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Fracking: The controversy around hydraulic fracturing [The conversation]

July 1, 2011 |  2:33 pm

Fracking"Fracking," the term used for hydraulic fracturing, is a process that uses a combination of water, sand and chemicals to drill deep into the ground and blast apart rock formations to release natural gases.

If you aren't familiar with the process, ProPublica's music video can help get you caught up:

 

At issue Friday: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to remove the state's ban on hydraulic fracturing, permitting it in privately owned areas with other restrictions that would regulate the practice near water sources and state lands. Environmental groups have mixed feelings, stemming from fears about regulations, according to the New York Times.

Clearly, opponents are concerned about contamination from the chemicals that seep into drinking water. Anecdotes of faucet water that can be set on fire, filmy water and toxic waste pits from "fraccidents" cloud the potential benefits to be gained from the process; however, there is no concrete proof that the process is actually dangerous.

The technology is 60 years old but has only recently been used as a major breakthrough in natural gas drilling; in 2000, 1% of the U.S. gas supplies were from shale, the rock broken in fracking. Now the figure is 25%, according to the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ debunked a number of fracking fears: For example, fracking occurs thousands of feet underground, while water wells are just hundreds of feet deep -- and the two types of wells are separated by rock formations, so there's no threat of contamination, the Journal said. The article ends with this note to readers:

The question for the rest of us is whether we are serious about domestic energy production. All forms of energy have risks and environmental costs, not least wind (noise and dead birds and bats) and solar (vast expanses of land). Yet renewables are nowhere close to supplying enough energy, even with large subsidies, to maintain America's standard of living. The shale gas and oil boom is the result of U.S. business innovation and risk-taking. If we let the fear of undocumented pollution kill this boom, we will deserve our fate as a second-class industrial power.

Reason TV science correspondent Ronald Bailey said the fracking technology isn't the problem; it's poorly constructed cement pipe casing used to pump the gas out of the ground that causes contamination, as well as trucks transporting chemicals in -- essentially, poorly managed fracking sites. The process has huge benefits, he said, including reducing greenhouse gases and increased oil production; it's only becoming controversial now that it's moving to more heavily populated areas on the East Coast.

 

Texans throw another concern about fracking into the mix. While the state is caught in a severe drought, companies are pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground, only about 20% to 25% of which can be recovered, Think Progress reported. It is estimated the state used 13.5 billion gallons of water for fracking in 2010. Even Republican Gov. Rick Perry is concerned; he signed a bill that will require companies to disclose how much water they're putting into fracking. Think Progress reported:

Instead of using the plentiful amounts of non-potable water Texas has beneath its surface, these companies have decided to deprive the state of a valuable resource in a time of need. And for Texas, the problem is two-fold: not only is it losing its water, it's losing it to companies who use a process that may be so destructive and dirty, not even coal mining compares.

The debate came to California in February, when Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) introduced AB 591, which would require companies to disclose the chemicals  and amount of water used in fracking. The bill is modeled on similar legislation in Texas, which along with Wyoming, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Michigan has passed or are in the process of passing legislation. The Times' editorial board said in May that the bill was an important step to regulating fracking:

Requiring disclosure of potentially deadly chemicals released into the environment is an extremely modest step (indeed, it should be a federal responsibility). We understand the need to protect trade secrets, and wouldn't object if Wieckowski's bill were amended to afford the disclosure protections typically granted to polluters in California. But this bill is too important to be overlooked by our distracted Legislature.

Josh Fox, director of the recent documentar "Gaslands," wrote in a USA Today op-ed that fracking should be banned altogether because regulations just won't work with these companies.

This is not an industry that will reform itself based on small regulatory steps. This is not an industry that can police itself or be counted on to protect public health. Neither states nor the federal government have the resources to enforce regulations when the industry shows no remorse, culpability or willingness to cooperate.

-- Samantha Schaefer

RELATED:

Something in the water

Oscar voters tackle gas 'fracking' controversy

California bill would reveal chemicals in "fracking" process

Gul oil spill worsens -- but what about the safety of gas fracking?

Natural gas drilling and fracking protesters at Albright College in Pennsylvania in May. Credit: Jeremy Drey / Associated Press / Reading Eagle

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