factor.

A 2004 study by the EPA found hydraulic fracturing to be a safe practice.  In light of the recent reports that suggest fracking is anything but safe, the agency recently announced that it will conduct a new study, estimated to be complete by 2010.

So now what?

It won't come as a surprise if you read my blog very often that I think the answer lies in balance.  I do think that producing our energy in cleaner, more sustainable ways is a good thing.  Natural gas as a fuel source is a relatively clean fossil fuel alternative.  I believe traditional fuels like coal, natural gas, and crude oil products still have their place - and that there are ways to extract these resources more cleanly and more safely (see WANTED: 100,000 Innovators in 100,000 Garages).

In a March piece in Scientific American, titled "What the Frack? Natural Gas from Subterranean Shale Promises U.S. Energy Independence -- With Environmental Costs" David Biello writes that "Ultimately, shale gas extraction - and the hydraulic fracturing that goes with it - will have to be done right."

I can only believe that if we can put men on the moon and a rover on Mars, we can figure out a way to drill for crude oil a mile below the ocean's surface and extract natural gas from shale.  Safely.  Without destroying our environment, polluting our water, or making our pets and kids sick. 

I want to make my point here abundantly clear: I'm not saying that we shouldn't use natural gas as an energy source - there's absolutely no indication that using natural gas to generate electricity or using it in our homes to power our water heaters and laundries is unsafe.  And, in fact, natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels.  I'm not even saying that we shouldn't use hydraulic fracturing to extract vast stores of natural gas.  What I am saying is that however we extract fossil fuels like natural gas and oil we should - and we can - do it safely and cleanly.

It's the responsibility of businesses that want to benefit from selling that crude oil and natural gas to develop ways to extract them safely and cleanly.  It's the responsibility of the government to regulate those businesses (with powerful disincentives for bad behavior) to ensure that we can have our cake - or fossil fuels - and drink our water and eat our shrimp too.

 What's your take?  Write a comment below -- no registration required.

 


Written on Thursday, 24 June 2010 12:15 by Gary Yaquinto

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