U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) have sent letters to eight energy companies questioning their use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production and seeking information about what chemicals they are using in the process.
Oil companies have been using hydraulic fracturing techniques for more than 50 years to release hydrocarbons from underground confinement. Only in the past few years, however, has the technology improved to the point where, combined with advances in parallel drilling, it can be applied to natural gas production.
The results have been nothing short of spectacular and have made obsolete many long-held assumptions about domestic energy resources. Once considered too costly to exploit, shale-gas production in the United States grew from less than a billion cubic feet a day in 1998 to about five billion cubic feet per day last year.
Through the use of hydraulic fracturing, the United States overtook Russia in 2009 to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas. The recent discovery of large shale deposits in several U.S. states promises even more natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing.
Fissures Allow Gas Recovery
To recover hydrocarbons via hydraulic fracturing, a highly pressurized, highly focused stream of sand-water mix is used to create a fissure in rock formations to allow oil and natural gas to rise to the surface. Sand and water constitute more than 99 percent of the mix that is blasted to create rock fissures, although trace chemicals are also included in the mix.
Some environmental activists claim the process contaminates drinking water, although industry analysts note hydraulic fracturing is typically employed at least a mile below the water table, which precludes water table contamination.
The huge Marcellus Shale, a rich deposit of natural gas located in the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, is experiencing a boom in natural gas drilling thanks to hydraulic fracturing technology. Shale formations in Texas and Louisiana are also producing natural gas with the assistance of hydraulic fracturing, and geologists have located promising gas fields in Illinois and Michigan.
EPA Finds Minimal Threat
Hydraulic fracturing was given a clean bill of health by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2004 after a four-year study by the agency concluded the technology posed “little or no threat” to drinking water.
Also, at a December 2009 hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, officials from EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey said they know of no cases in which ground water has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing.
“The Obama administration has it right: there are no documented cases of ground water contamination from hydraulic fracturing,” said Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) after the hearing. “Hydraulic fracturing is a safe production technique that is thoroughly regulated by the states. We have a 60 year history to prove it.”
“The U.S. has an abundance of coal, natural gas, and oil reserves that can be accessed to decrease our importation of foreign sources of fuel,” said former Virginia governor and senator George Allen, chairman of the American Energy Freedom Center. “Hydraulic fracturing is an example of a proven, safe method of extracting valuable natural gas for domestic use in manufacturing goods and heating homes.
“The states have demonstrated appropriate oversight of this process, so there is no justification for federal bureaucrats to interfere with its production and delay access to those resources and technologies that will fuel our economy,” Allen added.
Allen says the process has great economic and national security advantages for the United States.
“As Americans, we should safely utilize our plentiful coal, natural gas, and oil reserves in a cost-effective manner that will rebuild our economy and return job growth to the states. Politicians in Washington should stand aside and let proven technology in the marketplace work to restore jobs and not impose restrictions that will force us to import more imported liquefied natural gas [LNG] from the new foreign LNG cartel,” Allen explained.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]), is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.