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The Green Life: What the Frack?

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January 31, 2012

What the Frack?

Bob Schildgen is Mr GreenHey Mr. Green,

In your recent blog about the best clothes dryer options, why didn’t you talk about the environmental damage from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract natural gas from shale, instead of pushing natural gas. Fracking poisons people and their water.

Tyler, in Fayetteville, Arkansas

Thanks to you—and other smart readers—who have reprimanded me for failing to note the downside of fracking for natural gas. For those unfamiliar with the fracking process, it involves drilling way down—sometimes two miles or more—and injecting massive amounts of water along with chemicals to bust up layers of shale rock to release natural gas (methane) trapped by it. This technique has raised a number of serious concerns, because it requires massive amounts of water; may pollute groundwater with the chemicals; damages the surface environment; and leaks methane, a major global warming gas. Consequently, bans on fracking have been debated or enacted in places as disparate as New Jersey and Bulgaria, while a number of regulations have been proposed in different states to address these issues—so many, that the Sierra Club has a list of them  so you can track what’s going in your own location, and get involved if you wish.

Among the common chemicals the industry admits using are hydrochloric acid, glutaraldehyde N,n-dimethyl formamide, petroleum distillates, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), and naphthalene (mothballs). They don’t tell us what else is in the fracking stew, and claim that chemicals are safely stashed way below the water table. But water still containing the chemicals after recovery from drilling sits in giant open ponds that hold millions of gallons too toxic to release.

Already, 25 percent of the natural gas comes from shale, according to Chevron, and some experts predict that eventually 80 percent will be frack-extracted. Aside from the possible chemical hazards that are not fully understood, there’s the global warming issue. We don’t even really know how much methane, a powerful global warming gas, escapes in the drilling process. One study claims that leakage accounts for somewhere between one to two-fifths of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, while others dispute it. As Bill Chemeides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environmental Studies put it, “The bottom line here is: The dearth of data on fugitive emissions means we need to get busy getting these data to resolve this issue.” Anybody who remembers when pesticides and nuclear power were widely hailed as miraculous, should have the sense to demand that we err on the side of caution instead of plowing ahead before we really know what on—and in—Earth we’re doing.

But I certainly wasn’t “pushing” natural gas. A precious resource, it should be used sparingly. In fact, I was simply showing how you’d actually use less natural gas in a gas dryer than if your dryer’s heat relied on electricity that was generated by burning natural gas, because a lot of the gas’s heat energy is lost in the process of generating electricity. I also encouraged readers to see if their power company offered a renewable energy alternative, so that they could bypass fossil fuel entirely for their electric power. And it goes without saying that, in view of the fact that countries such as Italy and Germany use only half the electricity per capita as North America, millions of households could drastically cut their use without affecting their quality of life. 

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