Rod Walton: Fracking may be less harmful than surface coal mining, Duke researcher says
BY ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 02, 2012
12/02/12 at 3:24 AM
The jury is still out when it comes to the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater. Some argue that the mix of sand, water and chemicals is an immediate danger to the environment, but others defend it by pointing out that no definitive evidence has proved any contamination issues.
One Duke researcher is learning that hydraulic fracturing is far from perfect but may be less harmful than the way another major power-generation fuel source is produced - surface coal mining.
Brian Lutz, who is moving to Kent State University for the spring semester, lectured a University of Tulsa crowd Wednesday about comparing the water impact of hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale to mountaintop coal mining in southern West Virginia. The talk was sponsored by TU and the National Energy Policy Institute.
The combination of hydraulic fracturing - using the fluid mix to create holes in shale rock for gas to escape - and horizontal drilling has unlocked a shale gas revolution, as industry insiders like to say. Natural gas may account for half of U.S. electricity generation by 2030, and shale gas may be 50 percent of the dry gas produced in that era, according to reports.
"The energy map is changing because of hydraulic fracturing," Lutz told the TU crowd.
Hydraulic fracturing of oil plays is even more dramatic these days, with the International Energy Agency recently predicting that the U.S. may become the world's top crude producer by 2020. The domestic dependence on foreign oil, which grew for 40 years, is being reversed with the possible outcome of relative energy independence by 2035, the IEA reported.
So what's the problem?
Well, environmentalists and some researchers are curious about how all fracturing fluid - often 2 million to 5 million gallons per well - will affect drinking water supplies, plus figuring out what to do with all flowback water that comes out with high concentrations of salts and other elements.
Lutz is hoping for "dispassionate" research done not by partisans but through exhaustive, unbiased means.
On Thursday he gave his own exhaustive Duke University comparison of hydraulic fracturing vs. mountaintop coal mining. Coal currently accounts for nearly half of power-generation fuel sources, and mountaintop mining is an efficient method by which producers take off entire ridges to get at seams, then move that remaining rubble into "valley fill."
"It's a dramatic re-engineering of the earth's landscape," Lutz noted. "The footprint of mountaintop mining will simply dwarf the footprint of hydraulic fracturing."
Nonetheless, shale gas drilling still needs a lot of research and brainstorming to determine safer ways to deal with all that water.
Original Print Headline: Comparing fracking to mining