I know of few environmental topics that engender more emotion than proposals to extract natural gas using hydraulic fracturing methods (fracking) to open up the pores in bedrock. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not in favor of an expanded use of fossil fuels from any source. We must get off the rich diet of carbon from fossil fuels if we are to avoid the worst of potential changes in our climate. Fracking promises that we will delay the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, because it can potentially supply inexpensive natural gas for another generation.
But I don’t think that the actual process of fracking itself is necessarily harmful, if it is carefully instituted and regulated following well-studied procedures to establish best practice. Indeed, the petroleum industries should encourage and embrace such regulation, for it would allow them to move forward with their business with greater public trust and less litigation, despite the fact that it might shave a few cents off the bottom line of their profits.
Various studies from earth scientists in Duke’s School of the Environment all point to contamination of surface and groundwaters when hydraulic fracking is performed without proper well-casings and careful attention to wastewater management. The most recent paper from the Duke group lists improper design of well casings and management of flowback waters as the major problems with hydraulic fracture methods. Those who wish to employ hydraulic fracking need to deal with the wastewaters they generate, and with each of the constituents, both natural and added, that are found in flowback waters.
Even though the methane generated from natural gas wells amounts to about 0.42 percent of total natural gas production, it too should be minimized. Methane contributes to the greenhouse warming of Earth’s atmosphere and is a pollutant that affects us all. Other hydrocarbons, such as ethane, are also emitted from natural gas operations. Since 2010, concentrations of ethane have increased from 7 to 15 percent of nonmethane hydrocarbons in the atmosphere downwind of certain gas-producing regions, increasing levels of ozone that is a well-known health hazard.
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In our effort to generate electricity, to the extent that natural gas replaces coal, we will lower our emission of various pollutants to the atmosphere – carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury. These are all laudable goals, but they should not be reached while tolerating widespread pollution of our surface waters. Nor should they be pursued to the exclusion of other sources of energy that might permanently eliminate our emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. A penny or two of royalties from natural gas production could offer substantial funding for the further development and implementation of solar, wind, tidal and geothermal power for our future.
From the beginning, George Mitchell, father of fracking technology and the fracking industry in Texas, urged the industry to embrace best-management practices, regulations and oversight of its activities. Unfortunately, North Carolina has largely dismantled any ability of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to monitor fracking activities and enforce regulations – a dangerous situation that faces us all.
William H. Schlesinger is James B. Duke professor and dean (emeritus) of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University