Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the extraction of natural gas from rock thousands of feet below ground, is the latest point of strain in the energy-versus-environment tug of war. We side with those who focus on the technique’s promise.

As long as the wells and wastewater pits are carefully built and maintained, fracking can be a relatively clean and safe way to obtain natural gas. Because natural gas can reduce U.S. consumption of crude oil and coal, it can lessen dependence on Mideast oil and significantly reduce greenhouse gases and acid rain.

The U.S. possesses an estimated 827 trillion cubic feet of gas available for extraction from rock, enough to meet current natural gas consumption for 35 years. The U.S. uses about 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year, mostly for electricity production and home heating, but cars and trucks, the biggest consumers of oil, could also be configured to run on natural gas.

Plus, fracking creates jobs for people who do the drilling and build and service the rigs and pipelines. Salaries are relatively high, ranging from $28,000 for roustabouts to almost $100,000 for engineers. And the jobs are especially needed in regions that overlie the country’s most expansive deposits, the Marcellus Shale -- in eastern Ohio and Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, upstate New York and West Virginia -- which holds some 262 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

Pennsylvania’s Experience

In Pennsylvania alone, fracking generated more than $11 billion in economic activity and more than $1 billion in state taxes last year, according to research done for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an alliance of shale gas drillers.

Those who worry that fracking can contaminate water sources have legitimate concerns. The well-drilling process involves digging straight down and then turning horizontally to bore into the layer of shale that contains natural gas. Then, huge amounts of water mixed mainly with sand but also with an assortment of chemicals are pumped at enough pressure to create fissures in the rock, so the gas flows through to the well.

Because the shale is thousands of feet down -- far below aquifers -- the gas and chemicals can be kept away from drinking water sources during the fracturing process. But the chemicals, including such toxic substances as benzene, toluene and xylene, can escape into the environment a number of ways.

Radioactive Elements

One possible point of leakage is the well. Once the shale is fractured, tens of thousands of gallons of water flow back to the surface, carrying with it the drilling chemicals and sometimes small amounts of radioactive elements that occur naturally below ground. If the well casing is not water-tight, some of the flowback can seep from it.

If feasible, the wastewater is pumped back deep underground. If not, it is poured into pits before removal by truck for treatment and recycling. If storage pits are not lined properly, or the waste is not correctly disposed of, extraction chemicals can find their way into drinking water.

Increasingly, environmental groups and property owners are charging that chemicals used in fracking are turning up in wells and other water sources.

Need to Know

Fracking is clearly a process that requires regulation. The public needs to know what chemicals are being used. Officials do, too -- in case they have to search for the source of suspected contamination. Proper monitoring is necessary to ensure that drilling and waste management are done safely.

So who should oversee regulation? At the moment, the burden is on state governments. Energy companies say this is ideal, because it allows states to take into account geologic differences and customize laws accordingly. But geology has had little to do with the environmental problems that have arisen so far. Well construction and disposal of waste are where the problems have been.

What’s more, state regulators are scrambling to keep up with the fracking boom. The result is a national checkerboard of regulations to protect water, a resource that flows freely across state lines. Then there’s that not insignificant matter of fraying state budgets.

Oversight Needed

All of which leads to an inescapable conclusion: Federal oversight is needed, to provide minimum, uniform rules that protect drinking water everywhere. This will require an adjustment to federal law.

In general, the Environmental Protection Agency, in managing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, regulates underground fluid injections. However, a 2005 amendment to the Act exempts injections related to oil or gas production, unless they involve the use of diesel (which is just one of about 750 chemicals and other components that suppliers use in their fracking mixes).

U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, proposes to close this loophole by allowing the EPA to regulate the actual fracturing process. The proposal would require drillers to disclose to authorities the names and volumes of chemicals they use. To protect proprietary formulas, only the chemicals, not the volumes, would be made public.

Management of fracking waste falls under the federal Clean Water Act, which also needs tightening. An exemption that prevents the EPA from restricting runoff from oil-and-gas industry wastewater pits after rainstorms should be lifted.

Given the boom in shale gas drilling, the EPA can’t possibly police it all and will have to depend on state agencies for inspections and enforcement. But the EPA must have more authority to set national standards for the states to follow.

To be sure, shale gas is not a perfect fuel. But then there is no such thing. Compared with coal and oil, gas burns relatively cleanly. Shale gas can help wean us from the dirtier fuels. And it can do so without polluting the water, while lessening dependence on imported oil.

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