A Fractured Option

One of the hot topics in the energy industry currently is the development of drilling techniques to release natural gas from rock formations. Popularly called “fracking,” this extraction method has very vocal supporters and opponents. Facing a continually unstable Middle East, the US has looked to develop domestic sources of fossil fuels. Beneath the soil, across the US, are large geologic formations called shale gas formations or shale plays. These rocks hold large amounts of natural gas that has, until recently, been too expensive to extract to make economically feasible. With hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) “fracturing fluids” or “pumping fluids” consisting primarily of water and sand are injected under high pressure into the producing formation, creating fissures that allow resources (natural gas, mainly – RB) to move freely from rock pores where it is trapped (www.energyfromshale.org).        

While measures are taken to protect the groundwater from contamination, it has still occurred. Methane and other dangerous gases have contaminated wells and caused explosions. Industry representatives assure the public that fracking is safe and well-regulated. Environmental organizations are mobilizing on local and national levels to stop fracking because of water quality and safety concerns. In addition, the process itself uses massive amounts of fresh water.

Fracking Diagram and Potential Contaminant Movement

Why is this so urgent? Because there is a lot of natural gas to be extracted; there is a lot of money to be made. Oil companies are rushing to get in on the fracking boom, and states are only too glad to let them. The income from natural gas has put states way into the black when all their neighbors are in the red. This industry not only pays well, it employs well. In a slow economy, jobs carry a lot more weight than environmental concerns.

Is this relevant to you and me? Well, eastern Illinois is on the edge of a large shale gas formation – the New Albany. The exact boundaries of the formation aren’t determined, but here’s another name you might recognize: the New Madrid Fault. Poorly planned fracking projects have caused minor earthquakes. You may not have an opinion on fracking yet, but you will.