Markey’s Hearing Aide

As Congress examines critical role that shale gas can play in securing America’s energy future, U.S. Energy Secretary renders his scientific judgment on key technology needed to produce it

Tomorrow morning, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and environment will preside over a congressional hearing slated to examine, among other issues, the current dimensions and future trajectory of the American energy revolution known as shale gas exploration.

The event is not expected to include testimony from U.S. Energy secretary Steven Chu. But if Mr. Chu’srecent comments on the safety and necessity of hydraulic fracturing are any indication, the 1997 Nobel prize-winner in the category of physics has plenty to add to a debate that would certainly benefit from some genuine scientific perspective.

Now, it’s true: Chu’s professional expertise isn’t often considered to reside in the sphere of upstream oil and natural gas production. But the man is considered an expert in the magneto-optical trapping of subatomic particles; it was Chu, after all, who came up with the idea of adding a spatially varying magnetic quadrupole to the red detuned optical field to perfect the process of laser cooling (why didn’twe think of that?!). So when the Energy secretary has something to say about the safety of modern-day shale gas technology, as he did late last week, he’ll find in us a captive audience:

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Friday that fracking could be done in a way to remove oil or gas that would not harm the environment and suggested Congress should not outlaw the practice.

“If it can be extracted in an environmentally safe way, then why would you want to ban it?” Chu told reporters. “I think it can be done responsibly.”We believe it can be done safely as well, incidentally – and not just because we’ve been deploying fracturing technology for more than 60 years now, and more than 1.1 million separate times, without engendering a single, credible case of drinking water contamination. For us, the better guidepost is science – science that not only confirms that which has not happened in the past, but a field of study that considers the geo-physical realities at play in ensuring it does not, and indeed cannot, happen in the future.

So for that, we look to geology – specifically, the physical barriers that exist between the underground strata containing potable supplies of drinking water (generally found between 100-350 feet below the surface) and the formations below (often miles below) that hold trillions of cubic feet of diffuse, tightly packed, job-creating shale gas resources. How do we know those confining strata will do their job and ensure the water at 200 feet is appropriately separated from the shale at 8,500 feet? Because they’ve been doing that job for a million years now — preventing the salty water that’s already down there naturallyfrom penetrating our aquifers and ruining our drinking water.

But the science doesn’t end there; it’s expanded upon by operators and engineers on the surface, gilding the lily even further by cementing millions of pounds (and thousands of feet) of steel casing into the well – thus eliminating any and all pathways of exposure between what’s taking place inside the wellbore, and what’s naturally occurring outside it. That’s why fracturing is safe – not just because of the technology used to safeguard our water; not just because of the natural, geological barriers that exist below ground; not just because of the thorough regulatory oversight executed by the states; but thanks to a confluence of all these important components; each and every time, in each and every state in which the technology is deployed.

So, the question is: Will any of this come up in the subcommittee hearing tomorrow? Tough to say for sure. What we do know, however, is that Chairman Markey understands the critical role that the responsible development of America’s shale gas can play in achieving several specific economic and environmental goals near and dear to his heart. We include his latest comments on shale gas below – but trust us: the audio file does his statement a whole lot more justice.

Ninety percent of all new electrical capacity in America since 1990 has been natural gas, and it’s going to continue on that way as a baseload … But natural gas is going to do very well in the future, and the discoveries from the Marcellus Shale all the way through Barnett, that is all the way from New York down to Texas, are going to be big source of new electrical generation.

He’s right – the future of natural gas is as bright as it is boundless. But its potential will only be realized if Congress heeds the advice of Secretary Chu, the scientist, and doesn’t indulge itself in the unscientific justifications peddled by exponents of the FRAC Act.

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