Natural gas “naturally” occurs deep within the earth’s crust. The word “natural” helps brand it as an attractive source of energy. Compared to fossil fuels, it produces lower greenhouse gases when burnt. In the last few years, this source of energy has promised a smooth transition away from a reliance on coal and oil, particularly as oil prices have risen. Moreover, natural gas has become much more affordable to extract. Politicians and oil industry experts have placed high hopes on the future of natural gas as a substitute for oil. On the opposite side, scientists and environmental activists have been highly skeptical about the promises of natural gas, and point out to the environmental dangers resulting from its extraction.
The natural gas industry is booming today, and gas is promising to be a less expensive fuel than oil. Countries like Canada and the United States are rich in this resource, and are building pipelines and LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) ports to facilitate its export. The United States even exempted natural gas companies from complying with the Clean Water Act. Congress approved this exemption in 1990 in order to find short-term solutions that would boost employment levels and to free the United States from importing oil from unfriendly countries.
The idea that natural gas will be a great substitute for oil, however, is weakened by arguments addressing the environment, abundance, and prices. Environmental scientists concur that natural gas produces less greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuels, but are very concerned about the environmental and health safety of the extraction process. They are specifically referring to hydraulic fracking, which is commonly known as fracking. Fracking involves drilling as deep as 8000 feet within the earth, thus reaching the shale layer, where natural gas, also known as shale gas, is found. Advanced technologies allow this to be followed by horizontal drilling through the shale layer, after which water mixed with chemicals is pumped into drilled pipelines using high pressure to fracture the shale layer and create cracks. The pumped water and chemicals are then extracted from the pipeline, and shale gas leaks through the fractured cracks all the way up to the earth’s surface.
Shale gas is a combination of hydrocarbons, mostly methane. It is technically a fossil fuel and therefore a non-renewable source of energy. Modern technologies have made the process of extracting gas easy and often more affordable than extracting oil. Huge amounts of water (one to eight million gallons per well) are required for a single fracking process, and each well can be fractured up to eighteen times. Dangerous chemicals such as lead, uranium, mercury, hydrochloric acids, and formaldehyde are also used with water to facilitate fracking. Only 35% of fracking fluids are retained from the well; the rest stays underground or leaks into groundwater reservoirs. The extracted polluted fluid is kept in special open pits above ground, and is impossible to filter because of the numerous materials of which it consists as a result of the chemical reactions that take place underground. In addition, the fracking sites may leak considerable amounts of methane gas, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Fracking also produces other chemicals including kerosene, benzene, and synthetic organic compounds.
The environmental and health effects of fracking are extremely dangerous and could cost much more than what is being saved by switching from other fossil fuels. There are numerous recent documentaries that show the dangerous consequences of fracking. One of them is Gasland. This movie explains the different health and legal issues related to fracking. Also, residents living close to fracking sites have been reported to suffer from ailments such as nose bleeding as well as eye and skin irritation. In addition, very serious concerns relate to the contamination of drinking water with gases and chemicals, which, among other things, make it flammable or suspect to exploding in underground wells. Moreover, creating all these cracks in the earth has been related to small earthquakes in extraction sites.
Fracking is also affecting the economic and social structure of local communities. The value of homes and land in the United States is dropping dramatically around fracking sites, especially because of groundwater contamination. People in these communities are choosing to leave their homes because of the health risks associated with fracking. They also end up entering into never-ending legal battles with oil and gas companies. Fortunately, some states are starting to revisit fracking agreements by setting safer setback distances between fracking sites and water resources, and demanding that oil and gas companies reveal the type of chemicals they use in the fracking fluid.
The price of natural gas is much cheaper than oil today, but it varies according to demand and availability. The price of gas in Japan jumped from 7 to 16 $/MMBtu (million metric British thermal units) after the Fukushima earthquake as the demand for natural gas increased. Natural gas is sold in the United Kingdom for around 7 $/MMBtu, but the price of natural gas in the United States does not exceed 4 $/MMBtu. Determining the price of any commodity is influenced by supply and demand. As the demand for natural gas increases, the price will increase. It may not be long until the price of natural gas is no longer cheap.
The controversy around the safety of fracking is growing as environmentalists are effectively demonstrating its environmental and health dangers. Depending on non-renewable resources to generate energy is not a great idea, and the arguments for their economic benefits are not adding up. The dependence on natural gas extracted through fracking seems to be another environmentally destructive and uneconomical solution for satisfying global energy demands.
Nourhan Al Kurdi
May 14, 2014
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