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Natural Gas Drillers Ignore Safer Methods

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It’s no secret that extracting natural gas from shale through a process called hydraulic fracturing can cause serious environmental harm.  But a recent ProPublica article says environmental risks could be mitigated if drillers adopted safer methods.  Sadly, they’ve been slow to do so.

Shale gas drilling involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals – that may include toxins such as benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols – at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable.

According to ProPublica, energy companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals. Yet these safer methods are not used very much in the 32 states where shale gas drilling is currently taking place.  So far, only a few drillers have made the switch.

What to do with the wastewater from hydraulic fracturing is another problem that can have serious environmental consequences.    According to ProPublica, for the most part, waste is now collected in open, dirt-brimmed waste pits where it sits until it’s hauled off to treatment facilities or injection wells.  While it awaits removal, the toxic water can seep into the ground, or even overflow the pit when there has been heavy rain or snow.

According to ProPublica, this hazard can be eliminated through the use of a closed loop system, a series of pipes that gathers the waste as it comes out of a gas well, separates some of the water for reuse, and confines the concentrated leftovers in a steel tank.  The Environmental Protection Agency has found that such systems reduce the volume of drilling fluids used by 90 percent, eliminate the need for permanent pits, and greatly reduce the possibility of spills.   Unfortunately, the older and more dangerous method using open pits is still the most commonly used.

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