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Fracking hell: what it’s really like to live next to a shale gas well




 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Fracking hell: what it’s really like to live next to a shale gas well” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg, for The Guardian on Saturday 14th December 2013 09.00 UTC

Veronica Kronvall can, even now, remember how excited she felt about buying her house in 2007. It was the first home she had ever owned and, to celebrate, her aunt fitted out the kitchen in Kronvall’s favourite colour, purple: everything from microwave to mixing bowls. A cousin took pictures of her lying on the floor of the room that would become her bedroom. She planted roses and told herself she would learn how to garden.

What Kronvall did not imagine at the time – even here in north Texas, the pumping heart of the oil and gas industry – was that four years later an energy company would drill five wells behind her home. The closest two are within 300ft of her tiny patch of garden, and their green pipes and tanks loom over the fence. As the drilling began, Kronvall, 52, began having nosebleeds, nausea and headaches. Her home lost nearly a quarter of its value and some of her neighbours went into foreclosure. “It turned a peaceful little life into a bit of a nightmare,” she says.

Energy analysts in the US have been as surprised as Kronvall at how fast fracking has proliferated. Until five years ago, America’s oil and gas production had been in steady decline as reservoirs of conventional sources dried up. Then a Texas driller, George Mitchell, began trying out new technologies on the Barnett Shale, the geological formation that lies under the city of Fort Worth, Texas, and the smaller towns to the north, where Kronvall lives. Mitchell did not invent the technique. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was first used in the 1940s to get the gas out of conventional wells. As the well shaft descended into the layer of shale, the driller would blast 2m-4m gallons of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals down the shaft at high pressure, creating thousands of tiny cracks in the rock to free the gas.

Mitchell’s innovation was to combine the technology with directional drilling, turning a downward drill bit at a 90-degree angle to drill parallel to the ground for thousands of feet. It took him more than 15 years of drilling holes all over the Barnett Shale to come up with the right mix of water and chemicals, but eventually he found a way to make it commercially viable to get at the methane in the tightly bound layers of shale. The new technology has turned the Barnett Shale into the largest producible reserve of onshore natural gas in the US. Other operators, borrowing from Mitchell’s work, began drilling in Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, most recently, California. More than 15 million Americans now live within a mile of an oil or gas well, 6 million of them in Texas.

The industry has been quick to publicise fracking’s apparent benefits. Electricity and heating costs have dropped. The activity from the oil and gas sector has helped buoy up an ailing national economy and paid for new schools in country towns. Last October, the US produced more oil at home than it imported for the first time since 1995.

New evidence, however, has begun to emerge that fracking, while reducing coal consumption, is not significantly curtailing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Campaigners warn that fracking is binding the US even more tightly to a fossil-fuel future and deepening the risks of climate change. There have been stories from homeowners of fracking chemicals seeping into their drinking water, video footage of flames shooting out of kitchen taps because of methane leaks. Companies have been fined for releasing radioactive waste into rivers.

In north Texas, where Kronvall lives, the number of new oil and gas wells has gone up by nearly 800% since 2000. It’s impossible to drive for any length of time without seeing the signs, even after the rigs have moved on elsewhere: the empty squares of flattened earth, the arrays of condensate tanks, the compressor stations and pipelines, and large open pits of wastewater. Virtually no site is off limits. Energy companies have fracked wells on church property, school grounds and in gated developments. Last November, an oil company put a well on the campus of the University of North Texas in nearby Denton, right next to the tennis courts and across the road from the main sports stadium and a stand of giant wind turbines. In Texas, as in much of America, property owners do not always own the “mineral rights” – the rights to underground resources – so typically have limited say over how they are developed.

Kronvall moved from the Fort Worth area to the small farming town of Ponder – population: 1,400 – for the peace and quiet, and the affordable house prices; it also meant a fairly easy commute to her job at the survey research centre at the University of North Texas.

 

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