Fracking: a naturally hot topic

by Arden Jones

On the evening of April 16, several individuals from different walks of life converged in Convocation Hall to discuss a controversial issue that will have an effect on the future of fossil fuel derived energy. The subject was hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” focused especially on natural gas production in Tennessee. The program consisted of many parts, ending with a debate that sparked some minor disagreements between the two featured panelists. There were roughly 100 people in attendance, including professors from several departments, Sewanee staff and community members, several folks who made the trip from Nashville, an SAS geology class, and many students.

Fracking is the common term used to reference the process of extracting natural gas from the earth. Natural gas can be released from a shale layer when a mixture of water mixed with various chemicals, or in some cases nitrogen gas, is forced through a deep well, breaking up the rock and allowing the release of hydrocarbons in the form of gas. Natural gas is used at Sewanee to heat buildings and water.

Several years ago there was a brief period in which the University looked into the possibility of drilling its own natural gas well and actually extracting fossil fuels for use on campus. This idea was disposed of shortly thereafter due to realizations that it would not be economically feasible. What the idea did spur, however, was an increased awareness of fracking amongst community members, especially those concerned with the possible environmental damage or the endangered health of their families.

The program began with an introduction of natural gas use in Sewanee, including a list of the buildings that used the most gas in 2011 (Fowler, McClurg, and Spencer) and a description of where it comes from. Then Dr. Martin Knoll took the stage with three members of the senior class. These students—-Caitlin Hanley, Will Watson, and Denton O’Neal—have been working on a semester long senior field project on fracking for their Natural Resources major. Along with their professor they gave a concise presentation of the process and an overview of the Chattanooga shale layer. They illustrated trends in gas prices, thickness of the shale layer, and regions in northeastern Tennessee where natural gas extraction from the Chattanooga shale is most profitable.

Following the PowerPoint several video clips were shown. The first was a short clip filmed in a Kentucky back yard that depicted a geyser of methane and water, about one hundred feet high, that erupted when the home owners attempted to drill a shallow well for water and hit a naturally occurring source rock. The second clip was produced by Marathon Oil entitled “Animation of Hydraulic Fracturing” and depicted the process with cartoons by which, “the trapped oil and natural gas in these shale reservoirs is being safely and efficiently produced, gathered, and distributed to customers.”

The film confidently denied any hazards and showed the protective layers of cement casing extending down an exaggerated distance below the groundwater aquifer. “During the past 60 years the oil and gas industry has conducted fracture stimulations in over 1 million wells world wide” the film proclaimed.

Next, a film from a quite opposite perspective was shown. The Sky is Pink was made by Josh Fox, producer of well known documentary of Gasland. This film brought up concerns over “failed” wells that leak into aquifers and residential tap water, which some home owners have discovered they could light on fire straight out of the faucet.

Finally the candidates were introduced and the debate commenced. It was moderated by Jonathan Salazar (C’13), an Environmental Policy major. The two panelists were Eric Lewis, from the Coalition for a Frack-Free Tennessee and Scott Gilbert, from Tennessee Oil and Gas Association. The first question was, “What are the benefits of hydraulic fracturing in Tennessee.”

The panelist delivered somewhat expected answers about the creation of jobs, the availability of the fuel as an abundant, short-term output, and the relatively low impact of the process compared to other fossil fuel extractions, such as mountaintop removal. Lewis countered each point of Gilbert’s argument, citing examples that suggested his claims were not true, such as the fact that most jobs would only apply to specialists within the field and would not open up opportunity to local folks. The second question was directed to Lewis first, “What are the hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing as it is done in Tennessee?” Lewis again listed a vast array of examples, from human health deficiencies, to animal health issues and increased earthquake activity, all infused with warnings of a dark and barren future for Tennesseans. This was Gilbert’s chance to rebut, and the panelist was true to his role of rejecting all citations as myth, namely Lewis’ figures on water use and induced earthquakes. The final question formally asked to both candidates was, “The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 directs the President to restrict the export of natural gas. Are you in favor of lifting the ban to allow overseas sales of natural gas, why or why not?” This brought the conversation to a more global and long-term perspective.

Questions were accepted from the audience for about 20 minutes, before Dr. Knoll joined the panelists for a slightly more informal session. A brief fire caught during the audience Q&A over the issue of doctors being forced to sign “gag orders” due to laws that protect companies from disclosing some of the chemicals they use because they are trade secrets. Both of the main panelists were insistent and passionate towards their causes, though the high level of inconsistency between the two may have been frustrating for a discerning audience. Dr. Knoll stepped in to answer a question about water contamination by explaining the methods by which remediation companies are able to clean contaminated water. The Q&A session ended as a community member questioned our right as Americans to use such a large amount of energy in proportion to our population. The panelists found that they had finally come to a place of agreement. They acknowledged that the only way for real change to come is by adjusting our consumption from the source, the accumulation of all our water taps and furnaces.

The event ended thus and the attendees continued to chat in small conversations, slowly filtering out of the hall and making their ways back home with some new insight on the future of natural gas in Tennessee.