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


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.


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

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