Josh Fox's film Gasland has stirred up a lot of controversy over the environmental damage caused by shale gas drilling. Shale gas reservoir rock lies many thousands of feet below the surface, with the depth depending on the location. In order to get the gas to flow up to the wellhead, operators drill down to the shale rock layer, and then apply a process called hydraulic fracturing to "open up" the rock. This requires injecting a fracturing fluid into the shale at very high pressure. This fluid is mostly water, but also contains hundreds of nasty chemicals.
Where do the gas, the chemicals, and the contaminated water end up? The best outcome says that all three 1) flow up to the wellhead, where they are captured or produced; or 2) stay trapped in the shale rock many thousands of feet below the surface. This description is over-simplified, but basically correct. The gas industry wants you to believe this story. Josh Fox wants you to believe that these gas or fluids get loose, flowing into the water table or the air, and thus polluting both.
Which story should you believe?
You should believe both of these stories. How many times in the last 40 years have we seen this narrative play out? The answer is too many times to count. Does drilling and hydro-fracking sometimes pollute the environment? Sure it does! Does a bear shit in the woods? On the other hand, shale gas production is perfectly safe most of the time. No one really knows how frequently drilling pollutes the environment in a serious way, which is really the immediate issue at hand.
But we need to step back and look at the Big Picture. Do we need the natural gas? Yes, indeed—see my Betting The House On Shale Gas. Do we want to further pollute the environment? No, of course not—see any story on the BP oil spill. This is the bed we have made, and now we have to sleep in it.
Where are the wind farms, and the solar concentrators, and the whatevers which are supposed to alleviate pressures to produce more & more natural gas? They don't exist! We could re-frame that question. Where are the natural gas vehicle fleets & infrastructure that could alleviate pressures to produce more & more oil? They don't exist! I could go on and on here, and the answer would always be the same: They don't exist!
OK, why don't they exist? Once again, we get into two narratives. The oil & gas industry will tell you that renewable energy is not up to the task of replacing fossil fuels. The environmentalists will tell you the political power of the oil & gas industry prevents us from implementing renewable solutions. I could write a book about this too, but take note: we are still trapped in the same old pointless conflict. People want a sustainably clean environment, but they also want their homes heated (or cooled) and their lights to come on when they flip the switch.
In other words, we want to have our cake and eat it too. How do we break out of this vicious circle? One way we could have escaped would been to have a coherent, universally agreed upon energy policy in place over the last 3 decades after the energy dislocations of the 1970s and early 1980s. That policy could have been amended as circumstances changed. But it was way too much for us to expect such a wise policy in Cowboy America. No can do—we'll just make it up as we go along.
So, we don't break out of this vicious circle. This infantile Fossil Fuels versus The Environment debate has gone on for about 40 years now. This noise will continue well into the future until all the Big Questions have finally been resolved. And that resolution will mean that sometime in the 21st century, we will have exhausted most of our exploitable fossil fuel resources, and we will have trashed the planet.
All because we wanted to have our cake and to eat it too.
Here's the Hydrofracking Wars video from Tech Ticker.
Note: pause the video when it's finished to prevent it from playing again