The debate over natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- the process of injecting huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up rock formations and release gas for harvesting -- appeared to enter a new phase last week. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hinted at the formation of new federal guidelines to govern the practice on public lands -- including rules requiring gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use for fracking.
That's long been a sticking point in the debate, with companies expressing reluctance to publicly disclose what they call their proprietary fracking cocktails, and environmental groups and other opponents calling that reluctance a specious attempt to frustrate efforts that would link the chemical formulas to groundwater contamination.
"My own view is that there ought to be disclosure with some safeguards concerning proprietary information," Salazar said at a press briefing sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor last week in Washington, D.C. "So we are in the process of working on a rule and I don't know when we will have that rule ready to go. But I believe it is a necessary part of creating a good opportunity for the future of natural gas."
Alternatives to the chemically-laden fracking fluids are under development. Halliburton, for example, is developing a fracking fluid it calls CleanStim. In August, an executive from the company demonstrated the fluid's safety by appearing to drink it during an oil and gas conference in Colorado.
But Mark Ruffalo, the actor turned anti-fracking activist, would likely remain unconvinced by those developments. Ruffalo and his family live in Sullivan County in New York's southern tier -- the heart of a vast natural gas play covering several states called the Marcellus Shale. Pennsylvania is among states where natural gas has been increasingly exploited using fracking, but New York put a de facto hold on similar development three years ago to explore its potential impacts.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post (see video above), Ruffalo argued that the type of tough regulation needed to ensure the safety of communities like his "would take an enormous amount of energy and time" to put in place. "And why not take that energy, and time and people power," Ruffalo said, "and put it towards what we really need, what we all know we need: renewables."
Ruffalo, who is working with other activists to create an energy policy for New York that emphasizes renewables, argues that it's time for the fossil fuel industry to step aside and make room for the growth of clean energy. "The laws of nature tell us there's a finite amount of any substance on the face of the earth, and at some point, that's going to run out," Ruffalo said. "And if we're smart and we have some grace and we have some willingness about our destiny, then we will take ourselves into the renewable world."
Whether or not that renewable world will come any time soon is an open question -- particularly at a time when the failure of Solyndra, the Silicon Valley solar company that apparently squandered more than $500 million in taxpayer financing, has some lawmakers on Capitol Hill condemning efforts to spur a green economy as liberal "propaganda."
“Hydraulic fracking is very much a necessary part of the future of natural gas,” Salazar said last week.