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April 29, 2011

Legislators Putting Benzene, Toluene, Xylene and Ethylbenzene in Their Cars

A breathless headline in the NYTimes: "Chemicals Were Injected Into Wells, Report Says". The Times was reporting on a report by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Diana DeGette of Colorado about natural gas retrieval by means of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which contains the not-so-startling revelation that the fluid used for this process contains some unspecified amount of "chemicals" – especially benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene, which are each either carcinogenic or toxic. Scary, huh? I thought I'd heard of some of these chemicals before so I googled them all together. Turns out they're known as BTEX and are "found in petroleum hydrocarbons, such as gasoline". They are genuinely bad for you. Nevertheless, we – and presumably the legislators – put them into our cars every day.

So the real issue is whether fracking results in these chemicals getting into our drinking water, not that it involves these or even other dangerous chemicals. The Times headline talks about "wells" leaving a reader to conjure a scary picture of bad stuff being dumped into drinking wells. Nowhere in the article does it point out that the natural gas wells in question are usually a mile deep in the bed rock. That is NOT where our drinking water comes from.

The water we drink comes from lakes, rivers, and wells. It gets into these lakes, rivers, and wells from the rain. It doesn't come bubbling up from a mile deep where fracking takes place. Lakes, rivers, and the layer of soil that we drill water wells into are usually a couple of hundred feet deep, rarely but sometimes up to six hundred feet deep. Under it is usually impermeable soil and always bedrock. That's why the water doesn't disappear down deeper. That's why the chemicals injected a mile deep can't migrate upward into the water supply even if they were perversely inclined to do so.

To make sure I remembered high school geology accurately (it was a long time ago), I checked some US Geological Survey maps of aquifers in upstate New York, under which there is a lot of natural gas locked into the Marcellus Shale formation. I couldn't find a place where the bottom of the aquifer was more than 400 feet below the surface or the bedrock more than 500 feet below. Most of the maps look a lot like this cross section below from the border of Onodaga and Cortland Counties:

The line on top is the ground. The cross-hatched area is the water-bearing soil, which sometimes extends down to the bedrock (labeled "r") and sometimes doesn't. Not on the map and at least 5000 feet lower there might be gas-bearing shale. It is particularly reassuring both that so many of these maps exist and that they're so easily made (acoustically). If there were a 5000 foot deep aquifer (there isn't!), we'd know about it before we filled it full of "chemicals".

All of this geology does NOT assure that fracking chemicals can't get into drinking water, it just means they don't come percolating up and fears of wide-spread contamination of aquifers are way over-blown. In fact, just like gasoline, fracking fluid could be spilled on the surface during transport or storage. It gets injected through a lined well, which could leak while going through the surface level. Some of the fluid comes back up and needs to be disposed of properly. Fracking is – and needs to be –regulated by states, just as the underground storage of gasoline needs to be regulated. It is not safe to assume that any industry will take all necessary precautions if regulation doesn't force the cost of those precautions on all members of the industry and the full cost of remediation on anyone who fouls up. There will be accidents as there are with all forms of energy.

In fact there recently was a fracking accident which got lots of media attention. Apparently a wellhead ruptured and, according to The Huffington Post, "spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water into fields and a stream last week, the well's owner said, and officials said early tests show the spill had little effect on the environment but an investigation is continuing." Fact finding should happen after any accident. Note that the contamination from this accident is on a par with what happens when a storage tank at a gas station springs a leak – not good but not usually world news.

However, Christopher Swann and Antony Currie writing in Reuters Breaking News found on the NYTimes website highlight their article about the spill as "An Opportunity for Green Energy". They lament that "Fracking didn't quite get its Macondo moment. Chesapeake Energy's fluid spill in Pennsylvania looks minor compared with BP's Gulf of Mexico explosion a year ago." But they console themselves: "All the same, the spill will galvanize critics of hydraulic fracturing… With thousands of wells now being drilled in the United States and big plans unfolding around the world, this is unlikely to be the last time frackers stumble."

Why so much animosity to a fuel which America has in abundance, who's declining price is a welcome relief from the rising price of oil, and which burns much cleaner than gasoline? The reason is also in the article: "Natural gas has become an unexpected nemesis of wind and solar energy in recent years. Low gas prices have made renewable projects look even more expensive than they seemed before."

The challenge is not to let hysteria generated by those with a business interest in other energy sources – including traditional ones - stop us from realizing the huge economic and environmental potential of American natural gas – especially when the hysteria is magnified by scientifically-illiterate Congressional and news reports. Combating the hysteria does mean acknowledging what the real risks are, just as we do with other energy sources, and dealing with those risks sensibly and promptly.

Related posts:

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

The Pickens Plan Bill: The Wrong Way to Get the Right Result

What's the Transportation Fuel of the Future ?

Subsequent information:

Good and Bad News about the Safety of Natural Gas Fracking

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