The Truth about Fracking
From the February 20, 2012, issue of NR.

(Roman Genn)


Kevin D. Williamson

Which is to say that in the Marcellus they have discovered, along with enormous quantities of gas, that rarest of commodities: a regulatory success story.

‘There is no doubt that drilling wastewater is highly polluted,” says Hanger, the former DEP secretary. “Prior to the Marcellus, when the Pennsylvania industry was small, we were dumping drilling wastewater untreated into rivers and streams and hoping that dilution would keep concentrations below levels that would cause damage to aquatic life or drinking water. There is probably less water going untreated into the rivers today than before the first Marcellus well. It’s a success story. If you look at the top ten things impacting water in Pennsylvania right now, the gas industry would not be on the list, and certainly not fracking. Industry, environmentalists, and regulators all ought to be celebrating. But there’s money to be made out of fighting.”

All of which is perplexing to the boy geniuses in the fracking command centers scattered around Pennsylvania. Talking politics with engineers is dancing about architecture — they just don’t get it, and they get frustrated. “We have all this wealth in the ground,” says one of the bespectacled brethren, “and we can get it out. We can do it efficiently and cleanly” — and we have giant frackin’ robots! — “but some people don’t want us to. They just don’t like it.” Laying out this scenario, he wears a look that is four parts nonplussed and one part hurt. You want to hand the kid an Ayn Rand novel with the good parts dog-eared.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, political or environmental, even a mile under the rock. And the real question about fracking, as Hanger points out, isn’t fracking vs. some Platonic energy ideal. It’s between fracking and coal, or, to a lesser extent, between fracking and oil.

Walking around finished gas wells in The Play, you’ll notice a weird thing: A lot of them run off of solar power. There’s no utility power in some of the more remote areas, and it’s more efficient to put up some solar panels to run the monitoring equipment and the other gear necessary to keep a producing well producing. And in the remote Texas panhandle, Valero operates a major oil refinery that’s attached to a 5,000-acre wind farm, being located in the sweet spot of having lots of crude pipelines, lots of wind, lots of real estate, and not very many people. When it’s operating at its peak, the wind farm produces enough juice to run the whole refinery — but it takes a lot of turbines and a lot of West Texas wind to get that done when you have the capacity to refine 170,000 barrels of crude a day. The wind farm isn’t a PR stunt, Valero insists: It’s economical, and beyond wind Valero has a pretty good-sized portfolio of investments in alternative energy, from ethanol to algae. But consumers and policymakers should understand the limitations of those technologies, a Valero spokesman says: “We get frustrated by this idea that cars should run on sunshine and happy thoughts.” But cars can and do run on natural gas, and the surge in U.S. oil and gas production has made American firms more competitive with their overseas rivals and has led to a renaissance among local refineries.