See also: The High Cost Of Cheap Gas.
As natural gas production fans out from America to the United Kingdom, Poland, and now South Africa, real questions remain about it’s long-term benefits and especially its long term effects. The latest research suggests that it is much more damaging than previously thought, both to the people around these sites and the environment which supports them. Misinformation campaigns and a lack of clear knowledge about the process have indirectly colluded, making it hard for people to understand what the real costs of this type of development are. Does the current price of $11.87 per million BTUs cover the damage that the extraction of it will cost in the long term?
Natural gas production in shale formations consists of essentially three stages. Drilling is done with huge rigs like the ones used to drill oil wells. The rig drills many wells from one pad, as close as a few meters away, using directional drilling techniques to fan out the wells like an octopus from the drill pad as much as ten kilometers away in any direction horizontally. Companies like Shell say they have been drilling and hydraulic fracturing safely for sixty years, but this is misrepresenting the facts. Horizontal drilling is new and only came into industrial use about twenty years ago in Texas and Colorado.
Once the drilling is complete, the rig is taken away and service trucks bring millions of liters of water, sand and chemicals to the site where they are mixed and injected under great pressure in a process called hydraulic fracturing, also called hydrofracturing or simply fracking. At roughly two thousand to four thousand meters deep, past where the drill hole becomes horizontal, the pipes have holes where this extreme pressure drives the fluid into the shale and cracks it, releasing the methane gas and other chemicals.
Once the wells from the pad have been fracked, some 20-80% of the millions of liters of polluted water mixed with fracking fluids return up the well shaft to the surface where the toxic liquid must be disposed of, often in settling ponds next to the drill pad where the liquids and volatile compounds can evaporate into the air. The rest of the mixture remains in the well, the silica sand propping open the cracks and the chemicals slowly leaching away into the ground or coming up with the methane and dirty water.
For the 8 to 20 year life of the well, trucks must take away this polluted waste mixture that emerges with the gas. This waste can be 50% of everything coming up the well, mostly volatile organic compounds mixed with polluted water and the remains of the fracking chemicals.
The potential problems with this process are not just relegated to the fracking of the well, as many believe, but every aspect of production. The most clear danger is when fracking fluids and trapped gas leak out of the sides of the well shaft into the water table though cracked well casings. Dr. Van Tonder, a geohydrologist from South Africa’s University of the Free State explains that when they frack the wells so close to one another, the small earthquakes cause the cement well casings to crack, and the deep water and trapped gas will migrate up through these cracks and into the drinking water aquifer. “In 50 to 100 years, all the wells will leak, this is a given”.
The fracking chemicals are mixed on the surface and stored in large ponds that must be very carefully insulated from leakage, which is sometimes not done. Colorado energy analyst Randy Udall says, “We don’t have a clear idea, is this water really being safely handled? and clearly in some circumstances, it is not.” Udall has studied the gas industry in western Colorado’s Garfield Country for fifteen years and believes that there is not sufficient oversight in the area to guarantee that companies are not polluting.
The ponds next to drill sites also evaporate off large amounts of chemicals into the air, and researchers believe this also extremely dangerous. Dr. Theo Colborn, a medical doctor who founded the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, recently completed a study about the chemicals used in natural gas production. Of the 353 identified chemicals, 25% cause cancer, 45% affect the brain and nervous system as well as the immune system and heart, and 37% of them affect the endocrine system. As alarming as this may be, it is the endocrine disruptors that should have everyone very worried. This class of chemical causes severe physical and mental disorders and interferes with fetal development in the womb. It can also harm the very genome that we pass along to our unborn children, harming generations of offspring both in humans and animals around drilling sites.
Once the well is drilled, fracked and in production it can still be invisibly polluting. A new study from Cornell University in the USA has found that during production as much as 9% of the methane and compounds like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes may leak out of the wells. This seriously besmirches the green pedigree of natural gas, and according to the study’s author, makes it even more of a danger to global warming than using coal for power generation.
One of the more misunderstood dangers from natural gas development is the simple arithmetic behind the development of a well. For many wells where water must be trucked in, it takes as many as 2000 truck visits to frack a well. In South Africa Shell plans to develop ten wells on one drill pad and fifty pads to a development. So one pad can take 20,000 large truck visits, and the entire development? That’s one million large heavy vehicles using public roads and releasing tons of diesel smoke that contains arsenic, benzene, and even cyanide over a ten year period.
In rural areas where wells are being fracked, large amounts of diesel smoke containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like these mix and react with sunlight, creating ground-level ozone. In Wyoming the US Environmental Protection Agency says natural gas expansion has pushed ground level ozone readings to four times the federal limit and has given the industry three years to correct the problem.
Natural gas development threatens health and environmental safety at every point of the process. The latest science coming out of the gas fields of America seems to bring into question many of the industry’s activities and much of their research that suggests this is a benign and green answer to coal or oil usage. Since many of the effects of natural gas development are only felt decades in the future, it is telling that only after ten years does the peer reviewed science emerging from the large scale developments in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming show serious side effects to natural gas drilling. As more studies come out, these effects will no doubt become more of a focus for health officials, regulatory agencies and communities where drilling is happening.
EX Jeffrey Barbee