Natural Gas: Worth the sacrifice of our water?

From: Virginia Farley ’13
Published: April 1, 2011

Water is commonly known as the main ingredient to life. Reminiscing our elementary school days, it is not hard to picture the simplified lectures surrounding the water cycle, photosynthesis, human biology, etc. Giving proof to the idea that we did in fact learn everything we need to know in kindergarten (or at least 5th grade), the main message still stands: water is important. Somehow along the way however, we have lost our grip on this seemingly straightforward ideal. We are not treating our water as if it was the critical component to our sustenance as we surely know it is. Instead, sayings such as “dilution is the solution to pollution” have become wide-spread theories. One of our most recent threats to the health of our water has come in what I think to be a surprising medium: natural gas drilling. Most typically when mentioning environmental concerns associated with the use of fossil fuels, the hot topic of climate change is thrown around with ease. Although natural gas takes the cake as “the clean burning fossil fuel”, it has many other environmental impacts to take into consideration: with its effects on water quality being a premier one.

Rarely are we able to determine and identify the full extent of environmental and health impacts associated with any given action we choose to partake in. Realizing this, we have identified something known as the “precautionary principle”. This concept encompasses the idea that scientific proof is hard if not impossible to achieve. Therefore, we must take precautionary measures when an activity raises threats of harm to the public and the environment. Another thing we quickly learned in our early years: it is much harder to go back and try to fix something than if we had never done it in the first place. In the state of Pennsylvania, we have acted directly against said principle.

The Marcellus Shale, a geological formation residing over numerous states in the northeast section of our country, has become a recent gold mine for natural gas developers. Utilizing a new method of extraction, the shale has become far more accessible than previously expected. Traditional natural gas drilling is no innocent endeavor, and the individuals witness to it over the past few decades in western and southern states would be quick to tell you. However, it is in this new method (known as Hydraulic Fracturing- “hydro fracking”) that spurs much worry. To be brief, this process involves millions of gallons of fresh water in combination with hundreds of chemicals and lubricants to be pumped down underground at incredible pressure. This procedure results in the fracturing of the shale structure, releasing the previously entrapped natural gas. New York and Maryland are two states that quickly recognized the threats embedded in this surge of development and through caution placed a moratorium on all drilling in their respective states. Pennsylvania did not.

Throughout the process of drilling for natural gas numerous concerns arise. To name a few:  lowered water quantity due to the substantial amounts of water needed for the hydro-fracking process, diminished water quality in association with the treatment and disposal of the reject water (flowback water), health impacts from diminished air quality for local residents, structural damage to infrastructure in area around drilling sites, and finally possible socio-economic alterations to communities.

The future of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania is unclear. However, it should be our hope that through adequate research and regulation, the appropriate steps towards a country with safe and healthy water will be made. As water is said to be the next limited resource, we must make our most aggressive attempts to protect this vital commodity.