If you live in the United States — almost anywhere in the U.S. — there may be a gas well coming to a site near you. Even on property you think you own, a gas well may be on its way.
Then there is the problem of how much air and water pollution that neighborhood gas well will bring with it. So far pollution has brought the most public outcry, largely because it is the issue that environmentalists are concerned with.
The new abundance of natural gas is a bonanza, but it is not a free lunch. Gas wells near or in your backyard are dividing communities, particularly in rural areas, and could eventually divide the environmental movement.
For decades natural gas has been the benign fuel without the pollution of coal, the geopolitical ramifications of oil, or the politics of nuclear. In fact, natural gas is almost too good to be true — or it has been until this latest chapter in its history opened. New supplies and new ways of liberating them are tarnishing the image of gas as the best energy available.
Traditionally, drilling for gas was like drilling for oil. A hole went deep into the ground until it penetrated a big cavern of gas with tributaries, which would yield more gas if the rock there was broken up. This rock-breaking was called hydraulic fracturing, and this was accomplished by injecting various liquids including water, chemicals and gas that had seeped to the surface outside of the piping.
Fifty years ago, there were even two experimental programs to use nuclear detonations for fracking gas. That method didn't go forward.
Since then, things have come a long way in the search for more gas and new technologies have evolved. Chief among these are seismic mapping and horizontal drilling. The former gives geologists a very exact picture of what is underground, and the latter makes the collection of it much more efficient.
Horizontal drilling finds the lock and fracking turns the key. Whereas once drillers put down one straw and sucked, now they put down one straw and then send out others horizontally in many directions.
Thus enabled, gas can now be exploited where it was previously unreachable — in shale rock. But to get the rock to give up its harvest, fracking is essential. With it come problems, and gas — if you will — loses its innocence.
Fracking is environmentally contaminating:
a. The fracking agent along with the methane could seep into drinking water and alarm farmers and communities.
b. Methane tends to escape around the well and is a major greenhouse gas.
c. A gas well using fracking demands millions of gallons of water. Many pollutants, like mercury and nitrates, are borne to the surface with the discharged water, which is then held in leach ponds.
This negates the big environmental virtue of gas that it burns with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal and none of the nitrous oxides. The lunch tab has gone from nearly free to quite pricey.
The problem for the environmental movement is that it has favored natural gas for electricity production over its bete noirs: nuclear and coal.
The problem of an unwanted gas well landing on land you thought you owned is an historical one which recognizes "split estates." This was a concept in law that the land had two values: the surface and the oil and gas contained under the surface.
These two estates could be split and a landowner could sell the rights to the subterranean estate. Historically, many have done so. Now with the value of shale gas rising in 30 or more states, homeowners are finding that grandpa or a previous owner may have tried to capitalize too early by selling the underground rights.
As Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council told a meeting on fracking in Washington this week, the law's results can be devastating. A family in Wise County, Texas, lost all value in their 10-acre holding when a gas company, which leased the mineral rights from neighbors who had bought them earlier, set up a rig and occupied five acres of land for their operations.
This is part of the back story on the new bonanza of natural gas that is giving so many so much hope for our energy future. The new gas is not your father's gas and while it is a boon, it is not all blessing. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate