Thursday, January 21, 2010

Front Page Fracking News

I awoke this morning to a front page article in the Wall Street Journal about the debate over hydraulic fracturing. The article results from the ExxonMobil/XTO hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, but it gives a pretty balanced description of the fracking process and the pros and cons. It also gets into some of the outrage from environmentalists.

One quote in the article struck me wrong:
"Whether it is the act of fracturing itself or the risk of contamination from related activities is somewhat beside the point, says Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has raised concerns about fracturing. 'Ultimately it's semantics. Somebody's water got contaminated,' she says."
Wrong.  It is not semantics.  Ms. Mall is referring to a leak from a poorly sealed well that allowed gas to seep into a water well in Dimock, PA, ultimately causing it to explode.  Yes, somebody's water got contaminated, but hydraulic fracturing did not cause that incident.  In this case, blaming it on "semantics" is a weak rhetorical tool when your argument is not supported by facts.

For some, the battle against fracking is a fight against the ghost of the Dark Lord, Dick Cheney.  It was in the infamously secretive creation of energy policy in 2005 when hydraulic fracturing's exemption from coverage by the Safe Water Drinking Act was renewed.  Having Exxon as a target has brought even more attention to the cause. 

The gas producers protecting fracking need to separate the concepts of the surface processes from the underground processes and submit to some more oversight of the surface activities.  Few argue that the act of fracturing deep underground causes groundwater problems.  The risk points are the handling of surface chemicals, the management of the water that returns to the surface and the treatment/recycling of that water.  Regulations already exist (mostly at the state level) to manage these processes.  I'm surprised the individual states are not more involved in the conversation.  I would have expected this to be a state/federal government turf war.  I guess the states are too busy licking their budgetary wounds to pick the fight. 

It is interesting to see how the battle is playing out in the environmental community.  I've noted in the past that the Sierra Club national organization is taking a bigger picture view of natural gas as a friendlier alternative to other fuels, especially coal.  But the local Sierra Club groups in the Northeast are fighting gas drilling.  The difference is seeing the forest for the trees.

Ultimately, this will be a battle won by economics.  Fracking will not be the "spotted owl" that prevents development of shale gas.  I think there will be some tighter regulation of the surface processes (hopefully at the state level) but the opportunity that natural gas presents for a better environment, more jobs and greater energy independence will rule the day.

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