William Kim

Staff Writer

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is a booming industry. Natural gas from shale was 10 percent of production in 2007; by 2010 it was 30 percent. The Energy Information Administration predicts that production of shale gas will increase to 44 percent of the total by 2040. By 2035, the share of shale gas will be 60 percent of domestic energy production.

Fracking is the use of pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals to break up shale and extract the gas inside.

Fracking has some major benefits. Natural gas is relatively abundant in the United States. An MIT report estimates that there is enough natural gas in the US to last 92 years at 2011 levels. Shale gas is a large part of this, increasing the size of reserves in the US by nearly 50 percent. Domestic natural gas prices are now lower than at any time in the recent past and the US will be a net natural gas exporter by 2020, largely due to fracking.

Being able to export natural gas would have significant economic benefits due to the fact that gas prices in Asia and Europe are five to seven times higher than those in the US. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the US would gain $4 billion annually from such trade. The exports would also have an added geopolitical benefit.

Currently, Ukraine and the European Union are heavily reliant on Russia for gas. Russia supplies about one third of the EU’s gas and more than two thirds of Ukraine’s. This has made it more difficult for them to respond to the Crimean crisis. Natural gas from the US could severely undercut Putin’s influence.

Additionally, the domestic economic benefits are substantial. IHS Global Insight asserts that 600,000 people are directly employed by the natural gas industry and another 2.2 million jobs are sustained indirectly by natural gas. Wood Mackenzie estimates that natural gas could create 1.5 million jobs and add $800 billion in tax revenue by 2030.

Natural gas also has many environmental benefits. It emits half as much CO2 as coal and uses 60 percent less water to produce. It also reduces other pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The 12 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2012 has been largely attributed to increased use of natural gas. Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel and is a key bridge towards a green energy economy.

Some of the environmental benefits are offset by methane leakage that takes place during extraction. However, an EPA study found that even if leakage rates increased by 50 percent, natural gas would still remain environmentally advantageous in relative terms.

However, fracking does have many downsides. The process uses large amounts of water. On average, a single well requires 7.5 million gallons of water.The EPA estimates that fracking in the United States in 2010 used between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water. That number is likely to increase as fracking accounts for a greater share of natural gas productions.

Water is likely to become scarcer as time goes on due to climate change and population growth (some experts are already referring to it as “blue gold”). More importantly, many of the areas where fracking takes place are prone to drought, such as my home state of Texas.

The water used in fracking cannot be recycled due to contaminants. It cannot even be used for fracking new wells.

At least 20 percent of the fracking water returns to the surface, carrying ancient seabed salts, drilling chemicals, and even radioactive returns to the surface. This water, called flowback, damages the environment and can contaminate drinking water.

Waterless fracking could be a major-game changer for the environment. A new method uses a thick gel made from propane instead of water. This method is called Liquefied Propane Gel (LPG) fracking, or gas fracking.

Unlike water, LPG vaporizes underground due to heat and pressure and returns to the surface with the natural gas. The benefits are two fold. First, LPG can be reused or resold. Second, LPG does not carry contaminants back to the surface. LPG also helps reduce CO2 emissions because its transport is much less energy intensive than that of water.

Furthermore, there are economic benefits to using LPG. Although LPG is more expensive than water, the cost is more than made up for by the fact that companies don’t have to handle and dispose of contaminated water. Furthermore, a pilot test in Colorado found that LPG significantly increased natural gas production.

LPG has already been used 1,000 times since 2008. Thus, it can be adopted without developing new technology.

However, the drilling community has been hesitant to adopt LPG. This is due to the fact that the infrastructure for water is already in place and the drilling industry is very conservative.

One way to promote LPG would be to have environmental organizations list companies that use LPG instead of water. This would incentivize companies to adopt waterless fracking for PR purposes.

Furthermore, the government could offer subsidies and tax incentives to use LPG and reduce the up front cost of moving away from water.

This wouldn’t eliminate all harms associated with fracking. Increased seismic activity is also associated with fracking, and this concern proves more difficult to address. However, these earthquakes are 2.7-4.0 on the Richter scale, which is very small.

Fracking in its current form has many benefits and also many costs. Waterless fracking could provide all the benefits of fracking without the environmental damage.



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