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All Points West: The energy to do things right
September 23, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
When a tree falls in a forest, if no one is around, does it make a sound?

Is hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that tree falling in the forest?

Hydraulic fracturing has piqued my interest because I don’t know enough about it. I do know there are several types of interest at work. Chief among them, people are worried for their safety, naturally. Another, business or industry folks, landowners, and geologists want to profit from the extraction and sale of natural gas and oil, as they have since the discovery of such energy sources. Last, but not least, government, the same government that answers to “We the People,” where interests may be significantly divided, must enact laws to actually ensure our overall safety.

To my knowledge, Nebraska has yet to approve adequate and appropriate legislation, meanwhile relying on energy companies to do the right thing.

According to what-is-fracking.com, “hydraulic fracturing involves safely tapping shale and other tight-rock formations by drilling a mile or more below the surface before gradually turning horizontal and continuing several thousand feet more. Thus, a single surface site can accommodate a number of wells. Once the well is drilled, cased and cemented, small perforations are made in the horizontal portion of the well-pipe, through which a typical mixture of water (90 percent), sand (9.5 percent) and additives (0.5 percent) is pumped at high pressure to create micro-fractures in the rock that are held open by the grains of sand. Additives play a number of roles, including helping to reduce friction (thereby reducing the amount of pumping pressure from diesel-powered sources, which reduces air emissions) and prevent pipe corrosion, which in turn help protect the environment and boost well efficiency.”

This past year, the Gering Citizen published comments (March 25, 2016) made by state Sen. John Stinner about legislation written into LB 1082, revising the purview of the Oil and Gas Commission, in addressing matters of hydraulic fracturing. This stemmed from prior community meetings a few years ago about a proposed well in Sioux County, prompting numerous questions about “fracking,” wastewater, and the environmental impact and risk in Sioux County. Stinner said, “This legislation changes the mission of the Oil and Gas Commission more toward being a regulator (sampling and inspecting water) in preserving health, public safety and the environment” not as a promoter of the industry, but as a supporter of development.

One of the main concerns is whether the process will adversely affect the environment, which in turn could impact our even greater resource: water, for generations to come.

“To date, there have been no cases of groundwater contamination due to the process of hydraulic fracturing,” said Steve Sibray, geoscientist for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Conservation and Survey Division, who spoke at an information seminar hosted by the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff last week. Yet, “we do have to be careful.”

Not to give Steve short shrift, I can only summarize part of the under-covered “controversial” topic, finding no good explanation for why the oil and gas industry has done little to inform the public about the process of hydraulic fracturing. If the industry has legitimate concerns about public perception, why not commit to a bend-over-backward information campaign, pledging transparency, and make industry specific publications available without giving the nauseating sales pitch? While Steve addressed the science: the process of hydraulic fracturing, which has been a type of drilling used commercially for the past 65 years, and the lengths to which oil and gas go to ensure safety, he also admitted there are no absolutes. People do make mistakes.

Rest assured, according to my brother Randall who works for oil producing company Weatherford, all operations cease if there’s any hint of a leak or spill.

That is the point. Are we willing to take these kinds of risks? If an oil or gas company makes a mistake, what will it cost? No doubt, our environment, and we will feel it. The media has shown us the result of oil spills and natural gas explosions.

How is fracking good? The industry admittedly refers to it as a stop-gap, temporary or a bridging process until the United States finds alternative energy sources. That’s like a doctor telling you that a shot to your arm might cause some discomfort, and you will feel a pinch. It’s an efficient way of dispensing medicine, but a little annoying. There might be a better way, like taking a pill. Secondly, we have become less reliant on imports, while oil rich countries purportedly seek the next big thing in energy. One can only wonder about a federally mandated search for alternative sources for energy going up against a reluctant market because profits, next to oil and gas, aren’t enough.

According to environmentalscience.org, in “Texas, where fracking has the longest tradition, the Environmental Protection Agency measured atmospheric pollutants in a study following concerns of local residents. (It’s important to note, residents got involved.) They noticed that the carcinogen benzene (a colorless volatile liquid hydrocarbon in coal tar and petroleum) was 55 times higher than recommended safe levels (Scientific American). What is most concerning is that some of the state’s most populous urban centers sit on the largest deposits of shale gas; the potential for urban pollution is therefore of the utmost concern. Despite reassurances that the correct procedures are now in place with proper legislation, that a drive to obtain those deposits may lead to a horrific accident – in large urban population centers, this has the potential for catastrophe. Evidence for fracking causing earthquakes, despite how media portrayed the study in recent years, is limited and highly unlikely to reach magnitudes that may cause any damage (Department of the Interior). Nevertheless, several countries – most notably France, have banned the practice altogether thanks to public pressure (Business Week).”

The website journal article went on to say: “It has also been noted that Congress exempted fracking from regulations on safe drinking water in 2005 (Environmental Health Perspectives). This is the major concern of critics, especially in light of one recorded instance in Pennsylvania where a damaged casing of a fracking well resulted in a water supply exploding. There are several more suspected cases where the evidence is ambiguous (EHP) and one potential compelling case in Wyoming (Review of Policy Research). Experts remain split on what impact could result from a worst-case scenario (Scientific American). The state of New York banned the process and the state of Pennsylvania passed it – both taking massive amounts of data and cautious advice on-board. Most interesting, is that methane pollution of the water supply in the two states is of similar levels (Scientific American) but closer to the wells in Pennsylvania, concentrations were much higher (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

This quick dive into the topic leaves us with an important decision to make, despite sound explanations of earthquakes and the potential of reasonably harmless chemicals getting into our drinking water, some might feel fracking is OK – the process allowing gas to escape, or causing small tremors because it would happen anyway, according to some experts. However, because none of us have a crystal ball, we cannot accurately predict what will happen over the long term. Asserting my own unproven hypothesis, the earth will likely move to replace what humankind removes from it – in this case, large deposits of oil and gas. We have to ask ourselves in what manner.

I’ll agree, oil and gas companies have provided the fuel we need to keep our homes warm during long winters, and also maintain a robust American economy. There are a number of petroleum products – plastics, rubber wheels, furniture, tools – all which make our farming community go.

However, the decision cannot and should not be made for us either by industry, private interests, the various arms of government, or even the media, regardless of what you think of these entities.

Well, timber! If this concerns you, get involved. It’s our world, too.
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