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OPINION

What the Frack is Going on Here?

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Hydraulic fracturing sends “huge volumes of toxic fluids” deep underground at high pressure, to fracture shale rock and release natural gas, Food & Water Watch claims. “Billions of gallons of toxic fluids” will “contaminate” groundwater and drinking water “for generations.” We need to “Ban Fracking Now.”

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Environmentalists used to support “clean natural gas.” Whence the intolerant new attitude?   

Oil companies have been using hydraulic fracturing for 60 years to get the most petroleum possible from grudging rock formations deep beneath the Earth. A few years ago, Mitchell Energy and others combined HF with horizontal drilling to tap into hydrocarbon-rich shale deposits that previously refused to surrender their energy riches. Countless fracking operations later, the results have been spectacular.

Tapping the Marcellus, Bakken, Barnett, Haynesville and other formations has created jobs, generated revenues and rejuvenated moribund industries in many states that have shale deposits or manufacture the fluids, pipes and other equipment used in these operations. US natural gas production and estimated reserves have soared, and wellhead prices have dropped from $11 per thousand cubic feet in 2008 to $4 today. Canada is actively drilling, while Poland and Britain are evaluating early exploration results. 

The Fort Worth Chamber says fracking supports 110,000 direct and secondary jobs in the region and added billions in property and sales tax revenues. Loren C. Scott & Associates calculates that shale drilling has added $11 billion to Louisiana’s economy. Pennsylvania’s Labor and Industry Department reports that HF has already generated 72,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in state tax revenues, and could bring another $20 billion by 2020. West Virginia and North Dakota report similar success.

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Soaring supplies and plummeting prices have persuaded Dow, Shell, Sasol, Ormet and other companies to open, reopen or expand plants to produce ethylene, petrochemicals, aluminum – and more jobs.

That’s excellent energy and economic news, at a time when we sure could use a little good news.

Certainly, with all this activity going on – much of it in states that haven’t seen much drilling in decades, if ever – there is a clear need for regulations and oversight. We need to ensure that drilling and fracking are done properly, and chemicals are handled, disposed of and recycled correctly, to prevent harm to human health, wildlife habitats and environmental quality. While most shale gas deposits are thousands of feet below groundwater aquifers and drinking water supplies, we need to ensure that well casings are properly installed and cemented, so that there is no danger of contamination.

But to ban hydraulic fracturing – and abandon these revenues and jobs? What the frack is going on here?

Think about it. This is free enterprise in action. It pays its own way.  It doesn’t need subsidies, mandates, tariffs, or bureaucrats and politicians deciding which companies and industries win or lose. HF generates real, sustainable jobs, plus significant tax and royalty revenue, right here in America. It provides energy that works 24/7/365 … and is far cheaper than land-hungry wind turbine and solar panel installations. In fact, the shale gas revolution is making it even harder to justify these “renewable energy alternatives.”

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Natural gas, specifically shale gas, is essential for powering backup generators for unreliable wind and solar installations. However, low gas prices make wind and solar even less competitive. The better solution is just to go with gas, coal and nuclear for electricity generation, and forget about expensive, eco-unfriendly, subsidy-dependent, crony capitalist wind and solar.

HF also demolishes the “peak oil and gas” mantra that we are rapidly running out of hydrocarbon energy, which further demonstrates that geologist Wallace Pratt was right when he said “Oil is first found in the minds of men.” Once companies devised new ways to extract shale gas bounties, vast new reserves became available.

Today, in reality, the only reason we might run out of energy is that government won’t let us drill.

People want and need reliable, affordable power. Many environmentalists support Paul Ehrlich’s opposite sentiment, that “giving society cheap energy is like giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

No wonder unrepentant fossil fuel haters are going ballistic over fracking.

The rest of us just want honest answers, carefully conducted drilling, fracking and production operations – and the benefits that come with them. Thankfully, the facts are relatively easy to find.

The Wall Street Journal laid many out clearly and forcefully in a June 2011 editorial, “The facts about fracking: The real risks of the shale gas revolution and how to manage them.” Whether it’s cancer, drinking water contamination, toxic or radioactive chemicals, earthquakes or regulations – the truth is miles from the misrepresentations, hysteria and fear-mongering propagated by Food & Water Watch and similar groups.

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People who want to know how hydraulic fracturing is actually done – and what chemicals are actually used, even in specific states – can find a wealth of information at well-designed industry websites provided by Chesapeake Energy, the Ground Water Protection Council and Halliburton.

As the Halliburton site notes, 99.5% of fracking fluids is water and sand (the sand is carried into fractures, to keep them open and release the gas). However, forcing that fluid mix down wellbores and into solid rock formations thousands of feet underground requires advanced engineering and special chemicals to:

* Keep the sand suspended in the liquid, so that it is carried deep into the fractures;

* Fight the growth of bacteria in the fluid and wellbore, so that gas flows and pipes don’t corrode; and

* Reduce the surface tension of water that comes in contact with the reservoir, to improve gas production.

Different subsurface rock formations and conditions require different formulations for the 0.5% of the HF fluids that involves special chemicals. In the past, diesel oil and various industrial chemicals were used. Today, to an ever-increasing degree, the chemicals are borrowed from the food and cosmetics industry. The technical names sound daunting or even scary (inorganic acids, polysaccharide polymers and sulfonated alcohol, for instance), but these CleanStream chemicals (Halliburton’s terminology) are found in cheese and beer, canned fish and dairy desserts, and marshmallows and shampoo, respectively.

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Even these three chemical groups (and other food and cosmetic chemicals) are classified as “hazardous” by the EPA and FDA, because in high doses some can cause cancer and other problems in animals. So you could say Food & Water Watch is technically correct when it tries to scare people by saying fracking fluids contain “toxic chemicals.” But the same point would apply to alcoholic beverages, fruit juices, lip liners, food starch, hand soap and countless other everyday products. Should we ban them too, along with coffee, broccoli and other foods that naturally contain even more potent carcinogens?

In other advanced techniques, instead of chemical biocides to kill bacteria, some systems now employ ultraviolet light, and mobile units now allow crews to treat and reuse water, reducing the amount of freshwater required in fracking. Other improvements are being made on a regular basis, as explained in simple lay terms on websites like those mentioned above. You can even find psychedelic 3-D maps of hydraulic fracturing operations and explanations of other fascinating technologies.

New York and other states, the Delaware River Basin Commission, Canadian provinces, Britain, Poland, the European Commission, and many Asian and Latin American countries are pondering HF as part of the solution to their energy, unemployment, economic and revenue problems. Getting the facts is essential.

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Shale gas is an energy policy game-changer. The last thing we need is more laws, regulations and policies based on misrepresentations and fabrications from outfits like Food & Water Watch. 

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