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Murky Waters

by Philip Bump 01-07-2013
Want to learn how fracking affects groundwater? Good luck with that.

(Sheli Jensen / Shutterstock)

THE FINGER LAKES region of western New York is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The 11 lakes dangle like a necklace below Lake Ontario, surrounded by hills that are a breathtaking green in summer, red and orange for a flash in the autumn, then snowy white until the cycle repeats. It’s an area where the main tension has been of the resident-vs.-renter sort.

This summer, the tension, visibly staked out with lawn signs, was different. The topic: hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” for short. In this process, fluid—primarily water, with some sand and other chemicals—is injected deep underground to break apart shale rock, releasing natural gas and oil. Back at the surface, gas and oil are cleaned and sold; the water mixture is dumped into deep wells.

The procedure has only been made cost-effective in the last decade or so; awareness of retrievable shale oil and gas deposits isn’t a whole lot older. Combine the two, and you have an energy boom—one that led natural gas to nearly overtake coal for electricity production at one point last year.

A key question that has not been definitively answered: Does fracking, compared to the fuel it displaces, increase or decrease greenhouse gas production? Since natural gas, compared to coal, produces significantly less carbon dioxide when burned, cheaper natural gas is one reason why U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have gone down significantly of late. But natural gas is primarily methane—a gas that is more than 20 times as effective at trapping heat as carbon dioxide. During the fracking process, some of that methane escapes into the atmosphere; there is debate over how much.