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Earthquakes, water pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions? Fracking - strike number three?

By John Daly - posted Friday, 23 December 2011

The last decade has seen a sustained campaign by the hydraulic fracturing ('fracking") industry against its critics, as the fracking industry in the U.S. alone was worth an estimated $76 billion in 2010 and is projected to grow to $231 billion in 2036 if only those pesky environmentalists can be sidelined. According to Washington's energy Information Administration, production of shale gas in the United States in 2010 totalled 4.87 trillion cubic feet (tcf) compared with 0.39 tcf only a decade earlier.

The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has already transformed North America's natural gas market in less than half a decade. In 2000 shale gas was 1 percent of America's gas supplies; today it is 25 percent. While U.S. energy companies began fracking for gas in the late 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in 2005 after the administration of President George W. Bush exempted fracking from regulations under the U.S. Clean Water Act. According to Washington's energy Information Agency, shale gas production has grown 48 percent annually.

But there still some snakes to be chased from the industry's campaign to convince the electorate that natgas produced by fracking is safe, as on 8 December the Environmental Protection Agency said for the first time it found chemicals used in fracking in a drinking-water aquifer in west-central Wyoming.


Soothing the electorate, the industry group Energy in Depth reported, "The history of fracturing technology's safe use in America extends all the way back to the Truman administration, with more than 1.2 million wells completed via the process since 1947."

And the feds are backing fracking as well, as a new estimate from the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates that the national gas resource can be sustained for 110 years at current consumption rates.


In 2009 an industry-financed study reported that 622,000 people are directly involved in the discovery, extraction and distribution of U.S. natural gas.

As for "insider" influence, in 2005 former Vice President Dick Cheney, in partnership with the energy industry and drilling companies such as his former employer, Halliburton Corp., successfully pressured Congress to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws.

Even worse, a report released the following month by the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research noted that switching from coal to natural gas as an energy source could result in increased global warming, mainly due to the methane leakage problem, which is common but unregulated.


In a further potential federal sandbagging of the natgas industry, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which studied fracking and deemed it safe in 2004, is taking another, broader look at the practice and may end up taking a more active role, with a broader study expected to be finished next year.

Maalox moments all - but now fracking is being charged with contributing to global warming by releasing substantial amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 20-100 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, "Each methane molecule is about 70 times more potent in terms of trapping heat than a molecule of carbon dioxide."

Professor Robert Howarth, Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology and director of Cornell's agriculture, energy and environment program has noted that his research shows that one well-pad fracking shale gas would emit more greenhouse gases than a community of 100,000 people in a year. Methane already accounts for a sixth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs). In addressing earlier concerns about the pollution impact of fracking Dr. Howarth wrote in Boston University's Comment 14 September article, "Should Fracking Stop?," "Many fracking additives are toxic, carcinogenic or mutagenic. Many are kept secret.

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Dr. John C.K. Daly writes for

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