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New York Times: Fixing the Fractured Fracturing Debate

A Duke University study "suggested that gas drilling causes methane gas to leak into people's water and sometimes their homes," notes a New York Times article. Subsequent citation of this study by opponents of hydraulic fracturing serves as an example of how the public mindset can draw wrong conclusions by not carefully distinguishing an improperly done drilling activity from the specific practice of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking")—a well-stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources.

The study's author noted that hydraulic fracturing was not to blame for this instance of contamination: "...methane contamination is not caused by injecting chemicals down the well. It is caused by bad well construction during drilling." In other words, there is an inclination by some, as fracking moves to the center of public fervor, to blame the longstanding oil and gas industry practice for more than its due, to use hydraulic fracturing as a convenient whipping post for any practice connected with drilling gone-awry.

The result? The New York Times notes: "The result is that the two sides (drilling critics and drilling supporters) often talk past one another when discussing the environmental consequences of oil and gas production from shale formations."

However, the truth is, as the article points out, that many accusations of water contamination and resulting fines for violations are misplaced, if tied to fracturing. "But by the definition of industry, along with most everyone who followed oil and gas issues before the current shale drilling boom, fracturing didn't cause those problems."

Public Goes to Washington...or Dallas, at Least

In the debate over the possible consequences of hydraulic fracturing, ordinary citizens are not relegated to the sidelines. In fact, they may be called into an official capacity in helping sort fiction from fact. In Dallas, applications are being accepted through May 23 for a natural gas drilling task force (which will include ordinary citizens along with industry officials and academics) to rewrite drilling ordinances. This comes amid a push to ban drilling altogether. Drilling is a hotbed issue in North Texas due to the presence of the Barnett Shale. And it can be expected North Texas also will be a focal point for how well, or how poorly, the public and opinion leaders are able to discipline their statements about the issue, whether they wait for fact or let emotions rule. The Dallas Morning News talks about not just the task force that is forming, but also another study on hydraulic fracturing that is underway at the University of Texas' Energy Institute.

Hydraulic Fracturing and America's Energy Future

Making sure to stick to legitimate facts and not shut down drilling or hydraulic fracturing in a tide of emotion is critically important given the role shale gas can play in meeting future U.S. energy needs. The Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2035, shale gas production will represent 50 percent of all natural gas production in the U.S. "It is projected that this increased production will enable natural gas to provide 60 percent of electricity supply increases necessary to meet demand through 2035," the EIA was quoted as saying in background material provided to the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology for its May 11 hearing, "Review of Hydraulic Fracturing Technology and Practices."

Hydraulic fracturing, along with advanced horizontal drilling technologies, have been developed not only to meet the energy-hungry needs of a growing modern society, but also to address the interests of environmentalists, as well. Horizontal drilling, which began in 1930 and predates hydraulic fracturing by two decades, has made it possible to "significantly reduce the overall number of well pads, access roads, pipeline routes, and production facilities required, thus minimizing the habitat fragmentation, impacts to the public, and the overall environmental footprint," according to a 2009 report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Worldwide, the U.S. is second only to China in estimated recoverable gas shale resources.

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