University Research and ‘Fracking’

While 70% of our oil is imported, we have a home-grown 100+ year supply of natural gas. The natural gas industry in the U.S. is responsible for an estimated 3 million U.S. jobs and $180 billion in wages and salaries. In addition to its importance to a number of wage-earners, natural gas accounts for nearly 25% of our energy resources in the U. S.

The production of natural gas has increasingly become an issue of controversy, however. That controversy emanates from the increasing use of shale gas basins, most notably the Marcellus Shale Basin in Pennsylvania and surrounding states such as New York and West Virginia. Recovery of natural gas from Marcellus Shale has become controversial as a result of a process known as hydraulic “fracking” in which water, sand and chemicals are used to break up the shale and release the natural gas from very small pores in the shale.

The process has become controversial, resulting in new legislation like the bill signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry on Friday. The Texas bill requires public disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process. Despite arguments by the industry that properly drilled water wells are not endangered by the process, many residents near fracking operations fear the impact of the process on their water supplies.

The importance of natural gas as a relatively clean fuel along with the likely growth in the use of fracking make increased research knowledge of fracking very important to us. Universities can play a critical role in the discovery process that is so essential at this time. We need to understand much better the incidence of residual chemicals in our streams and rivers along with the impact of any residual chemicals on humans, wildlife and indigenous plants. We also need to better understand at the molecular level the interaction between organic compounds and metals as a result of the impact of the fracking process.

While it is likely is that legislation associated with public disclosure, like the bill in Texas, will rise. Along with the Texas bill will also come new regulations on natural gas drilling and extraction; states like West Virginia will likely consider new regulations in the next legislative session. The Department of Energy has an opportunity to fund soon the university and industry-based research that is so essential to our making better policy, addressing citizen concerns and assuring that we have an important source of clean energy.

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