Would you like fracked or non-fracked?

This week El Paso Corp. will begin shipping Wyoming and Colorado natural gas in the new 42-inch diameter Ruby Pipeline connecting Rockies gas producers to customers along the Oregon and northern California coasts.

Cutting across 680 miles from Opal, Wyo., to Malin, Ore., spawned a lot of controversy about potential damage to wildlife and the environment. Now that construction is over, however, concern has shifted to include what’s in the pipeline: “The Bay Area Gets Fracked.”

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” involves pumping millions of gallons of water — and smaller volumes of multiple chemicals — into deep gas- and oil-bearing formations under high pressure to bust open pathways for the petroleum to flow. The concern is for the potential to contaminate drinking water which resides in shallow aquifers perforated by sealed oil and gas wells.

Wyoming oil and gas leaders — and some state lawmakers — worry that opposition to hydraulic fracturing has become so entrenched that some areas of the country may someday demand “non-fracked” natural gas and oil. If there were such a market, less than 10 percent of Wyoming’s natural gas production would qualify.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Rather than dismiss this type of fuel grading, some in the industry say they would gladly serve a boutique natural gas market — if the customer is willing to pay a premium. Wyoming’s coal-bed methane gas, for example, does not require fracking in the sense that much of America understands the technology.

“Everybody laughs when they hear about it because it’s an absurd notion,” Casper oil and gas geologist Gene George, of Gene George & Associates, told WyoFile. “But I’m sure there are people out there who are serious about it. And when somebody is willing to pay more for your product, then you’re going to figure out a way to do it.”

George said Wyoming gas producers — if they could ship gas across the Pacific — would love to sell their product to customers in Japan, which is now paying more than three times the selling price in the United States.

The vast majority of natural gas produced in the Rockies relies on fracking technology. Fracking is credited for boosting the nation’s recoverable oil and gas reserves, launching drilling booms in North Dakota (shale oil), Pennsylvania (shale gas), New York (shale gas), Louisiana (shale gas) and Texas (shale gas and shale oil).

This new drilling boom, along with fracking, was the subject of the highly popular film documentary “Gasland,” which is credited by many for bringing fracking to the forefront of the national energy debate. During the past year the battle between industry and some environmental groups over fracking has made it to prime-time, most recently lampooned by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

Rob Hurless advised former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal on energy policy, and is now advising Gov. Matt Mead. He said that while a new “non-fracked” natural gas market is unlikely, the national debate over fracking has at least got more Americans thinking and talking about the energy supply chain.

“There’s going to be some froth in it. But on balance, it’s probably not a bad thing to think about energy supply,” Hurless told WyoFile. “Hopefully, the net impact over time will be positive.”

Wyoming sportsmen and conservationists grumble when California utilities brag about their clean-burning natural gas without acknowledging the impacts of extracting that gas in the Rockies. Natural gas extraction has had measurable impacts on big game and air quality in the Cowboy State.

But customers on the West Coast, in the Midwest and on the East Coast are becoming more aware of where natural gas comes from and the potential impacts of the industry. Simply put, more people are engaged in discussions about domestic energy, and that could eventually drive the United States toward a different portfolio of fuels.

“We’re working to ban fracking from shale gas,” said Emily Wurth, water program director for Food & Water Watch in Washington D.C. “I don’t see a problem with informed consumers requesting their energy coming from a certain place.”

Wurth said she is not aware of any movement to demand that utilities account for how much of their electricity and heating gas comes from fracked and non-fracked gas. However, she said customers can and should determine which products they want to use.

“We think our drinking water is a critical resource. It’s very reasonable for consumers to re-evaluate what fuels they want to use,” said Wurth.

Touting the greenness or frackiness of fuels to serve a finicky American consumer could get very messy, however.

How could a company demand a premium for non-fracked coal-bed methane gas, for example, without offering a discount for the large volume of drinking water the industry has wasted in the Powder River Basin? Will wind energy companies be forced to count and advertise the number of birds that meet their demise against their blades?

Powder River Basin coal companies do not topple mountains into river valleys to produce coal. But are they really going to market their product as “non-mountaintop removal” coal?

There’s a danger that too much emphasis in the fracking debate will be placed on the technology itself, drowning out the more arcane discussion about effective industry practices and regulatory oversight. Baseline water quality sampling, for example, should be standard practice prior to fracking, according to Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll. Yet his agency has not insisted that it be made mandatory in Wyoming.

To take fracking away from the oil and gas industry would be like taking shovels away from coal miners. It doesn’t make practical sense. Fighting to protect our health and our air, soil, land and wildlife shouldn’t stifle the technology that provides us not only electricity and transportation fuels, but also the building blocks of laptops, iPhones and 7-ply tires. In fact, it’s the oil and gas industry’s rapidly advancing technology that will make possible large-scale carbon sequestration.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on July 28, 2011

{ 2 comments }

Charlotte Flynn August 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm

I live over the Marcellus shale formation. I have serious concerns about fracking due to the environmental risks and the effect of putting off developing other energy sources. This is a very tough issue though when times are hard and there is gas in the ground, especially in places where there isn’t a lot of other economic opportunity. I understand the desire to want to do it.

There are great resources about the effects of Marcellus shale gas extraction at http://www.fractracker.org

There was also an illuminating piece on some of what’s happening with Marcellus shale on This American Life last month called Game Changer: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/440/game-changer

Chris Merrill July 29, 2011 at 2:37 pm

This piece makes some strong points. Rather than being superstitious about hydraulic fracturing, people would be better off making sure it’s done right — because, at least in Wyoming, nearly all new oil and gas wells are fracked.

For one thing, states could require baseline water testing, as Tom Doll suggests. This would help provide very basic and important information to landowners, residents, and regulators.

Some other things states could do to make sure people and drinking water are protected:

• Require that fracking operations are set back a safe distance from groundwater wells and houses.
• Require what’s called “pitless fracking,” where all fracturing fluids are stored in tanks, rather than in open pits.
• Require operators to recover all fracturing fluids and store those fluids in tanks, which would then have to be removed from the site or reused.
• A biggie: Require good well integrity for both the wells used to do the fracturing and all other wells in the vicinity of the drilling operations.

(I got this list from Steve Jones.)

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