Let's start with the good news. The natural gas reserves of the U.S. have increased so substantially that we now have close to a 100-year proven supply. Reserves of potential natural gas have risen in two years from 1.32 trillion cubic feet to 1.84 trillion. The increase is attributable not so much to discoveries of new deposits but to a technique--hydraulic fracturing or fracking--that makes it possible to extract gas from shale deposits at depths of up to 8,000 feet. It uses both drilling and the injection of high-pressure water to fracture rock underground, thereby releasing the natural gas it contains.
Fracking has been around since 1949. But its use in recent years has grown exponentially. Its ability to produce gas isn't in dispute. Its environmental consequences are.
Critics, including filmmaker Josh Fox, whose documentary "Gasland" has aired on HBO, point to the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, whose citizenry say fracking (or chemicals associated with it) has ruined property, contaminated wells, killed livestock and so infused domestic tap water with methane that it has on occasion caught fire. Then, there's Bainbridge, Ohio's, exploding house: gas from a fracked well migrated into the home's basement and detonated, while damaging the wells of more than a dozen other homes.
"We think it's a big deal," says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What they're supposed to do is drill down, go through underground aquifers, and use multiple layers of casing--steel pipe and concrete--to protect the aquifer. If they don't do it properly, they create a pathway for contamination, either by methane or by chemicals used in fracking. You're forever altering the geologic layer. Contamination might not show up for years or decades." The long-term consequences she calls "a looming disaster."
Travis Windle, an industry spokesman, says that wells properly constructed and cased pose no risk and could "in no way communicate" with ground water. That's a view shared by Pennsylvania's top environmental regulator, John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, who earlier this month pronounced fracking safe, telling Reuters, "There's a lot of focus in the media and the public on the problems that we have not had." As for the exploding house, a year-long investigation by Ohio regulators determined that an improper cement job on the well's casing was in part to blame.