John E. Sununu

Smart fracking

Extracting natural gas from shale is safe and economically sensible

By John E. Sununu
July 11, 2011

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ENLIGHTENED MOMENTS in politics are few and far between. Populism has a lot to do with it; playing to fear, anger, and other emotions is a safe move politically, and what the media love most.

That’s why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to lift a ban on hydraulic fracturing - also known as “fracking’’ - should be celebrated as a victory for rational thought. His administration is now preparing regulations allowing access to 85 percent of the shale gas beneath the state. This has members of the hard-core environmental lobby gnashing their teeth. Their dramatic, and often misleading, claims drove last year’s ban in the first place. Cuomo’s move also strikes a blow for states’ rights and encourages a balanced approach to energy policy - and highlights some cool engineering as well.

Fracking uses high-pressure fluid to crack open shale rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. The resulting fractures allow gas and oil to flow more freely and be recovered economically. In their effort to stop the practice, environmental groups raised the specter of drinking-water contamination, excessive water use, and other supposed risks. The hyperbole about this method comes somewhat unexpected, given that the process has been around for over 50 years.

Almost three decades ago, I spent the summer in a hydraulic fracture lab in a musty basement a stone’s throw from the Charles River. As a rookie, I mostly cast cement blocks used to simulate the shale formations. Researchers injected fluid into the blocks at high pressure and measured the speed at which cracks would grow. Over months of trial and error, we learned to predict and even control the direction of the cracks by putting pressure on the outside of the cement blocks.

For a few weeks each year, the professor supervising the lab would head out to the field to conduct larger-scale tests on working wells. Back then, high operating costs coupled with low oil prices meant that fracking was limited to specific, high-yield areas. About five years ago, however, improvements in horizontal drilling finally came together with better simulation and monitoring of crack growth to make the entire process a big economic winner.

The results have been dramatic for production of both oil and gas. During the past three years, proven reserves of shale gas have more than tripled. Estimates of recoverable reserves in the United States have soared to over 800 trillion cubic feet - roughly 35 times America’s annual consumption - from shale gas alone. North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, a marginal producer five years ago, now pumps 400,000 barrels per day. And yet the full potential of reserves such as the Marcellus shale beneath Pennsylvania and New York still haven’t been fully measured.

In New York, rhetoric came face to face with hard facts. Despite decades of use, fracking fluids - which typically contain small amounts of acids, anti-microbials, petroleum distillates, and other chemicals - have never been found to contaminate groundwater. That’s because the shale formations are typically thousands of feet down, far below aquifers and isolated by impermeable rock. Over 99 percent of the fluid used is water, but to address the potential for surface spills, most states regulate its transportation and now disclose its contents. The environmental records of both the process and the gas it produces are pretty strong, but the economics are even more compelling.

Job creation and tax collections in Pennsylvania counties producing shale gas have increased significantly during the past three years. Their neighbors have not fared so well. Governor Tom Corbett calls the investment boom, started under Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, “the foundation of a new economy.” New York could either ignore the economic development occurring in its own back yard or participate.

Above all, this transformation is a lesson that energy policy shouldn’t pick winners and losers. No Senate committee or presidential order declared natural gas “the energy of the future’’ (that would be hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol, carbon-free coal, and unicorn tears). Gas is cleaner than coal or oil, but as a fossil fuel, it still makes purists wince. Some critics even use today’s low natural gas prices as a knock against fracking. In other words, high fossil fuel prices are a reason to subsidize renewable energy production, but low fossil fuel prices are a reason not to invest in fossil fuel production. Please, let them invest.

Against these odds, a mostly sensible outcome has been reached. Fracking will go forward in New York. The industry will continue to innovate, improve productivity, and reduce production costs. Consumers will benefit, the economy will grow, and America will use more natural gas.

And that, in the end, will drive the environmental lobby crazy.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.