Environment
12:01 am
Wed July 13, 2011

As Focus On Fracking Sharpens, Fuel Worries Grow

Originally published on Wed July 13, 2011 10:38 am

A controversial technique for producing oil and natural gas called hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — has led to drilling booms from Texas to Pennsylvania in recent years. But there are concerns that it may be polluting drinking water.

As policymakers in Washington discuss how to make fracking safer, there is concern that fracking itself has become a distraction.

In the U.S., pretty much all of the oil and gas that was easy to get to is gone. Fracking makes it possible to extract petroleum from hard-to-reach places — say, a mile underground in dense layers of shale.

Drillers pump truckloads of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the rock. Under intense pressure, that creates tiny fractures that allow oil and gas trapped there to escape.

"Hydraulic fracturing is truly the rocket science of what's happening in energy," says Tisha Conoly Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Schuller has seen fracking bring new life to old oil and natural gas fields, boosting domestic production in the U.S. She says that's a good thing — especially for natural gas, because it burns cleaner.

In Pennsylvania the number of natural gas wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale has increased from 34 in 2007 to 1,446 last year.

But drive around the region and you'll see that not everyone shares the industry's appreciation of fracking. There are lawn signs opposing gas drilling, and in Sullivan County, N.Y., a handmade sign reads, "Thou shalt not frack with our water. Amen."

Many fracking opponents were inspired by the movie Gasland. In one compelling scene, Weld County, Colo., resident Mike Markham shows how he can light his tap water on fire.

Throughout the movie, filmmaker and activist Josh Fox gives fracking special attention — calling into question how safe it is and whether it's adequately regulated.

Says Schuller: "I think hydraulic fracturing has become a synonym for oil and gas development or anything one doesn't like about oil and gas development."

The industry worries that the focus on fracking could prompt policymakers to restrict the practice and bring a halt to the gas booms under way. That's already happening around the country in places such as Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh and most recently Morgantown, W.Va. New York is deciding on new rules to govern fracking there.

It's not just the industry concerned about the focus on fracking. Some environmentalists say it may be taking attention away from the other problems that go along with drilling, like air pollution and toxic spills.

"I'm hoping that it's really just a starting point — a jumping-off point — to look at all these other issues," says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And Mall hopes the focus on fracking will lead to more research about how oil and gas development affects people.

"There's very little science about any of these impacts — not just the fracking, but the air quality, the waste-management issues," Mall says. "But it does seem the immediate priority of the agencies is to focus on fracking."

Certainly that's what the Energy Department's Natural Gas Subcommittee will discuss as it meets in Washington, D.C., this week. Eventually the group's recommendations will be sent to the federal agencies that have a role in regulating fracking.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to hear now about a controversial innovation in the energy industry. It's called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. It's created a drilling boom for natural gas and oil from Texas to Pennsylvania, and it may also be polluting drinking water.

Today, a U.S. Energy Department committee will discuss how to make fracking safer.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports on an issue that has overshadowed much of the wider debate over energy.

JEFF BRADY: In the U.S., pretty much all the oil and gas that was easy to get to is gone. Fracking makes it possible to extract petroleum a mile underground in dense layers of shale. Drillers pump truckloads of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the rock. Under intense pressure, that creates tiny fractures that allow oil and gas trapped there to escape.

Ms. TISHA CONOLY SCHULLER (President, CEO, Colorado Oil and Gas Association): Hydraulic fracturing is truly the rocket science of what's happening in energy.

BRADY: Tisha Conoly Schuller heads the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and she's seen fracking bring new life to old oil and natural gas fields. She says domestic production is a good thing, especially of natural gas, because it burns cleaner. Fracking has made natural gas more abundant and relatively cheap at a time the U.S. needs reliable and affordable sources of energy.

In Pennsylvania, the number of natural gas wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale has increased from a few dozen in 2007 to more than 1,400 last year. Drive around the region, and you'll see that not everyone shares the industry's fascination with fracking. There are lawn signs opposing gas drilling, and even a home-made sign reading: Thou shalt not frack. Many of these folks were inspired by a movie last year called "Gasland." It included this scene of a man in Colorado, holding a lighter next to a faucet.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gasland")

(Soundbite of water flowing)

Mr. MIKE MARKHAM: We'll just give it a second, here.

BRADY: Then the water itself catches fire.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gasland")

Mr. JOSH FOX: Whoa. Jesus.

BRADY: Nearby drilling is blamed, and throughout the movie, filmmaker Josh Fox gives fracking special attention, calling into question how safe it is and whether it's adequately regulated. All the focus on fracking worries the petroleum industry.

Tisha Conoly Schuller says the term fracking now means more than just the process of fracturing shale to get at oil and gas.

Ms. SCHULLER: I think hydraulic fracturing has become a synonym for oil and gas development, or anything that one doesn't like about oil and gas development.

BRADY: The industry worries that could prompt policymakers to restrict fracking and bring a halt to the gas booms underway. That's already happening in cities around the country: Buffalo, New York; Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and most recently Morgantown, West Virginia. New York State is deciding on new rules to govern fracking there. And it's not just industry concerned about the focus on fracking. Some environmentalists say it may be taking attention away from the other problems that go along with drilling, like air pollution and toxic spills.

Amy Mall with the Natural Resources Defense Council says one good thing about the fracking issue is all the attention it's brought to oil and gas production.

Ms. AMY MALL (Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council): I'm hoping that it's really just a starting point, a jumping off point to look at all these other issues.

BRADY: Mall says, ideally, the focus on fracking will lead to more research about how oil and gas development affects people.

Ms. MALL: There's very little science about any of these impacts, not just the fracking, but the air quality, the waste management issues. And we really need a lot more attention to all of these, but it does seem the immediate priority of the agencies is to focus on fracking.

BRADY: Certainly, that's what the Energy Department's Natural Gas Subcommittee will discuss this morning. Eventually, the recommendations will be sent to the federal agencies who have a role in regulating fracking.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.