About the SA Blog Network

Plugged In

Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives
Plugged In HomeAboutContact

Maybe … a Half of a Cheer for Shale Gas? Maybe?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

I had a whole post prepared about how the Geographic Information Services people helped in the response to the April tornados that devastated Raleigh, which seemed like a good way to introduce the infrastructure-plus-connectivity-plus-how-do-they-DO-that? applied science take I hope to bring to this blog, but then I came back from vacation and opened the newspapers and read an eye-openingly sensible op-ed by a couple of scientists. This seemed more timely, so I’ll tell you about the GIS stuff later.

Here’s the deal: They’ve found shale gas beneath the Piedmont of central North Carolina, which puts the state on the constantly moving front line of the discussion about fracking.

Oh, good.

Fracking, of course, is a process for freeing natural gas embedded in underground shale deposits by fracturing – hence, “fracking” — the surrounding rock. Such fracturing requires the use of large amounts of water, pressurized and mixed with chemicals, to shatter the shale and free the gas, which is then sucked out through pipelines created by horizontal drilling.

The fracking process, in an image by Al Granberg/Pro Publica.

Fracking is discussed nowadays only by people whose blood pressure is not sufficiently elevated by discussions of taxes, abortion, or same-sex marriage. According to its proponents, fracking, though admittedly not perfectly clean, makes natural gas the perfect bridge energy source between coal and whatever comes next, driving everything from cars to power plants. According to opponents, fracking by comparison makes mountaintop-removal coal mining seem as benign as building sandcastles at the shore. In North Carolina, even horizontal drilling is currently not legal, to say nothing of fracking itself. A recent bill trying to legalize it was vetoed by the governor, but she vetoed the bill on technicalities, and those in favor of getting that energy don’t seem likely to back away for long.

You’ve seen some of the arresting footage of tap water catching on fire from the film “Gasland,” and the issues with fracking concern more than the liberated gas itself. The provenance of the water needed for the operation is at issue, as is the dangerous chemicals used making their way into groundwater.

My feeling is that the questions about fracking’s environmental effects are exactly like the question of nuclear waste in the 1970s. Yes, to be sure, the true believers on either side were shouting past each other. But clear thinkers on either side and in the middle could see that whatever else might work well or poorly about nuclear power, nuclear waste was an issue that would be around for geologic time and needed a solution. Recent events at Fukushima seem to have borne out the suspicion that just throwing the stuff in swimming pools and reassuring each other turned out to be a plan something less than optimal.

Now — as then — fortunately the scientists have got involved. In the July 10 News & Observer of Raleigh, NC, Duke University professor of environmental sciences Rob Jackson and his colleague Stephen Osborn wrote an op-ed comparing the polluting effects of fracking not with nuclear waste but with the pools of waste that came along with the enormous hog farms that North Carolina too confidently embraced in the 1990s — only to discover that the lagoons of waste created significant pollution, especially during weather-related failure in a hurricane-prone region. Jackson and Osborn strongly suggest (as do Jackson and another colleague, Avner Vengosh, in a May 10 Philadelphia Inquirer piece) that fracking and gas drilling are dangerous and that at the very least drilling should wait until environmental safeguards have been put in place.

In the News & Observer article Jackson and Osborn refer to their own recently published piece in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and list seven issues they say need resolving before drilling starts — everything from baseline data on current water and air quality to drilling fees large enough to create responsible environmental stewardship to clear disclosure and communication on the part of drillers and regulators.

Fracking is a dangerous business, but Jackson told me that energy is just a dangerous world. After all, how long ago were we all watching the Tennessee coal ash spill? How long after that were we fretting over the oil spill into the gulf and yearning for more nuclear power to wean us from oil? Fukushima cured us of that, but until we’ve got an awful lot more capacity from renewables — or unless we drastically change our energy use patterns — we’re trapped in that dirty world. It’s a complicated world; Time Magazine, citing the PNAS article by Jackson et al., makes shale gas out to be “Another Fracking Mess”; on the other hand, the study released in June by the MIT Energy Initiative, “The Future of Natural Gas,” draws much less dire conclusions and was celebrated in Forbes as good news for the gas industry.

It’s complicated. “Shale gas is not perfect,” Jackson told me on the phone, “but mountaintop removal is a dirty way to get energy; tar sands is a dirty way to get energy, too.” Shale gas may actually prove helpful, “if we do our homework,” Jackson said. I’d like to feel reassured, but in my experience we’re not a species much given to homework.

Even when the scientists tell us to.


Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Previous: Hello, Pale Blue Dot More
Plugged In
Next: One Footprint at a Time

Rights & Permissions

Comments 4 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Roboter 5:12 pm 07/12/2011

    Not so much – Natural gas = Epic Fail

    Video: More than 8 billion cubic metres of natural gas are lost in the US each year

    Studies Agree: Shale gas full cycle greenhouse gas emissions are higher than coal Source Post Carbon
    Climate Action: France Bans Fracking for Shale Gas Source The Climax
    ‘Fracking’ Mobilizes Uranium in Marcellus Shale Source Sustainable Business

    Link to this
  2. 2. Kevbonham 2:41 pm 07/13/2011

    Last week’s “This American Life” was about fracking – and, as you might expect if you ever listen to the show, is fantastic.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jgrosay 7:10 am 07/14/2011

    I have a crazy proposal for nuclear waste elimination. In the Pacific coast of South America, the Pacific tectonic plate is in a subduction process under the South American plate, a process that raises the Andes mountains. You just need to put the nuclear waste containing barrels in an adequately digged hole in the bottom of the ocean pit next to the west South American coast, and nature will do the job of moving the waste downwards and covering them under kilometers of rock within a reasonable time frame. Of course these barrels can end by being spit in some volcano lava, but this will take time, and the radioactive waste will be then diluted in megatons of already slightly radioactive molten lava.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Asteroid Miner 9:14 am 07/14/2011

    We don’t recycle nuclear fuel because it is valuable and people steal it. The place it went that it wasn’t supposed to go to is Israel. This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970. A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel.

    [I almost took a job there in 1968, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker. [A nuclear battery would have the advantage of lasting many times as long as any other battery, eliminating many surgeries to replace batteries.]]

    Numec did not have a reactor. Numec “lost” some nuclear fuel. It wound up in Israel. The Israelis fueled their nuclear short cycle plutonium239 plant to make their nuclear weapons by stealing nuclear “waste.” It could work for any other country, such as Iran or the United States.

    It is only when you don’t have access to nuclear “waste” that you have to do the difficult process of enriching uranium. Numec is no longer in business. Terrorists can’t compete with Mossad and Israeli dual citizens who are CEOs of companies like Numec. Israeli nuclear weapons are exact duplicates of American nuclear weapons. Since the US can’t and shouldn’t discriminate, the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the US stopped. That was the only politically possible solution at that time, given that private corporations did the reprocessing.

    My solution would be to reprocess the fuel at a Government Owned Government Operated [GOGO] facility. At a GOGO plant, bureaucracy and the multiplicity of ethnicity and religion would disable the transportation of uranium to Israel or to any unauthorized place. Nothing heavier than a secret would get out.

    The problem is political: The Republicans think GOGO plants are socialist/communist, which is nonsense. If a COCO [Contractor Owned Contractor Operated] plant is the low bidder, it is inevitably a front for Israel or some other country. We could send our spent fuel to France to be recycled.

    Downloaded from:
    Government agencies investigated missing uranium, NUMEC
    By Mary Ann Thomas and Ramesh Santanam
    Sunday, August 25, 2002
    Editor’s note: This the first of three parts on the history of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. Part II will appear Monday and Part III will appear Tuesday.

    The colorful history of the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. is rich with intrigue and mystery and unwinds like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel.

    There are stories of missing uranium, allegations of illegal shipments to Israel, FBI sleuthing, meetings with possible Israeli spies, talk of special “encoded” telephones the FBI could not tap, concern by the CIA, congressional inquiries and interest from the White House.

    The reason for all the cloak-and-dagger actions was an innocuous acronym – MUF.

    MUF stands for “Materials Unaccounted For,” and, in the case of NUMEC, referred to large quantities of weapons-grade uranium that went missing from the Apollo plant in the 1960s. [Wrong. It couldn't be weapons grade uranium. The US uses only plutonium to make bombs. A uranium bomb is primitive, lacking in sophistication, overweight and inefficient. Uranium bombs are for countries that are new to the club.]

    The unaccounted for uranium piqued the curiosity of the FBI, the CIA, Congress, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter presidential administrations.
    ……..article continues………

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American


Get All-Access Digital + Print >


Email this Article