The spat between the EPA and Range Resources continues unabated. The EPA claims methane gas from the company’s natural gas operations in the Barnett Shale has contaminated water wells near Dallas. Range says no, the gas it taps is way too far underground to have affected the wells.
To be sure Range has a point. It’s difficult to sort out whether methane gas is making its way into the wells on its own, is coming from previously drilled and abandoned gas wells, or even coming from water-well drilling activities. But really, that’s where the problems with today’s fast-paced, almost desperate, gas drilling operations begin. There is not enough oversight of the activities of drillers and that means the environment will ultimately suffer, just as it has in the past when industry is left to police itself.
Drilling for natural gas these days uses a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, because the gas most drillers are going for is trapped in large deposits of shale, deep underground. You can read a related post here that provides an overview of the process. The usual complaints about contamination from the fracking process don’t center on methane gas contamination; they center on the chemicals used in the fracking operation.
Range goes to great lengths to explain the process it uses for drilling, including a description of the chemicals used. To its credit, Range lists the compounds and mixtures in use in its fracking operations (it doesn’t legally have to because of the “Halliburton Loophole” Congress added to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005) as these: hydrochloric acid; polyacrylamide; glutaraldehyde, ethanol, and methanol; and ethylene glycol, alcohol , and sodium hydroxide. It also admits that the mixtures can vary depending on geologic factors and additionally states that it “encourages all vendors to utilize the most environmentally friendly additives whenever technically possible.” Uncertain language like that, though, leads to more questions. Just how much latitude do the “vendors” have in the chemicals they use? Who polices the vendors?
It may be comforting to some to know that the solutions used in the fracking process are about 95 percent water. Others may scratch their heads at the amount of water being used particularly in these days of water contamination and water scarcity. Range writes that it uses about 4 million gallons of water per well. What many people don’t know, though, is much of that comes back to the surface, contaminated.
While many people focus on the potential of water wells and aquifers being contaminated by fracking, the real problem may lie above the soil. Much of the water used in the operation is returned to the surface where it has to be cleaned and then re-injected underground, or stored in tanks or containment ponds until it can be treated and returned to the environment. So while all these ponds, containment pits and tanks sit holding their contaminated liquids, and with one company alone drilling 4,000 wells a year, there is no indication just when, or how, the final cleanups will be done. In Ohio alone there were 1,972 pollution and contamination violations just in 2007, and another 2,000 violations with no record of being fixed. In one case an inspector found a containment tank with its valve opened, leading some to question whether it was an oversight, or intentional.
It’s clear we are in the Wild West again similar to an earlier era when oil was the coveted commodity.
Without stringent oversight of driller activities, there are even fewer reasons to trust things will be done right. Today, in a sort of sad desperation we are fouling our lands and our water because we still cannot come to grips with unchecked corporate power, and our inability to adjust to a future where our energy gluttony will no longer be possible. But, there is much more to this story that points to the way the ultimate contamination will play out. It involves more short-term profits, and a natural gas ponzi scheme that will leave a legacy of contamination that may never be cleaned up. More on that in another installment.