When your home’s heater turned on this chilly morning, it was most likely powered by natural gas that bubbled up from underground through fracking. After ten years and 137,000 wells drilled in the U.S., by May 2017, our state will be the last in the union to decide whether to frack. Fracking is important to understand because our country’s fossil fuel energy strategy rests on fracking.
Though we live three hours from Western Maryland’s potential fracking fields, you have a voice in whether our state fracks or not. During the 2017 Maryland General Assembly, your state senator and three delegates will cast your vote to either ban fracking permanently, or to allow permits in October 2017.
Over the next few months, we’ll bring you up-to-speed with short articles that will zero-in on one fracking topic to help you make an informed decision about fracking.
What is Fracking?
For the past decade, you’ve probably heard about the newer natural gas drilling method called hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling. Otherwise know as “fracking.” As U.S. conventional natural gas reserves were drying up, the Oil and Gas industry figured out how to go miles underground and unlock little gas bubbles stuck deep down in shale rock. Fracking also helped us access crude oil in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale beds. For oil and gas business sector, fracking has opened up vast fossil fuel reserves which means big business.
To access natural gas miles underground, drillers must do a lot more that poke a big straw in the ground like they used to with the old conventional method. Drillers can now get to the shale gas by shooting chemicals, sand and millions of gallons of water at super-high pressures down a well pipe thousands of feet. Frackers then turn the drill 90 degrees, and drill horizontally for a mile or two. The water, sand and chemicals used to crack the shale rock resurfaces as wastewater laced with radioactive and volatile organic chemicals, and is carted off site and injected back underground.
Drillers then blast the rock which creates little cracks that allow natural gas bubbles to percolate to the surface. The gas is collected in pipes and condensed before the gas is pumped into the natural gas pipeline maze that runs under our country. Your home and business connects to that pipeline through your energy utility.
Where is Fracking Happening?
Maryland has no fracking wells. Western Maryland’s Allegany and Garrett counties sit atop the Marcellus Shale which runs from New York to Virginia.
Twenty states (see picture below) went crazy with fracking, including our neighbors West Virginia (2,670 wells) and Pennsylvania (9,233 wells). Since Maryland took a pause with then-Governor O’Malley’s 2011 executive moratorium to hold off on permitting, Maryland has had the luxury of studying ten year’s worth of fracking data to determine its full impacts.
On the positive side:
American consumers and businesses have benefited enormously because natural gas prices are at historical lows. Vehicle gasoline prices are also low because of the increased crude oil supply from the N. Dakota Bakken shale fields. Fracking has made a few their fortunes, like Harold Hamm, the fracking tycoon who has been advising President-elect Trump on energy policies.
Natural gas is so cheap that it has replaced coal at many power plants helping to keep electricity prices low.
On the negative side:
The 137,000 fracking wells are interspersed in communities where at least 15 million Americans live within one mile from a well. Fracking is literally many Americans new neighbor. Some signed a lease to frack on their lands, many did not.
The Oil and Gas industry, and many in government, touted fracked gas as a “bridge” fuel to renewable energy. The irony in this marketing is the industry didn’t mention the ongoing methane problem. The natural gas system from well-to-home leaks methane like a sieve. Methane is a far worse climate change greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the gas that coal emits. Methane is 80 times more potent in its first 20 years in the air than carbon dioxide.
There’s more. Earthquakes have been caused by re-injecting the billions of gallons of contaminated wastewater. Fracking causes wastewater spills, contaminated drinking water wells, loads of human health issues, royalty payment issues, animal deaths and sickness, and an industrialization of rural America that sits atop shale plays. Add to this light federal and state regulation, and fracking is a complicated and critically important topic.
Each of these negatives is important to know when weighed against the economic impacts.
All politics is local
In 2015, Maryland legislated a two-year moratorium through October 2017. The bill also required updating natural gas regulations, which have been proposed. Governor Hogan did not sign the moratorium because he is pro-fracking along with key western Maryland senators and delegates. Though not all Western Maryland legislators approve fracking. Don’t Frack Maryland, Citizen Shale, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility are Maryland’s primary organizers supporting a permanent ban against fracking.
Some light reading: Previous Fishbowl fracking articles
Over the past six years, I’ve published many fracking articles. I’ve visited fracking fields, and have met, interviewed and reported many fracking neighbors stories and shared the issues they’ve faced when fracking came to their area. Take a look: