Science Night: The future of fracking

Professor James Shea led a discussion in Greenquist Hall on Feb. 16 on the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing of rocks, better known as “fracking,” as well as directional drilling, also known as horizontal drilling. Dr. Shea earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his Doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Shea then went on to work for Texaco as an Exploration Geologist in the Gulf Coast and then as the editor the Journal of Geoscience Education.

Fracking is a method used to release oil and natural gas that is trapped inside of impermeable rocks. To accomplish this, they use sand, five hundred thousand gallons of water, and “other materials” such as salt, citric acid, benzene, or lead to fracture the rocks. Once the rock is fractured, the sand moves into place keeping the rock from settling, thereby releasing the fuel. By using these methods, oil companies can produce over three times the amount of fuel. This also creates jobs. In North Dakota right now, a very active fracking area, their unemployment rate is near zero percent; the community is prospering. This is looked at as the headliner of the “pro’s” column.

While it does create more fuel and a large job market, Shea pointed out that fracking has a devastating effect on the environment. Unfortunately, there are very few regulations concerning the safety of these wells. The chemicals that are used in the solution are seeping into the ground water, contaminating the drinking water, as well as the surrounding rivers and lakes. Pennsylvania has been hit hard with these effects. There have been several cases of natural gas leaking into homes, as well as levels so high in the drinking water that it can be lit on fire, and the wells themselves are exploding. There are currently no regulations on the levels of methane in the drinking water, and while it can’t be proved harmful to drink, it has been found to cause explosions in homes or asphyxiation because it collects in small spaces. In 2004, an explosion in Pennsylvania took the life of a family of four. The EPA has no legislation concerning the exact ingredients in the “solution” that is used in fracking because the agency is prohibited by a federal exemption. There is a bill lounging around in the house right now that was introduced by a group of Democratic Congressmen called the FRAC Act that causes for full disclosure of this solution. A moratorium was set in place in New York State to stop any further fracking or horizontal drilling. There is also lobbying going on in Ohio and Colorado to place higher restrictions and regulations on the fracking method.

Dr. Shea closed the discussion by asking us to consider the short-term versus long-term effects that fracking is creating on our environment and at what cost we are willing to pay for them. Once the wells are dry, what is left for the surrounding communities? Hopefully, Congress will get around to looking at the FRAC Act and impose strict guidelines before it is too late.

Article by Sarah Savage

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