Yesterday I was interviewed on an energy-related television show about natural gas drilling in the U.S. and some viewers thought I was too pro-drilling, others thought I was too anti-drilling. My reaction to that is: PERFECT! That was precisely my intention – to be a balanced voice in the discussion of hydraulic fracturing (HF). HF may be an important process to extract what may be a cleaner-burning fuel source for our country; but if it is developed, adverse impacts for gas drilling must be reduced to assure public safety and to protect the environment.
Currently, the environmental impact of natural gas development is unacceptably high. From polluted water wells in Pennsylvania to an exploding home in Ohio, there are numerous recent examples of environmental disasters from natural gas production.
I said in the interview that HF can be used safely “IF” it is regulated more closely and companies are more transparent about the fluids they use. Regulation may be done state by state, but if states aren’t up to the task, it will need to be regulated at the federal level. So industry needs to step up to the plate and improve its practices. While there are issues with HF, many of the problems with gas are more widespread. A framework is needed that focuses on well construction and operation that goes beyond even HF to broader well construction issues and cementing. Additional issues that must be addressed include getting the cement and pipes right in the wells, and proper management of pressure. Additionally, for hydraulically fractured wells it is important to be sure wells are situated beneath a satisfactory cap rock — one or more layers of rock that's sufficient to prevent toxic chemicals from migrating into drinking water. Some areas are so important, such as drinking supplies for cities, that they need to be off-limits for fracking.
If natural gas is to fulfill its potential, we need much cleaner drilling practices. Results will be gauged by the improved health and safety of citizens and the earth in the short and long term. Stay tuned for more discussion on this vital topic.