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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wall Street Journal on Fracking

I'm not a huge fan of the Wall Street Journal. I don't go out of my way to read it. So it was pretty odd that on Tuesday, March 13, as I was taking my mom grocery shopping, I spotted this above-the-fold headline in the supermarket's display rack:

Faulty Wells, Not Fracking, Blamed for Water Pollution


Yes, of course, I thought. Blame the water wells for letting themselves get contaminated. I decided I would look the article up when I got home.

I found was wrong in my original assumption.

(The article can be found here. If it's behind a paywall, Google the terms wall street journal fracking wells and open up the cached copy of the article.)

A. Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund who is working with Mr. Boling, agreed. "The groundwater pollution incidents that have come to light to date have all been caused by well construction problems," he said.

Both men are calling for a stronger set of standards for well construction, including better cementing and more testing to ensure that wells and cement have no leaks.

Cement failures have long plagued the industry. Mr. Anderson estimates that cement in about one in 10 wells fails to work properly and requires remedial work. 
The wells being referred to in this article are not drinking water wells, but the natural gas wells themselves. To massively simplify the process, fracking works like this: a deep shaft is drilled into levels of shale far belowground, deep beneath water tables. The shaft turns horizontally to get between shale layers, and a proprietary mixture of water and chemicals is injected into the shaft to shatter the shale and displace the natural gas trapped within. The gas, along with prehistoric water and some residual chemicals from the fracking process, is pumped to the surface through the well, where the gas is extracted and the chemically-contaminated water is put in evaporation ponds.

The problem, according to the Wall Street Journal article, is not from contamination that happens when the mixture of water and chemicals is pumped into the shale layer, since (the industry maintains) this is well below the level of the water table and is isolated from it. (This position is widely disputed, as the article points out.) The problem occurs when the gas/water/chemical mixture is being pumped to the surface. As it goes there it is transported through all of the higher levels of rock, including the water table itself. Cracks in poorly-constructed well casings allow the gas  and chemicals to migrate out of the well and into the layers above, contaminating the soil and the water table around the well and creating the effects that residents around gas drilling sites have experienced.

So, see? Fracking isn't to blame. It's totally innocent.

This seems to me to be a distinction without a difference. A Ford Pinto, for example, is a totally safe car. Crash into it from behind and it won't burn - provided there's no gasoline in it. If you add gasoline, that's a whole other matter. The gasoline is to blame, not the Pinto. Don't be hating on the Pinto for something it didn't do!

The Army Corps of Engineers, in the weeks following the September 2011 floods, declared that Northeastern Pennsylvania has some of the most complex and bewildering geology they had ever encountered. So to accept that companies that have studied fracking in Oklahoma and Texas can declare that fracking in Pennsylvania is completely safe, despite the lack of long-term studies, is naive at best. But even if we accept that assertion, we are faced with the reality that the Wall Street Journal, hardly a mouthpiece for environmentalism, has declared that many natural gas wells themselves are poorly constructed and are leaking toxic chemicals into the environment and poisoning the groundwater supplies for nearby residents. With thousands of natural gas wells in Pennsylvania alone, the industry has its work cut out for it if it is serious about protecting the environment.

1 comment:

Don Williams said...

DB: Problem is, the only thing the natural gas industry is serious about is making money. They do not care about the environment. Good post.