The Fracas Over Fracking

By Chandrashekar (Chandra) Tamirisa, (On Twitter) @c_tamirisa

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(I also posted this article on my Maryland Pickens Plan blog at on November 03, 2009 when I was a volunteer grassroots leader and registered Congressional lobbyist for the plan from October 2008- May 2011. Since, this article of mine has become the benchmark in the national dialog about fracking on radio and online. President Obama has assured extraction by 2016. I edited this article as a registered lobbyist on 07/29/2012 to suggest a solution to get to extracting the resource safely for the purposes of use in combined cycle power plants, fertilizers –  a resource allocation concern of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, as transportation fuel primarily in 18-wheeler trucks, and for other industrial uses. I also discussed this upon invitation by Pickens Plan State Leader of California John Wesley Nobles, nationally, on Blog Talk Radio.)

Brittle, packed, layered and flat rock formations known as shale that trap billions of cubic feet of gas are an engineering challenge to break into, especially if they are deep inside the ground. Organic debris, no different from a dead tree, a dead animal or human, over millennia had agglomerated, putrefied and decomposed to produce compounds of hydrogen, the most pervasive element in the universe, and carbon, rather unique to the earth in its composition, making life possible. These compounds are known as hydrocarbons, whether it is the methane that cows release on farms, that is used to cook at home or the alcohol that people drink.

The lightest of them is methane. It has 1 carbon atom, C, that is heavier than the 4 hydrogen, H, atoms which are, even when put together, lighter than the one carbon atom with which they bond to form the gas that is at once harmful (said to cause a black swan event similar to the Permian extinction hundreds of millions of years ago but when the planet was still forming) and useful, depending on how we use it. This is the fracas over the chemical the world seems to now want, after fighting over oil, which has much heavier hydrocarbons than methane and therefore is more polluting because they produce more carbon dioxide as a byproduct, for a century.

The marvel that is nature must be respected before it is touched and it has been duly respected. Before the ubiquitous water that is on the surface of the earth, under it and inside our bodies can be used to produce infinite amounts of energy to sustain humanity’s energy needs for the foreseeable future, it is being used to extract natural gas from the shale. The engineering has been done. The engineering technique is known as hydraulic fracturing or hydro cracking or “fracking” for short, even though it sounds like high school slang. Water, under high pressure, is pumped through a pipe to break or crack the rock to release the gas. The major oil and gas companies of the world know how to get the gas out from the hard to get to places all over the planet, from the vast expanse of Russia and across Alaska into the United States.

The issue is the impact of the extraction on the environment. Is the gas sufficiently contained from leaking to prevent the contamination of the atmosphere? Is the technique of extraction contaminating the other treasures such as the potable ground water that the earth also stores, naturally insulated from the other chemicals, such as methane? Is the noise from all those machines compressing the gas when coupled with the sounds of the airplanes, cars and trucks on the highways causing psychosomatic problems for the people who live nearby, just as also is the concern with supersonic jets?

Fracking answers the first two questions posed above satisfactorily. But for the occasional greed of oil and gas companies to cut corners by using other chemicals such as diesel which contaminate the ground water that makes artesian wells possible with a heavier and carcinogenic hydrocarbon known as benzene, the problem of water pollution has been addressed albeit subject to its own fracking because of legislative disparities across the various U.S states, some footloose about the environment and others more cautious. This is something any federal legislation must address to standardize legislation governing and enforcing fracking, given the vast expanse of shale, coast to coast that motivated the National Public Radio (NPR) to recently run a series on natural gas and critiqued by its own ombudsman for being insufficiently balanced.

The United States Congress has already been working on one, known as the “Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act” or the FRAC Act since June of this year after it was introduced by, among others, Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, a state actively involved in natural gas research through the Colorado School of Mines, to “repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water Act, and for other purposes.” The Senate has also joined in with its own companion version of the legislation.

I suggest that the natural gas industry demonstrate safe hydraulic fracturing on an experimental basis to lawmakers in Washington, D.C and collect panel data from now to 2016 before large-scale extraction can happen on a routine basis in the United States.

The last question of noise pollution is an important one but surmountable. Noises can be muffled, not with the inconvenience of the ear plugs during NASCAR races but with better engineering of compressors and drilling equipment that can muffle the sounds. Perhaps, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should look into noise pollution concerns, even if it is only meant mostly for the workers in the fields if not for the few others, people and animals on farms surrounding them.

They say cows yield more milk when they listen to music, perhaps even the Department of Agriculture (DOA) should throw in its two cents into this debate so that the country can get going soon with becoming self-sufficient in energy.


About Chandrashekar (Chandra) Tamirisa
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One Response to The Fracas Over Fracking

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