Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fracking In the News

Fracking, the method of hydraulically fracturing bedrock to release natural gas for wells, was a big part of the 'Bay News' today, with three separate articles published, all seemingly aimed at stirring up alarm over the practice:

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers
The New York Times

Opinion: Fracking Pollution Much Worse than Reported
Green Chip Stocks Blog
Blog: Baltimore's drinking water at risk from shale gas waste?
The Baltimore Sun

The latter two reference the first NYT article, but the fact that they came out simultaneously suggests a significant media push by someone to highlight the potential risks of fracking.  Prominently mentioned in all three articles is the potential for fracking waste water to carry radioactive materials (radium and uranium from the fractured rocks) into the surface waters.  In no case do they actually reference specific studies outlining how much radioactivity may be released into the surface waters (I would guess the actual measurements at this point are few in number and highly variable), but but raise radioactivity as a major "red flag."  Their point is that fracking fluids are frequently disposed of by trucking them to sewage disposal sites, and including them in the sewage for treatment.  They assert that the sewage treatment processes are not efficient at removing the radioactive elements, and that they largely pass through the treatment plants.

All of this may well be true, but I would like to see the numbers, concentrations of radioactive elements in the fracking fluid and the relative dilution that occurs, first, by adding the fracking fluid to an ongoing sewage load, and second, when that treated sewage is discharged into a larger stream.  Then I might be convinced. But I'm suspicious when the issue of radioactivity is raised, mostly because few of the public at large and even in the academic community beyond the "initiated" understand how ubiquitous radioactivity and radioactive elements really are.

At the same time, it is incumbent upon the fracking industry to frack safely, and not subject the rest of us to unnecessary risks.  If there really is a risk to the water supply and the Bay from this source I want it evaluated and dealt with in a safe manner, even if it raises the prices of natural gas extracted from that source.

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