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Natural Gas Could Overtake Coal If Well Managed

Drill deep into beds of shale, direct the drill to move horizontally, offer a few small, shale-cracking explosions, pump in water, sand, and chemicals, and pump out enough natural gas to give the Middle East and Russian gas some serious competition. If its production is not stymied by environmental concerns, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Tuesday that natural gas could overtake coal during the next two decades to become the second largest world energy source after oil.

Natural gas is an energy resource with a lot to support it. It is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, producing primarily carbon dioxide and water when it is combusted, without the harmful emissions produced by burning coal or oil. There is a plentiful domestic supply of natural gas, allowing the U.S. to export rather than import this resource and reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Natural gas promises to fill an important energy role during the next decades while renewable energy technologies mature. Just as 1960s phones were fairly inefficient at texting, today's renewable energies have a long way to go before they can fill the growing energy needs of the world. Yet, the environmental concerns involved in the production of natural gas worry many who fear the drilling will harm their groundwater. Water is even more basic a need than energy, and people tend to be protective of their water resources. 

Fracking: Hydraulic fracturing , or "fracking," is the process of extracting natural gas from shale by drilling in sideways, cracking open the shale with small explosions, and driving out the natural gas with a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals. Fracking technologies to extract natural gas have given energy companies an efficient way to access previously untouched gas resources. An IEA report released Tuesday said that natural gas extraction primarily from shale gas could increase to 1.6 trillion cubic meters per year by 2035, for a total of 32 percent of all gas production. 

These unconventional extraction methods are already causing a boom in the United States' production of liquid natural gas that could create serious competition with the current world leaders in gas production and push down prices. That is, the boom will continue if natural gas production is not shut down due to local protests over environmental concerns. France and Bulgaria have already put a stop to fracking, and a score of towns in New York state have banned the drilling. The energy, security and financial benefits of significant natural gas production, however, raise the question of whether fracking can be redeemed and its dangers mitigated by wise management of the process. 

Problems and Solutions: Hydraulic fracturing allows the release of large amounts of natural gas from shale, but it also creates significant problems. The first major trouble is the water slurry that is blasted into the cracks in the shale. Once the gas is pumped out, those millions of gallons of wastewater still must go somewhere, and they cannot be dumped untreated or the chemicals involved will get into surface and ground water. Texas, Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, and most recently Oklahoma have already signed laws requiring disclosure of the chemicals a company uses in the fracking process, and Ohio is in the process of passing a disclosure law. Wastewater does not have to be a pollutant, however. 

The chemicals can be rendered inert through treatment, after which the water is as safe as any other water coming out of a water treatment plant. The issue with the wastewater, however, isn't as simple as paying to have it treated. There must be facilities available to do the water treatment. Niagara Falls water utility wanted to accept drilling wastewater and treat it is a means of revenue. The water utility needed the money and had the capacity to provide the service to the gas industry in the state. The treated water would be available to help keep down water costs to residents. Because of local fear of another Love Canal debacle, however, locals fought the water utility plan. The Niagara Falls City Council banned the treatment, transport, storage and disposal of drilling fluids within the city limits, putting the kibosh on the whole idea. Making water safe might be a wee different than burying toxic waste, but locals didn't care. They didn't want the wastewater in their town at all. New York's environmental agency requires those seeking drilling permits to already have wastewater disposal plans in place. 

Plants in Pennsylvania and other states may be able to receive the water for thousands of wells, or new water treatment plants will need to be built. The cracking of rock deep underground can also cause problems. Along with the natural gas (mostly methane), bits of other ingredients can be freed from their underground homes, including barium, uranium, and radon. There has been concern that the cracks caused by the fracking can allow the leakage of these contaminants, along with methane itself, into groundwater. The Internet abounds with videos of people lighting water from their faucets because the contamination of gas in their groundwater has become egregious. Fracking itself may not be the direct cause of groundwater contamination, however. 

A report by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin blames the contamination of groundwater on the poor quality of drilling pipes and on wastewater spillage. If the concrete casings on well pipes are faulty, the water and gas being pumped up from deep underground can leak out and into the ground water. On the other hand, fracking is generally done at depths of 6000-7000 feet, more than a mile below the surface, and unless there are existing cracks that lead to the surface, it is unlikely the fissures caused by fracking will release contaminants into groundwater. Drilling down to two miles fairly guarantees no contamination from the fracking itself, but it also raises the cost of the operation. 

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management has proposed important construction standards for new wells on BLM lands, to ensure that things like cement casings on drilling pipes meet certain construction standards. The Environmental Protection Agency is also setting up protocol for handling the wastewater. "The concerns of local communities are legitimate ones," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA in Paris, said in a telephone interview Monday. "There are some companies that are following the rules we are suggesting here. The destiny of the shale-gas industry will be decided not by the best practices but by the worst practices." The IEA has proposed guidelines for safe drilling practices that, according to its report, add an estimated seven percent to the cost of natural gas production. Investors will still be able to see "healthy revenues" said Birol, while producing a much-needed energy resource. 

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