You have to look only a short distance behind the rhetoric to get to the fundamental issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing in the shale gas reserves around the U.S. The reasonable path is to finish the federal research, tightly regulate the drilling and push forward with innovations that could make shale gas the least objectionable option among a variety of unattractive options when it comes to the energy and environmental future of the U.S. Any hard look at the subject should include the overall greenhouse-gas footprint of shale gas, particularly now that a Cornell University research team has suggested the footprint is greater than anyone thought.
The highest priority is protecting groundwater and watersheds, especially in the sensitive areas of New York and Pennsylvania. The matter can be resolved only by shining the bright light of transparency onto the slurry mixes being propelled into the well bores. No right to proprietary trade secrets protects any information about substances being pumped into the earth, whether it is benzene or nutshells. Redesignating fracture drilling as a well-drilling activity that is subject to provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act seems like an entirely reasonable change. The resource will be recovered more slowly, but we've seen how things can go wrong in Pennsylvania and New York. We will just have to go more slowly.
A Bridge to a Carbon-less Future
That said, gas, safely recovered, can provide a bridge to what is still a largely distant future of reduced consumption as well as increased wind and solar power. We may be able to use shale gas, safely recovered, as a transitional fuel if honest and disinterested science and engineering guides us.
Last week's “Shale Game” cover story in ENR shows several promising approaches to cleaner hydraulic fracturing. In fact, just in the last few days, a manufacturer has introduced a drilling gel that the company claims will greatly reduce the volumes of fluid needed in the drilling process. However, more ideas are needed.
Prudently, the Obama administration has kept the door open to all sources of energy, including offshore oil drilling and nuclear power. In this age of deficit reduction, we think some of the billions in subsidies and guarantees that Congress has budgeted for the future of nuclear power would be money spent more wisely on federally sponsored hydraulic-fracturing research.
It is unlikely that even strenuous regulation and crystalline transparency will satisfy every hydrofracking opponent, especially those who see conspiracies behind attempts to use natural gas to solve the problems posed by our dependence on coal and gasoline. The more we know about hydrofracking, the more certain we will be about how great a role shale gas should play.