Fracking our way to energy independence

Spectacularly vast stores of natural gas — by some estimates a staggering 837 trillion cubic feet — trapped in shale formations thousands of feet below our nation's surface could endow America with decades of energy independence.

But the method of exacting the natural gas, a process nicknamed fracking, could be the next environmental superdebate. Maybe it won't be as cosmic as the battle over global warming, but it certainly could rival the acid rain hysteria of the 1970s and the '80s.

Already thousands of wells have been drilled and the extraction of natural gas from them has increased exponentially during the past few years. With it has come an abundance of optimism and new jobs.

One of the nation's largest repositories is the Marcellus Shale formation, consisting of 65 million acres running deep below Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and southern New York. Other large reserves abound throughout the West and the South and Michigan. Because of the environmental advantages of natural gas and its potential as a feedstock for petrochemicals and various other virtues over crude oil, the prospect of such huge reserves is a blessing for the world's most gluttonous energy consumers — us.

Not for environmentalists, though. For some, this is a curse that needs to be severely curtailed if not prohibited. Their target is fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — a process in which water, sand and chemicals (the later consisting of about 0.5 percent of the mixture) are pumped at high pressure into deep wells to crack the shale and release the gas. Environmentalists fret about drinking water contamination, atmospheric release of methane and radioactive chemicals and even earthquakes. In the face of such customary horribles, calls for more study, more regulation, more restrictions and, finally, an outright ban will be forthcoming. A group called change.org is circulating petitions to ban fracking, well before any science has clearly established the dangers.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reported in June that since last October more than 100 bills have been introduced in 19 states relating to hydraulic fracturing. Most call for more disclosure of fracking fluid chemical components. In Illinois, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that goes beyond disclosure and prohibits the use of certain chemicals, such as benzene or hydrocarbon distillates in the fracking process. The House has yet to act on the bill.

Bills pending in New York and New Jersey go much further, banning fracking altogether, or until proof of its safety is confirmed by such experts as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The latter move would constitute a shutdown of fracking, considering the glacial pace of some government regulators.

Green-energy crusaders are constantly facing this problem. The discovery of massive new sources of fossil fuels only delays the inevitable introduction of alternative fuels on a commercially sustainable basis. Environmentalists ultimately are correct that a permanent energy solution has to be derived in some form from our solar furnace, the sun. But you can understand why environments are not buoyed like most of us by every new discovery of vast fields of gas of crude oil and ever better ways to extract and use these resources. It only makes the search for alternative sources of energy less urgent. Hence, the go-slow demands.

So, settle in as regulators, academics, environmentalists and industry rain down on us a flurry of conflicting studies and claims. So far, though, the evidence that fracking has caused serious and widespread health or environmental harm is slim or, at best, arguable. We must guard against demands for endless studies. The economic and employment benefits are so huge that delay for delay's sake is unacceptable.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Go here to view comments from Tribune readers.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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