But is it a good revolution or a bad revolution?

According to Steve Forbes, editor in chief of Forbes magazine and sometime presidential candidate, the “energy crisis [is] over!” (In case you’re wondering, that exclamation point is Mr. Forbes’s.)

What ended the crisis? According to Mr. Forbes, there’s an energy “revolution” on that’s due to the application of a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing or, in the parlance of those in the know, just plain “fracking.” Methinks that Mr. Forbes’s pronouncement of the demise of the energy crisis is premature.

All Hail the Shale

The seeds of Mr. Forbes’s revolution can be found in pockets of natural gas trapped inside shale, sedimentary rock formations often located deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Geologists tell us there are huge amounts of this “shale gas” hanging out in shale formations in the United States (and elsewhere), but because the gas is unable to migrate through the rock [pdf], these deposits had up until recently been classified as unrecoverable and thus of no use economically. (Related: “The Great Shale Gas Rush“)

But All That Has Changed with Fracking

Getting to the shale gas is a relatively simple process. It involves both the use of horizontal drilling and fracking to maximize gas extraction. Once a vertical well reaches the target formation, one drills horizontally through it, then fractures the rock by injecting water, sand and a cocktail of likely toxic chemicals into the rock under high pressure to fracture it and liberate the trapped gas. The gas is then pumped out and voilà! — you have a whole new source of natural gas.

Make no mistake — this is a game changer. With natural gas now available from shale and other tight formations, the amount of potentially recoverable natural gas in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. All of a sudden there is enough of the stuff to run our power plants and power our automobiles for decades, perhaps a century into the future.

But There Is a Problem

In the 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz, the bad witch was done in by a bucket of water. Shale gas may face a similar fate.

Evidence is mounting that fracking does bad things to people’s drinking water. (Examples here, here, and here.) It appears that somehow all that fracturing and pumping are causing gas and chemicals to migrate upward into well water. Increasingly, people with wells in the vicinity of fracking operations are complaining of drinking water contaminated by natural gas or worse.

In at least one location, alternate water supplies have had to be found for and delivered to folks whose water is laced with natural gas to the point of posing a safety hazard — like the pipes going kaboom.

What’s to Be Done?

Some advise not to worry about that water contamination thing.

Industry experts claim that contamination is just not possible. The fracking occurs so far below the water table, they say, there is no way for any contamination to occur. (If that’s the case, one has to wonder why Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 and why companies have been slow or unwilling to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process.) While not exactly an energy expert, Steve Forbes has entered the fray, assuring us that “the technology is there to get at these reserves in an extremely safe way” and declaring that “the Earth is awash in energy.”

I am impressed with his confidence. But I wonder what it is based on. Has he bothered to visit and drink the water of some of the people whose wells have been contaminated? And how does he rationalize the presence of natural gas in their well water? Is it a coincidence that the contamination showed up once the fracking began, or have these people been drinking contaminated, flammable water all this time and just never realized it?

Others argue that getting at that shale gas is a duty — contaminated water be damned. One Pennsylvania man receiving royalties for fracking on his land reasons that “God made everything … he put [minerals] there for a purpose. It’s in our best interest to use the resources.” I guess there’s something appealing about that … but then again I wonder about that whole apple thing and the instructions not to take a bite.

The Stakes Are Huge

We have a lot riding on this fracking thing. Getting at the shale gas would be good, opening up a huge new domestic source of albeit a fossil fuel but a relatively clean one. But you can’t live without drinking water. Maybe, just maybe it would make sense to take a step back, spend some time trying to figure out what’s going on with these folks’ drinking water and then maybe even figure out how to frack without the contamination, should fracking prove to be the contamination source. But perhaps that’s just too sensible.


  1. Bill Chameides
    November 30, 2010, 5:14 pm

    Gary: You are correct that pulling oil out of oil shale requires large amounts of water as does fracking for shale gas. But don’t conflate oil shale with shale gas — two very different resources. And while most oil shale is found in the West, about half the shale gas resource is in the East, where water is less of a limiting factor. Which does not mean that water usage/pollution is not a huge issue in fracking.

  2. Bill Chameides
    November 19, 2010, 5:34 pm

    Rod: Point well taken, but given that the average lifetime of a power plant is 30-50 years, an 80-year supply of natural gas (even if that is a resource projection) is going to have a huge influence on decisions made in the near term on the kind of energy infrastructure we invest in.

  3. Gary Baxley
    November 15, 2010, 11:10 am

    It would appear that whenever oil shale is involved in future energy reserves, the numbers always seem to be extremely large. Shell Oil company has been professing the enormous energy value of oil shale energy for years.

    Most of the oil shale is in the arid west and if you need water to remove the gas, where does one obtain it? In the 1980’s, when the first oil shale boom/bust occurred, an enormously long pipeline was planned to bring water from the Missouri river in South Dakota.

    We should not get our hopes too high with all the hyperbole about oil shale’s energy potential. It would be more prudent for the country to try to preserve more accessible natural gas reserves while we develop renewable energy sources.

  4. Rod Adams
    Lynchburg, VA
    November 11, 2010, 5:27 pm

    Allow me to cast a little bit of water on the whole euphoria thing regarding fracking.

    Here is a quote from the lede of the press release in June 2009 from the Potential Gas Committee that is the source of the excitement that the US has “100 years” worth of natural gas that it can use up at will.

    “GOLDEN, Colo., June 18, 2009 – The Potential Gas Committee (PGC) today released the results of its latest biennial assessment of the nation’s natural gas resources, which indicates that the United States possesses a total resource base of 1,836 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). This is the highest resource evaluation in the Committee’s 44-year history. Most of the increase from the previous assessment arose from reevaluation of shale-gas plays in the Appalachian basin and in the Mid-Continent, Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain areas. ”


    That sounds great until you pull the string a little. According to the Energy Information Agency, the US consumes about 23 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas each year. The math is rather simple – 1836 TCF/23 TCF = 80 years.

    First of all, 80 years is a blink of an eye in human history. My 10 month old granddaughter will most likely be alive 80 years from now.

    Secondly, the equation changes rather quickly if the denominator increases because people get excited and start thinking of new ways to burn gas even faster than we are today.

    Finally, even the numerator may not be as large as the PGC assumed. That number includes gas in the categories of “probable, possible and speculative” resources. The PGC specifically did not consider the gas price that might be required to unlock all of those resources.

    “Dr. Curtis cautioned, however, that the current assessment assumes neither a time schedule nor a specific market price for the discovery and production of future gas supply. “Estimates of the Potential Gas Committee are ‘base-line estimates’ in that they attempt to provide a reasonable appraisal of what we consider to be the ‘technically recoverable’ gas resource potential of the United States,” he explained.”