Beware the impact of fracking on water, and other concerns

Well before Michelle Obama starting telling our kids what to eat for lunch, we parents underwent our own version of big government oversight, whether it was preparing for the switch to the metric system, training on provisioning of nuclear fallout shelters, or surviving the imminent dangers of global cooling. Despite the success of these programs, we were misinformed about water conservation. You see, we were told that when brushing our teeth, it was important to shut off the water because leaving the water running would “waste water”; and of course I, quite possibly like you, believed this line. When I was older, I realized that the water cycle is a “closed loop” where water from the faucet, upon entering the drain, would transit the treatment plant, be cleaned, and discharged into the Ohio River ready for all the fine folks in Cincinnati to use as they see fit. What we were really wasting by leaving the water running was the electrical power to pump the well water up to the water tower, as well as the energy to run the effluent plant.

Beyond electrolysis (to break it apart into hydrogen and oxygen) and materials fabrication (concrete, cement, and other materials having water as a raw material), it’s challenging to just do away with water. Even when you bake it into a recipe, it’s eventually going to find its way back into the cycle (sorry Cincinnati). Most industrial processes that are water intensive do not consume the water involved – an excellent example being coal burning power plants and their associated steam and condensate systems. However, via injection wells, the energy industry brings upon the scene a novel means to functionally destroy water by placing it in eternal detention, all happening with nary a peep from either academia or the environmental interests. Heated arguments dwell upon the chemical hazards and potential drinking well contamination of fracking waste fluids. We are essentially debating whether the fumes from our house burning down might cause our neighbor to have difficulty breathing, while ignoring the fact that our house is burning down! Environmental issues notwithstanding, we are permanently disposing of precious water at a rate of 14 million gallons per year (2012 target) in Ohio alone. Granted, if you stand at a point along the Ohio River, 14 million gallons will flow past you every 29 seconds, so the relative amount of water being injected is infinitesimal. Perhaps we can permanently sequester even 100 million gallons per year of frack fluid for time eternal with no perceptible loss. Yet, ponder the contrast between regulators’ disregard for the unquestionably bad practice of permanent water detention versus their unmitigated zeal to overregulate the very unsettled arena of carbon emissions, resulting in entire segments of industry being driven out of existence on a debatable issue. Carbon sure knows how to throw its weight around, given how much less respect hydrogen seems to get.

America is collapsing under a broken regulatory bureaucracy that sees no irony in waking up one day to demand failed “water-saving” toilets, failed “water saving” shower heads, and failed “water saving” clothes washers, then waking up the next day to encourage Pennsylvanians, under the guise of interstate commerce, to truck contaminated water over to one of Ohio’s 179 injection wells (30 more to come soon!) to permanently do away with it. There must be a breaking point where Americans no longer tolerate such non sequiturs. Maybe I don’t care if farmer’s drinking water is poisoned by Exxon, but it’s too close to home when my government makes me drill out shower head orifices to get a decent shower. The simpler days of only agonizing about being arrested for tearing the label off your mattress have long since disappeared.

This note was going to close with a rant about how our energy industry has a poor history dealing with side effects of energy extraction (think Yucca Mountain, Buffalo Creek, etc.). Then it was going to claim that the task of separating water from frack waste fluids, via any number of credible technologies (vortex, distillation, evaporation, osmosis, membrane, biotechnology, settling tanks, etc.) is mostly a cost issue, rather than a technical issue (it’s basically a desalination plant, with added functions). Next, it would suggest that Ohio take a leadership position on this front, and pass legislation to prohibit further use of Class II injection well technology after a sensible transition period. I’d ruminate on re-purposing the fine site presently known as the Gorsuch Plant into a commercial-scale frack waste converting facility, given its ideal setting to accept input from truck, pipeline, or barge, and to discharge to the river. Possibly I’d ponder applying for fast-track Solyndra-esque DOE research funding to develop a process that achieves a 95% recovery threshold (Certainly Bill Johnson can convince incoming DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz that Ohioans won’t waste DOE grant money like Californians are prone to do!). Finally, I would have proffered that all these actions might result in hundreds of new jobs in our fine community, all paid for by the energy industry and the federal government (“other people’s money”).

But instead, I’ll just suggest a donation to the MHS National Honor Society fund, whose goal is to raise $15,000 for installation of a drinking water well in Africa. When complete, the well will supply, on an annual basis, 5 percent of the amount of water that Ohio’s Class II injection wells wipe out every year. Since the oil and gas exploration community places so little value on water, they can readily write a check and put an end to this fundraising effort in short order.

Jeff Ferguson lives in Marietta.