The US Department of Energy took a chunk out of the natural gas industry’s high hopes for the future yesterday by slashing the amount of gas estimated to be held in the Marcellus Shale — a huge swath of shale rock under the east coast of the United States thought by gas mongers to be the holy grail of energy. The Annual Energy Outlook states with a 90% certainty that the amount of gas locked under the east coast is actually 66% less than they previously imagined. They knocked the Marcellus shale estimate from 482 trillion cubic feet in last year’s outlook to 141 trillion cubic feet, and the entire United States reserves didn’t fare much better – they were slashed almost in half from 827 trillion cubic feet in last year’s outlook to 482 trillion this year. Here’s to hoping that gash in the future of natural gas will calm the frenzy of energy companies itching to use hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to obtain the stuff.
When it was discovered that the Marcellus shale possibly held trillions of cubic feet of natural gas reserves, recently available because of fracking, natural gas companies rushed into the area and attempted to buy up drilling rights on people’s land — this part of the story is detailed in a very informative This American Life piece about the history of fracking. In 2011 the daily rate of natural gas extraction in the Marcellus shale area doubled and many in the industry believed the reserve would last for decades to come. The DOE’s report estimates the Marcellus reserve will only meet our domestic demand for a mere six years, down from 17 in the last Annual Energy Outlook.
Fracking is the process by which gas companies drill deep into fragile shale rocks under the Earth’s surface and blast millions of gallons of chemically laced water into the rock to break it up and release the gas locked within. In decades past that gas was thought to be unreachable but recent technology has allowed gas companies to pilfer it from the Earth. Opponents of the process show records of high cancer rates and poisoned well water in the vicinity of fracking sites as reasons to stop the process altogether. Natural gas is touted by the energy industry as being a clean burning fuel but studies have shown that its life cycle — mainly because of fracking — is dirtier than that of coal.
France and Bulgaria have banned the practice outright and there are many moratoriums across the United States on fracking currently. The argument has been heating up lately with the release by the Environmental Protection Agency of a study in Wyoming that proved that groundwater near fracking sites was contaminated with unhealthy levels of fracking chemicals — they recently started a similar study in Pennsylvania.