Zuckerman: With Fracking America Can Escape the Energy Trap

"Fracking," if done safely, could solve America's energy dependence problems.

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Can America escape the energy trap? Must our lives and security be forever held hostage to the vagaries of political power in the Middle East oil states? Yes, we can escape, thanks to American technology and enterprise, but only if we can sort out our priorities.

The good news is that America is at the center of a global energy map revolution. Our development of innovative shale gas technology offers the prospect of a huge bonanza of natural gas (and some oil as well). It's the most positive event in the U.S. energy outlook in a half century. Let's celebrate the achievement before looking at what needs to be done to bring it to full fruition.

Our geologists have long been aware that gas (and oil) lies hidden in the country's shale beds and under the ocean, but we had no chance to extract it until American entrepreneurial energy inspired companies to gamble on new technologies.

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In a phrase, technology has trumped geology. Advances in computer processing power yielded seismic mapping and three-dimensional imaging, enabling geologists to "see" through the thick layers of salt obscuring the reservoirs thousands of feet or more below the surface. We've combined that information capacity with new drilling technology. Once we've penetrated thousands of feet of impervious rock with new super strong alloy drill bits, we can turn a corner and continue drilling horizontally for several thousand more feet to reach the buried treasure of millions of cubic feet of gas. It's trapped in the shale, but it can be released by the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are blasted in at high pressure. Fissures open up, and the gas seeps out (and oil, too). Fields of energy regarded as dead can be restored to productive life.

The process of finding and producing hydrocarbons from this shale has taken off with such velocity that it has already significantly altered government and corporate energy expectations. The production costs of shale gas are about one half to one third the costs associated with new conventional gas wells in North America. The result is a glut of new supply. The price of natural gas has plummeted. Energy companies have become exporters. The United States has passed Russia as the world's leading gas producer.

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Shale gas production is now more than five times what it was in 2006 and has climbed from 2 percent of domestic natural gas production in 2001 to almost 30 percent. A whole series of possible reserves or "plays" are now accessible across the United States, raising the estimates of recoverable shale gas in North America from about 39 trillion cubic feet in 2003 to perhaps 50 times that amount. Recoverable shale gas reserves in the United States are an estimated 600 trillion to 700 trillion cubic feet.

This good news about energy is rare. It represents a broad historical shift. It could bring us back to the time when the United States and its neighbors in the hemisphere were self-sufficient and even a major source of energy for the world at large.

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So what's the snag—and how serious is it? Communities where fracking has taken place, notably in Ohio and Pennsylvania, protest the noise and scarring of the landscape during the initial explorations. Restoration and compensation can ameliorate those concerns. The most significant fear is that the wastewater with chemicals from the fracking process, called "flowback," can contaminate the aquifers and hence drinking water. State regulators in Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming have stated that there have been no verified or documented cases of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracking.

The process uses about 99 percent water and sand, the rest being a solution of a few chemicals. Most drilling experts have asserted that it is highly improbable that fracking liquids will contaminate drinking water. Fortunately, no cases exist in which the fracking process itself has caused drilling liquids to contaminate drinking water. The issue then is whether the flowback hazard can remain at acceptable levels.