Fracking never on a path to sustainability

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

On March 20 the White House released the first Federal regulations on hydraulic fracturing. They apply only to Federal lands but are seen as a model which states could emulate to create more uniform standards within the country.

illinois basinSome environmental groups welcome the Federal initiative but indicate the regulations do not go far enough. In contrast industry groups see the Federal standards as unnecessary and claim existing state standards are effective in protecting public health and the environment.

While some fracking for oil and gas has occurred over the past 60 years, concerns about the process have intensified over the last seven years as its use has grown dramatically. Conventional sources of oil and gas occurred primarily in porous rocks such as sandstone. Fracking allows companies to capture unconventional oil and gas from less porous rock such as clay.

In fracking a vertical well is drilled down to the level of the trapped gas formation. Then drilling is redirected to run horizontally into it. Explosive charges are set at the bottom of the vertical well followed by large volumes of highly pressurized fracking fluids forced into the horizontally drilled area to open cracks in the rock to increase the flow of the gas.

The fluid consists primarily of water with sand and other chemicals added to hold open the cracks to facilitate the recovery of gas. Some of the chemicals used have known adverse health and environmental impacts as do some in the rock formation. When pressure on the well is released, the chemically laden water flows back up to the surface.

Growing evidence links fracking to air and water pollution and earthquakes leading to increased demand for more stringent regulations. Issues involve public disclosure of chemicals used in the process, assurance of well integrity so there are no leaks into the rock formations through which they were drilled and safe disposal of wastewater that returns to the surface.

The industry prefers state regulations and claims they are reducing the adverse consequences of fracking, Environmental groups are calling for higher standards and a larger role for the Federal Government in stimulating them.

Missed in the regulation debate is that many of the oil and gas reservoirs being tapped are regional in scope and cross state boundaries suggesting uniform standards should cover the entire reservoir. Without a federal presence states may set minimal regulations to gain a competitive advantage over other states with oil and gas resources.

With state regulations in place, a dramatic increase in fracking in Illinois is likely to start in fall of this year.  Public attention will shift to ensuring that enforcement protects public health and the environment where the drilling is occurring. While the drilling will occur in what is considered the largest known deposits, it could expand to much of the Illinois basin.

Fracking will intensify our fossil fuel consumption just as scientists are calling for a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and expanding our commitment to efficiency and renewable energy. It is unlikely to lead to a sustainable future.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl can be reached via e-mail at sonia@essex1.com.

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