‘Fracking’ is essential to our future
Mora County Commissioner John Olivas wants a ban on oil and gas drilling in his county because he is concerned about the environmental impact of a drilling process used to extract tight shale gas named hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” as it is colloquially called.
Mora County is not alone in its concern about fracking. Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and San Miguel counties have halted or discouraged drilling and fracking with ordinances and moratoriums.
In a hydraulic fracturing job, “fracturing fluids” or “pumping fluids” consisting primarily of water and sand are injected under high pressure into the producing formation, creating fissures that allow resources to move freely from rock pores where it is trapped.
Typically, steel pipe known as surface casing is cemented into place at the uppermost portion of a well for the explicit purpose of protecting the groundwater.
In 2004, the EPA concluded, “the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coal-bed methane wells pose little or no threat to underground drinking water.” However, last month the EPA announced for the first time that fracking may be to blame for groundwater pollution.
The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming. The EPA emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area. The agency said that fracking that occurred in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics.
A deceitful movie
So why are county commissioners in New Mexico jumping on the “ban wagon?” Maybe they have been watching too many Michael Moore-like documentaries on Netflix. An Oscar-nominated documentary, “Gasland,” says fracking contaminates our water supply with chemicals. In the movie, some homeowners set their tap water on fire.
The movie got a lot of attention (maybe Commissioner Olivas’?), but the movie’s arguments against fracking turn out to be deceitful.
Apparently, the dramatic tap water blaze had little to do with fracking. In many parts of America, there is enough methane in the ground to leak into people’s well water. The best fire scene in the movie was shot in Colorado, where the filmmaker is in the kitchen of a man who lights his faucet.
But Colorado investigators went to the man’s house, checked out his well and found that fracking had nothing to do with his water catching fire. His well-digger had drilled into a naturally occurring methane pocket. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which is overseen by the Department of Natural Resources in Colorado, made this report investigating the claims made by the Gasland filmmakers.
Gasland features three Weld County landowners, Mike Markham, Renee McClure, and Aimee Ellsworth, whose water wells were allegedly contaminated by oil and gas development. The COGCC investigated complaints from all three landowners in 2008 and 2009. The COGCC concluded that Aimee Elllsworth’s well contained a mixture of biogenic and thermogenic methane that was in part attributable to oil and gas development, and Ms. Ellsworth and an operator reached a settlement in that case. However, using the same investigative techniques, the COGCC concluded that Mike Markham’s and Renee McClure’s wells contained bi0genic gas that was not related to oil and gas activity. Unfortunately, Gasland does not mention the McClure finding and dismisses the Markham finding out of hand.
So the Tower of Babel stretches high on this issue of whether fracking is the devil incarnate or just needs professional oversight to continue exploring a possible game-changer for America to break its dependance on unfriendly foreign fossil fuel sources.
Fracking in New Mexico
Fracking was used as far back as the 1860s to access oil and gas reserves. “In New Mexico, the majority of the 52,000 oil and gas wells in production have undergone fracturing,” according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
In early August of 2011, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association took a pre-emptive step and asked the state to require companies to disclose fluids 45 days after a well is complete. The information must be posted on a new public website called FracFocus or submitted in writing to the Oil Conservation Division.
“Fracking is the key to increased domestic production,” says Steve Henke, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “Without this tool, many of these unconventional shale formations become uneconomical to drill.”
The Big Picture
The world’s centers of gravity for hydrocarbons are spreading out from the Middle East. And the reason is new exploitation of “unconventional sources” such as shale. Within the oil and gas industry, this new output is called the “shale gale.”
It’s not overstating the case to say that unconventional hydrocarbons have shifted the world’s energy balance of power. The “shale gale” has spread the wealth around. Vast volumes of hydrocarbons are not just Middle Eastern plays anymore.
This shift has been enabled by new technology – revolutionary, really. Across the world, we’ve seen vast, stunning improvements in applied mathematics and computational abilities. Just on that basis along, today’s energy industry works with much-better exploration tools than in the past – better seismic and geochemistry.
Then there are new dramatically improved capabilities in directional drilling, with better drill bits and better fluids. After the holes are drilled, there’s fracking. The modern energy industry has more powerful pumps, more control of down-hole pressures and even better nanomaterials for holding the cracks open in the fractured shale and other tight rocks. What’s more, there are better post-completion treatments.
Here in the United States, the shale gale has eliminated the need for liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, likely for several decades and perhaps longer. In addition, the shale gale has the potential to significantly reduce Russia’s influence over the European natural gas market. At the same time, the shale gale will dramatically diminish the “petro power” of other major OPEC players, such as Iran and Venezuela.
Fracking is important to New Mexico
Fracking plays a very important role in energy production nationally and in New Mexico.
A recent report from the American Petroleum Institute concluded that if Congress were to place additional federal regulations that govern the oil and gas industry practice of fracking, the number of new U.S. wells drilled would plummet 20.5 percent over a five-year period.
The study also concluded that elimination of the use of fracking would be catastrophic to the development of American natural gas and oil, with a 79 percent drop in well completions, resulting in a 45 percent reduction in natural gas production and a 17 percent reduction in oil production by 2014.
The oil and gas industry provides significant revenues to the State of New Mexico and local municipalities. For fiscal 2010, oil and gas revenue payments in the form of taxes, royalties and other revenues totaled nearly $2.2 billion. That represents a 27 percent contribution to the state’s general fund.
Now it’s up to the energy industry here in New Mexico to keep pressing its efforts to move ahead with new technology and improved internal controls.
While at the same time, it’s up to the policymakers of New Mexico to keep up on those latest technological and safety improvements in the industry in order to be better-informed about an industry that is of such vital importance to the revenue and energy development of New Mexico.
Natural gas is not risk-free, but no energy source is. Perfect, Commissioner Olivas, is not one of the choices.
Thomas Molitor is a regulatory analyst with the American Action Forum in Washington D.C. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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