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Underlying Questions Remain About Natural-Gas Drilling

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The race to drill for natural gas has never been so furious as it has been over the last few years of the Bush administration. All over the West, companies are tapping into reserves. Even New York has a natural gas reservoir, the Marcellus Shale, which could soon be tapped, as mentioned here. Yet, still lingering is the question of whether the process could contaminate groundwater.

ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization, recently reported in Business Week that some state officials are asking for more transparency when it comes to the pollutants natural gas drilling might be leaking into the ground.

In order to get to the fuel, some companies use a process called hydraulic fracturing where they blast fluid and a propping material (think sand) into layers of rock, cracking them and allowing the gas to flow to the surface. The fluids used by Haliburton, Schlumberger, and BJ Services, the three companies that dominate the hydraulic fracturing market, are proprietary, they argue. The companies refuse to disclose their secret chemical formulas, reports ProPublica, making it difficult if not impossible to determine what's in them -- and what could be seeping through the layers of rock.

Contaminated groundwater near drilling sites has been reported in seven states, according to the article, even though a 2004 report by the EPA states that hydraulic fracturing is not harmful to the environment. A year later, congress also voted to waive the Safe Drinking Water Act when companies use the process because of the report's findings.

Some people, like a rancher that was hospitalized after drinking water near a drilling site, may feel that the report needs revision. The groundwater near his home was tainted with benzene, a cancer-causing chemical.

State officials in New York State are asking drilling companies to disclose what's in the fracturing fluid. If drilled, the shale could yield much as 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the New York Department of Conservation (DEC), making it a vast resource of energy. (The entire state uses 1.1 trillion cubic feet a year, just to put that into perspective.) If you have something to say on the topic, the DEC is accepting comments on a draft drilling plan until December 15th.

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