DRIESSEN: Facts, not fears, should govern fracking

Misleading claims about shale gas development do not serve the public interest

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It’s been called a “game changer” for good reason. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is being used successfully in the United States and elsewhere to coax oil and natural gas from shale and other rock formations that previously refused to yield their hydrocarbon riches.

In less than two years, this old but rapidly advancing technology has obliterated long-standing claims that we are running out of petroleum. Instead, the United States finds itself blessed with centuries of oil and gas.

By making more natural gas available, fracking has reduced the price for this clean-burning fuel to less than $3 per thousand cubic feet (or million Btu), compared to $8 a few years ago.

Natural gas also is supplanting coal for electricity generation. Because of excessive new EPA regulations, many U.S. coal-fired power plants are shutting down. Replacement plants are far more likely to be gas-powered than nuclear, especially in the near term.

That makes heating and electricity more affordable for families, hospitals, government buildings and businesses and makes feedstocks less expensive for makers of plastics, fabrics and other petrochemical products. It also translates into thousands of jobs created or saved.

Although few environmentalists will acknowledge it, natural gas also provides essential backup power generation for intermittent wind and solar projects. Without such backup, electricity generation associated with those projects will plummet to zero 70 percent to 80 percent of the time.

However, cheap natural gas also makes it much harder to justify building redundant wind turbines and solar panels, which require large subsidies to generate far more expensive electricity just five to eight hours a day, on average, while killing large numbers of raptors, migratory birds and bats.

Amid these positive developments, the Sierra Club and other environmental pressure groups are spreading unfounded fears about this proven technology. Using words like “reckless,” “dangerous” and “poisonous,” they say unregulated companies are operating with little concern for ecological values and causing cancer, earthquakes and groundwater contamination.

The claims have fanned borderline hysteria and prompted Maryland, New York and other states to launch drawn-out studies or impose moratoriums that will postpone drilling and the benefits it would bring. Facts are sorely needed.

Drilling and fracking have been regulated carefully and effectively by states for decades. As studies by the University of Texas and various state agencies have documented, there never has been a confirmed case of groundwater contamination caused by fracking. Even Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson acknowledged that to a congressional panel.

These analysts, drilling companies and even an Environmental Defense Fund expert now say fracking has not played a role in any of the rare cases where methane has gotten into drinking water.

Instead, the cause generally has been a failure of “well integrity” - the result of improper cementing between the well borehole and the steel “casing” and pipes that go down through aquifers and thousands of feet deeper into gas-laden shale formations.

The solution is rather straightforward: better standards and procedures for cementing vertical pipes in place, and testing them initially and periodically to ensure there are no leaks.

Fracking fluids likewise fail to match the “toxic” and “cancerous” opprobrium alleged by anti-drilling campaigns. More than 99.5 percent of the fluids consist of water and sand. The other 0.5 percent is chemicals to keep sand particles suspended in the liquid, fight bacterial growth and improve gas production.

Although industrial chemicals once were used, almost all of today’s are vegetable oil and chemicals used in cheese, beer, canned fish, dairy desserts, shampoo and other food and cosmetic products.

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