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Natural Gas and Water

by: Paul Kando

Canadian natural gas is cheaper than oil or propane, cleaner burning than oil or coal. It is also plentiful, we are told. Indeed, it is an economic panacea for Maine. However there is more to the story and the most important element isn't gas but water. Water and energy are interdependent resources.

Hydro Fracking
photo credit: citizenscampaign.org

An estimated 9 out of 10 future gas wells will require hydrofracking, a process of injecting at high pressure water, sand and chemicals to fracture gas-bearing rock and release natural gas. Each gas well requires up to 5 million gallons of water and can produce over a million gallons of wastewater contaminated by corrosive salts, carcinogens and radioactive materials. Fracking is a relatively new, poorly regulated technology. Trillions of gallons of water have been already used, along with about 400 billion gallons of toxic additives. Frackers typically sequester this wastewater in deep injection wells, permanently removing it from the natural water supply. Unlike water used in households or agriculture, it doesn't re-enter streams, lakes, aquifers or the atmosphere.

rackers claim the injection wells of toxic wastewater are safe, but many residents of Texas, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado blame natural gas drilling for a foul smell in their drinking water supply. University of New Brunswick researchers report water-related concerns, should hydraulic fracturing be used to extract shale gas in that province. More than a dozen energy companies drilling in northern British Columbia have been fined for not reporting how much water they use. Quebec has moved from a de facto ban on shale gas development to a total moratorium on fracking, even for research purposes, until it is scientifically shown that shale gas can be economically extracted while respecting the environment.

A 2012 National Academy of Sciences study analyzed over 60 northern Texas earthquakes over a 22 month period. It found the quakes' epicenters located within two miles of one or more disposal wells. If sequestering fracking waste turns out to be responsible for subsequent earthquakes, the toxic waste could uncontrollably spill into the environment.

There are already one million fracked wells in existence. The more than 600 compounds of heavy metals, hydrocarbons, microbes and salts dissolved in or mixed with trillions of gallons of water from shale gas wells represent an unprecedented water treatment challenge for which there is no relevant experience.

Meanwhile in November 2012 the U.N. General Assembly was told that drought and desertification now affects one third of the earth's surface and about 1.5 billion people. Colorado State University scientists report that 98 percent of that state faces such drought conditions. Hydrofracking only adds additional strain as farmers and drillers bid for the same scarce water resource. Head to head with wealthy corporations the farmers lose.

2011 was the worst year of drought ever in Texas. The health of Galveston Bay, the state's most productive estuary, is in jeopardy. According to scientists the Texas water shortage is a permanent condition, which can only be alleviated by drastic reductions in population and agriculture. By 2060, there will be only two gallons of water available for every three gallons needed. Yet the number of fracking wells is up to 93,000 from 58,000 in 2000. More are planned.

That Maine is not directly affected by chronic drought does not mean we can be unconcerned. We are not an island. Our food supply and, indeed even our long term water supply are likely to be impacted by problems elsewhere. Two of the country's largest private water utility companies are lobbying to expand shale gas drilling which promises to enrich them but also puts drinking water resources at risk. Aqua America operates in 11 states and American Water in more than 30. Both are dues-paying 'associate members' of the gas industry's powerful Marcellus Shale Coalition.

There will always be trade-offs for various energy technologies. Threats to water supplies are threats to food production hygiene and health. We must minimize the wasteful use of water, including the use of water-intensive energy forms, such as hydrofracked natural gas. We would be wise, instead, to develop policies that promote alternative energy use, the conservation of energy and the protection of fresh water supplies.