|Digging into fracking debate|
|Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Staff Writer|
|Monday, 22 July 2013 09:16|
Kear, who teaches in the departments of political science and environment and sustainability, studies the public policy debates surrounding the oil and gas industry.
With a doctorate in political science from Colorado State and a master’s in geology from Ohio University, he’s well positioned to survey the territory surrounding hydraulic fracturing.
The process, more commonly known as fracking, uses a chemical brine to release natural gas trapped in rocks 6,000 feet or more below the surface.
The technique, though dating back several decades, has prompted a natural gas boom, bolstering the nation’s energy independence and providing jobs and generating economic activity. It has also sparked a backlash as environmentalists raise concerns about its safety.
Those battles, he said, have typically been played out at the state level, and increasingly at the local level as citizens take action to try to prevent the environmental and health damage they say the technique brings.
State and federal laws and regulations, Kear said, “has enabled the expeditious development of our mineral estate. ... Industry has had a significant hand in writing the rules and regulations on the state and to a certain degree federal level.”
The idea is more “to fully develop those resources rather than look at the environmental and human costs,” he said.
When the federal government approved an energy policy in 2005 it contained what Kear called the “Halliburton loophole,” after the global energy services company, that exempted oil and gas exploration from some environmental regulations.
Regulation of the industry has tended to fall to the states. Industry likes it that way, Kear said, since they find state regulators more flexible.
“All states are hurting for money,” he said, “so the argument you hear from both states and industry is it’s revenues, it’s jobs.”
That flexibility includes not having to reveal all the chemicals included in their proprietary formulas used in fracking, not even to emergency medical technicians or doctors. And even in instances when they do, medical personnel are limited in what they can share with others.
The efficacy of local campaigns like the one now underway in Bowling Green are in question, Kear said. State regulations trump those of localities. Still, he said, he’s interested in seeing how the courts rule if such local initiatives are challenged.
That’s not to say that such initiatives are worthless. If enough municipalities start saying they want control and transparency, state government “may adjust their regulations to be more accommodating to cities.”
Hydraulic fracturing is just making its way to Ohio along the Marcellus and Utica shale plays. Industry reports between 300 to 400 wells have been drilled.
Kear who witnessed the extensive exploration in the west is not impressed that’s not a boom yet. “That in itself does not constitute a boom,” he said. More may be coming, but not to Wood County.
The Utica shale play does not extend this far west, he said. But the area could be used to dispose of the waste water generated by the process.
Fracking takes an enormous amount of water millions of gallons for each frack job, Kear said. In the water-starved west companies pay top dollar for water.
Once the water has been used getting all the heavy metals and volatile chemicals out is extremely expensive.
Companies would prefer to create closed loop systems where the water can be reused. Or it can be stored in deep wells as far as 10,000 feet below the surface.
As with hydraulic fracturing itself, the storage spark fears that the chemical brine could migrate into the drinking supply.
The aquifer for drinking water is several hundred feet below the surface while fracking occurs at 6,000 feet down, and the waste brine is stored thousands of feet lower, Kear said.
He said he is not concerned about imminent contamination, though he wonders what happens decades down the line if the cement containment structures prove not to be as well constructed as advertised. Or there could be contamination from water stored above ground.
The deep well storage of brine has been connected to another geological problem, earthquakes.
Brine from a deep water well “lubricated” a fault and caused an earthquake in Akron.
“I’ve never heard of any frack job causing an earthquake, it’s storing the waste water” that’s the problem, Kear said.
Industry officials have blamed the outdated construction of that eastern Ohio well, and claim construction is better now.
Kear, however, believes that the emphasis on water problems may be distracting attention from a more immediate problem. “One thing that has not received much attention are the air issues associated with natural gas,” Kear said.
While natural gas is touted as a “cleaner” fuel than coal, Kear is not convinced. “The primary compound of natural gas is methane,” he said, and methane “is a significant greenhouse gas.”
Some methane escapes in the drilling process, he said, though it is in industry’s interest to try to capture as much of that.
And other volatile compounds are also released. Factor in the leakage from pump stations and the particulates generated by transporting the gas by diesel trucks and “its footprint may be equal to or worse than coal in the short term.”
While the politics are fierce, they are not partisan. In the west opposition to fracking has united environmentalists and some ranchers. The ranchers, he said, are concerned about private property rights. A landowner may own surface property rights, but not mineral rights. In Ohio landowners have to do deed searches to determine what rights they actually own.
“The Obama Administration has been promoting oil and natural gas,” he said.
When an earlier EPA study found a link between drinking water contamination and hydraulic fracturing, the study was rescinded and turned over to the state of Wyoming to do, funded by an energy company.
“One thing is certain,” Kear said. “They haven’t done enough studies to find out the deleterious and not deleterious effects of natural gas development. ... There haven’t been enough peer-reviewed, verifiable, replicable studies.”
But given our current demand for energy “We need fossil fuel. ... We’re all part of the problem.”
“The low hanging fruit” in energy policy is conservation, he said. “We should look at this debate from a demand side. How can we reduce demand?”
“I wish we could get beyond the coal vs. natural gas debate and look at how we can consume more wisely, so we don’t have to drill more wells, so we don’t have to put up another wind farm.”
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