By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow; with contributions from Justin D. Vanderberg, Doctoral Candidate at the Pennsylvania State University Department of Geography
Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, the drilling process known has hydraulic fracturing has changed your life. The controversial drilling process, which sends a host of possibly harmful chemicals in the ground to break apart rock formations, has dramatically expanded the possibilities for natural gas production in the United States. This is because a lot of natural gas in the U.S. is tied up in shale, a sedimentary rock similar to slate, that acts as a “cap” on large natural gas deposits which been really difficult to drill through.
That is, until a breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking” for those in the business—allowed drillers to break apart the shale caps on natural gas reservoirs, which allowed access to millions of cubic feet of natural gas, and changed the make-up of U.S. energy reserves forever. This map, compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Agency in 2010, shows the massive number of new deposits that are now available through shale fracking (insert BSG joke here). In the last few years, the United States has begun drilling hundreds of wells using the new process, making natural gas dirt cheap in the process, and lowering heating costs for millions.
Until now. As mentioned above, fracking is a pretty controversial process because it sends an unknown, and possibly harmful, mixture of chemicals underground to break up rock formations, and possibly seep into water aquifers. Opponents have pointed to several instances where diesel fuel was used by drillers to break apart rock formation, and last Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed petroleum use in hydrofracking was a violation of the Clean Water Drinking Act. This comes after the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation hesitated on fracking, and enacted a lengthy hearing process to mull whether the drilling method would be allowed in its vast natural gas reserves.
The reverberations from this latest development in this earth-shattering debate (pun gleefully intended) will be felt all the way across the Atlantic. Europe has had its eye on hydraulic fracturing technology for a while, as European countries are eager to supply energy from domestic sources, even though they’re unlikely to have anywhere near the reserves the of the US. This is due to the generally unpleasant nature of the dealings with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, a primary supplier of Europe’s natural gas who isn’t afraid to throw its weight around and freeze monkeys (and, although it evokes less sympathy, people) when its economically and politically expedient. The sooner Europe reduces its energy dependence on Russia, the better, but this will have a dramatic effect on the Russian economy.
The only catch is that the European Union has a lot tougher environmental standards than the US. In the Old World, drillers have the burden of proof to demonstrate that they know nothing bad will happened to the environment if they start their operation. Last week I spoke with geology expert Justin D. Vanderberg, who holds that its unlikely the small amount of chemicals used in hydro fracking can make it into local aquifers. For the most part, natural gas deposits are much further underground than underground water supplies, and the semi-impermeable shale is likely to hold any harmful substances from leaking to other strata of the Earth. Of course it’s unknown whether the EU, which has long stuck to its guns on environmental issues, will reach the same conclusion. But whatever the EU decides to do—forgo environmental concerns to ensure energy supply, or stick to their green rhetoric– hydraulic fracturing will prove to be a major factor in the Europe’s politics in the near future.