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The Fracas Over Fracking: A Technology That Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

All right, just a quick primer for those who still aren’t exactly sure what fracking is. Basically it’s the combination of two previously existing technologies: hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Combining these two procedures allows oil and gas companies to reach reserves of gas that were previously unattainable, and to do so relatively cheaply.

A basic description of the process goes something like this. Companies set up a drill pad, drill straight down — usually for thousands of meters — until they hit their targeted area. Then they turn the drill so it bores horizontally, set off small explosives to perforate the well, then pump millions of gallons of fracking fluid — a combo of water, sand and chemicals — to fracture the shale and release the gas.

Simple, right? Well, according to numerous neighborhoods, cities, counties and states — including Longmont and most recently Boulder County — who are leading the charge against this controversial extraction process: Not so much.

Homes and schools are often only hundreds of feet away from these wells, and there are many, many things that can go wrong. For example, studies have shown methane leaks into both groundwater and into the atmosphere, the latter leading to a potential build-up of ozone locally. Then there are the chemicals in fracking fluid. According to a story in Science News, from 2005 to 2009, 14 major oil and gas companies used 750 different chemicals, 25 of which are listed as hazardous pollutants under the Clean Air Act, nine that are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and 14 that are known or possible human carcinogens.

On top of that, you have wastewater storage/disposal issues and correlations between earthquakes and drilling sites, not to mention the noise, nasty smells and sheer amount of fresh water — in the midst of the worst U.S. drought in decades — associated with drilling.

Now, there are benefits to the technology, of course, including access to abundant reserves of domestic natural gas, lower costs for consumers, and harvesting an energy that could act as a bridge to cleaner technologies in the future.

But at the end of the day, is the drill-at-all-costs mentality worth it? For many residents in Boulder County, including more than 2,100 people who signed a petition against fracking, the answer is an emphatic “no.”  There is a moratorium in place in currently, but opponents are seeking an outright ban. The Boulder County Commissioners meet at 4 p.m. Thursday, January 24, to decide whether or not to extend the moratorium. Supporters of a ban would like to see a lot more research done on safety and health effects before ever thinking of inviting fracking into their community. If you aren’t able to attend the meeting, but would like to express your views, you can e-mail commissioners@bouldercounty.org.

This is one of those technologies that hits particularly close to home, because it’s often being done in the midst of communities. It comes down to the trade-off: Are the rewards of fracking worth the associated risks?

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