One of the half-truths that fracking proponents like to put forward is, “There’s nothing new about fracking. It’s proven technology that’s been around for over half a century.” That’s true — as far as it goes.
What they fail to say is that innovations in horizontal drilling and the injection of chemicals into shale to capture embedded oil and gas are what has driven the current oil and gas drilling boom all over the United States. These developments have enabled companies to drill nearly everywhere, so that over 15 million people in the United States now live within a mile of an oil or gas well.
The problem is that we’ve let the oil and gas companies get way out ahead of us in deploying these technologies. We don’t regulate them, we don’t inspect wells, and as a result corporations have been able to treat our country as their personal playground. We’ve documented the results here at length — communities are being damaged by a technology that just isn’t safe enough to be deployed in people’s back yards.
There are people who I admire greatly who argue that we shouldn’t allow fracking at all. They argue that fracking just delays investment in alternative energy, and we don’t have the time to waste on fossil fuel development. They also contend that there’s no way to control oil and gas drilling enough to make it safe, and they have decades of evidence of government bending to the will of the oil and gas industry to support their argument.
I agree with these arguments and support their efforts. We need to work toward an end to fossil fuels.
But the focus of this blog is local, on south central Montana. The oil and gas industry is looking lustfully at our back yard — at MY back yard — and we need to be hard focused on protecting our community and preserving our way of life in any way possible while we’re pushing toward long-term goals.
One of the things that bothers me most is the rush to extract oil and gas and put heavy industry in people’s back yards when the technology is just not safe. We’ve written over and over here about how much water is used in the process, we’ve cited repeated examples of water contamination, of air pollution that damages community health, of the long-term harm done to communities who succumb to the allure of instant riches. No matter how much the O&G industry denies it, rational people can’t dispute these things. Our federal and state politicians want the benefits now, no matter what is left behind when they are out of office.
But the shale isn’t going anywhere. Why should we subject our community to unnecessary risk when there are some promising technological advances on the horizon that would make fracking less risky. There are many in the literature, but here are a few mentioned by Patrick Kiger at Scientific American:
Fracking without water: A Calgary-based company called GasFrac‘s has developed a system of fracking that uses a gelled fluid containing propane. According to the company, this fluid eliminates the need for water, retains sand better than water, and eliminates the drainage and disposal of contaminated wastewater because the fluid merges into flow being extracted from the ground.
Using recycled water: One of the huge problems with the current generation of fracking is that it uses large amounts of fresh water in areas of the country where drought has become a perennial issue, largely because of global warming. Industry reseach has shown that it is possible to develop friction-reducing additives that would allow operators to use recycled “gray” water or brine pumped from underground.
Eliminating diesel fumes. The diesel-powered equipment used in drilling and pumping wells can be a worrisome source of harmful pollutants such as particulates, as well as carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Some companies have already powered entire jobs using natural gas instead of diesel.
Treating wastewater. A major source of risk is flowback, the fluid that returns to the surface through the well bore is the toxic mixture of chemically treated frac water and the naturally occurring chemicals from the rock formation below. This water needs to be stored on site and/or shipped elsewhere for disposal at injection wells. Companies are now developing on-site treatment technologies to remove particles from the water, or that allow water to be reused without being diluted with fresh water.
Plugging methane leaks. Methane emissions are a major downside to fracking operations. We recently wrote that they are much greater than imagined, and, as we’ve seen in North Dakota, as much as 37% of the gas produced in oil operations is burned, or flared, into the atmosphere. A lot of methane emissions could be stopped simply by inspecting wells and requiring that bolts be tightened as required. But newer technologies that involve infrared cameras that spot methane leaks could make a big difference in methane reduction.
Many will say that describing these technologies as beneficial amounts to nothing more than “greenwashing” — they are simply a way to take an unacceptable practice and make it seem more acceptable by dressing it up in green clothing.
I believe they are fundamentally right on a global level.
We need to protect our local community
But when it’s your community that’s looking at being overrun, risk reduction is a very real and important concept. Our elected officials have no business putting their communities at risk when there are better technologies on the horizon.
What they need to do is pass local ordinances that enforce land use planning to protect water and landowner property rights. These are the kinds of things they should consider:
- Require the use of best practices that maximize the use of new technologies to minimize risk
- Allow only the number of wells that will protect homes from undue risk of contamination and air pollution
- Define well design standards to reduce the risk of water contamination
- Require baseline water testing for all wells within a reasonable radius of a well, and ongoing water testing to determine if contamination has occurred
- Examine potential environmental impacts before drilling occurs.