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Laura Mihelich/MEDILL

Future of fracking holds promise for U.S. energy outlook

by Kelly Gustafson and Laura Mihelich
Jan 17, 2012


U.S. Energy Information Administration

"Fracking - the quest for energy independence"

Thursday, Jan. 19
11:30 a.m. registration and box lunch ($20 members/ $30 non-members / $10 students)
12:30 p.m. presentation
Northwestern University
Hughes Auditorium
303 E. Superior St., Chicago, IL, 60611
Time magazine labeled fracking as “the biggest environmental issue of 2011.” But while the technology for hydraulic fracturing— or fracking—is not new, environmental controversies surrounding the drilling technique have turned it into a buzzword.

The Chicago Council on Science and Technology will sponsor “Fracking—the quest for energy independence,” Thursday, in a presentation that will shed light on how fracking works and the economic implications it holds.

Fracking has the potential to make the United States “largely independent of foreign sources of natural gas and significantly less dependent on foreign sources of oil,” a C2ST release read, by tapping into huge natural gas reserves trapped in shale rock.

Shale rock reserves have gone largely untouched in the past because of the difficulties of getting gas out of rock and the time it takes to extract it.

But hydraulic fracturing has expedited that process in some shale by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemical additives at high pressure into the well to break up the rock, allowing the gas to flow out.

Gerald Holder, dean of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, will speak Thursday about the “enormous discovery” of natural gas in shale in the past five years and the implications it brings, both environmentally and economically.

“The amount of gas in shale is potentially the second largest natural gas source on Earth,” he said.

In the U.S., the Marcellus Shale reserve, which sits under much of the Appalachian Basin, potentially could supply the entire country with natural gas for the next 20 years, he said.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas consumption is projected to increase across the board in 2012, with the largest increase coming from electric power. (See chart for natural gas distribution across sectors.)

Natural gas remains relatively inexpensive because of production increases. In 2011, total marketed production grew by 7.4 percent, according to the EIA, the largest year-over-year increase in history.

Chicago Citygates, the regional natural gas price index, fell 8 percent to $4.12/MMBTU in 2011, according to the EIA. A BTU measures the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water.

For Illinois’ 3.8 million natural gas consumers, this could translate into lower prices for a fossil fuel that burns cleaner than coal, its cheaper counterpart.

A natural gas boom spurred by the extensive use of fracking across the industry could add billions of dollars and jobs to the American economy, Holder said, citing a 2008 projection. He said the gas trapped in Marcellus Shale could add $385 billion and 3 million jobs to the economy over its production life.

But along with the enticing economic advantages fracking brings, environmental groups are quick to bring up the possible adverse effects, such as water contamination and water depletion.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on an initial two-year study of possible contamination effects, scheduled to be completed in late 2012.

Trevor Smith, program manager of unconventional gas sustainability for the Gas Technology Institute, said fracking has come under fire recently because people are becoming aware of it as drilling sites move to more densely populated areas.

“The industry has not done a good job of explaining the science behind it,” Smith said. “It appears to be new and untested and some people even think it’s a dangerous technology, but the reality is it’s been around a long, long time.”

He said the real environmental issues at hand concern the amount of land set aside for drilling, the amount of water used and whether that water is reused in other wells or trucked out to be disposed of.

Anywhere from 1 million to 8 million gallons of water can be used to frack a well.

But Holder said compared with other water usage rates, such as power generation, water used for fracking is “not a huge amount.” In Pennsylvania, power plants use about 6 billion gallons of water a day, whereas Marcellus Shale drilling teams use about 60 million gallons per day.

John Cronin, president and CEO of Houston Wilderness, an environmental group that works to promote biodiversity, said the competing science makes things “very confusing” while there is still testing going on.

“There’s nothing on the table that proves it’s a detriment to our drinking water or air,” Cronin said. “Natural gas could be the filler as we search for renewable energy.”

Smith agreed.

He said natural gas is the “best hope” to meet the nation’s climate change goals in an economical manner.

 Even with the latest technologies, Smith said miners are only getting about 20 percent of the available gas out of shale. As technologies advance, he said they should be able to go back into the same wells, extending the life of U.S. natural gas supplies.

“At the end of the day, what’s required is to look at the science and have an adult conversation around the fact that all energy sources have risks, impacts, costs and benefits,” Smith said. “This is what could help the country move forward and have a sustainable energy policy.”