November 19, 2010
by Lindsay Brown
Penn State University hosted a forum today at the National Press Club on sustainable energy. Researchers, think tanks, and federal agency personnel convened to discuss the economic and environmental issues surrounding hydrofracking, a process which some argue could transform Pennsylvania into a major international energy exporter. The Marcellus Shale rock formation in western Pennsylvania is laden with natural gas reserves soon to be “fracked” by Royal Dutch Shell.
The process of hydrofracking, formally known as hydrolic fracturing, involves horizontal drilling and the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into underwater shale formations. After the shale breaks apart, the gas–in combination with the involved chemicals– is leaked to the surface.
Public concern over the health and environmental hazards caused by hydrofracking has grown in the past two years. This year’s release of the film, Gas Land, has heightened awareness of the controversy. According to Kim Sandum, director of the Community Alliance for Preservation in Pennsylvania, the process creates great potential for contamination of drinking water. Due to the marine origin of the Marcellus Shale, the fluid that flows out of the producing gas contains high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), commonly referred to as “salts.”
“Although it puts salt in the water, its creating jobs,” said Brian Dempsey, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Penn State. “Mercellus is not the only company putting salt in the drinking water.”
Salt could be removed by crystallization, concentration, or deep well injection, but Dempsey favors reusing it for future fracking jobs.
Tom Murphy is Co-director of the Marcellus Shale Center for Outreach and Research and the Associate Extension Educator at Penn State. When faced with a question from the audience, Murphy said, “The water industry is not opposed to rules and regulations.” He speculated one such regulation could entail well casing standards, yet the newly elected leadership in Washington would determine whether or not oversight policies will be made. Washington is contending with the demand to fix the economy and the pressure to protect the environment.
Hydrofracking extracts natural gas, which is the source for 23.9% of America’s energy. According to the Department of Energy, America uses petroleum-based sources for 37.4 % of its energy, coal for 22.4%, nuclear for 8.5%, and renewable sources for 7.7% of its overall energy usage. Environmentalists are pushing for policies to promote clean and safe energy.
At today’s forum, Tom Richard of the Penn State Institute for Energy and Transportation described renewable biofuels as efficient, clean energy for transportation. “People have been making ethanol with yeast for years,” he said. Other sustainable strategies being developed include the use of organic wastes, perennial crops, and 21st century forestry. He described aspects of multifunctional agriculture, including biodiesel made from algae, fibrous woodchips, grass and trees. He also trumphed Sweden’s use of bio-DME produced from black liquor.
“Politicians use religious terminology and zeal to describe energy issues,” said David Biegel, who runs an energy agency within the State Department. “We need an actual energy policy in the USA.”