Toward Energy Independence? Not Without Bumps in the Road

The Business of Mining for Natural Gas

According to some reports, the United States is now the world's largest producer of natural gas - and natural gas is a resource that former oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens from Amarillo, Texas, has been pushing for years.

Pickens is an advocate of natural gas legislation. His goal is to get America free of foreign oil by way of converting diesel-burning 18-wheelers to natural gas. If achieved, this would be a significant step toward energy independence.

And what is playing a very large role in helping Pickens achieve his goal?

It's the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing (also known as "fracking") is the process of injecting a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals into the earth through a borehole in shale formations - shale is sedimentary rock - with the goal of extracting the natural gas trapped below.

The Eagle Ford Shale in West Texas is one example of a formation with significant amounts of natural gas deposits. In fact, hydraulic fracturing has transformed some Texas areas into modern "gold-rush" boomtowns, like Karnes County, much of which covers the Eagle Ford Shale.

Bumps in the Road

But as Mark Collette reports for the Corpus Christi Caller Times, new oil and gas wells require a tremendous amount of materials that must be hauled by large trucks - from 365 to 1,730 truckloads - which translates to a "bumpier, more dangerous ride" as roads deteriorate.

The Texas Department of Transportation's Tom Tagliabue said that Karnes County maintenance workers have become road-building workers in an attempt to keep up with the deterioration. And in Karnes County alone, truckers hauling more than the 80,000 pound limit pulled 5,185 special permits in 2011.

The loads and the motor vehicle traffic aren't getting any lighter.

Truck Accidents and Oilfield Injuries

An explosion in late September 2011 involving a truck hauling 45 barrels of hot oil is one example of the type of oilfield injuries that can happen on the Eagle Ford Shale, given the type of work being done - not to mention the common causes of truck accidents, from being overloaded to speeding.

Ana Ley reports that backflow on the truck caused a fire, which led to an explosion. The incident caused oil drilling injuries to two employees.

Jason Reyes, with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said, "It just so happened that this individual [the truck driver] was transferring the load and was in close proximity to it," referring to the fire that caused second- and third-degree burns.

The Dallas office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was said to have opened an investigation. At the time of Ley's report, it wasn't clear whether there had been any safety violations.

Environmental Concerns

In addition to the possible increase in accidents in Karnes County and throughout the Eagle Ford Shale play - from motor vehicle accidents to pipeline explosions - there has been an increase in public concern over the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing.

As Tara Patel reports for Bloomberg, CEO Gerard Mestrallet of France-based GDF Suez, Europe's biggest gas company, has spoken out about improving the process of hydraulic fracturing to reduce its environmental impact. Mestrallet said, "Probably it [hydraulic fracturing] can be improved and probably it has to be improved."

On June 30, 2011, France became the first country to ban hydraulic fracturing.

Some scientists and environmentalists worry about the risk of groundwater contamination from the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, which could lead to environmental injuries from dangerous drinking water (though supporters of hydraulic fracturing claim the process takes place far below the water table).

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently said that hydraulic fracturing could result in "serious environmental damage," as Patel reports, unless best practices measures are in place.

There has been public opposition to hydraulic fracturing in other mining areas, including the Marcellus Formation in New York and Pennsylvania, leading New York to ban hydraulic fracturing for a period of time.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the ban in July 2011.