GeoWorld February 2012

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GIS and Its 'F' Word: Fracking POSITION T BY TODD DANIELSON his GeoWorld issue focuses on Energy and Natural Resources, and although it covers a wide range of topics, including geology and minerals, and ground-subsidence monitor- ing, I wanted to make sure we covered an aspect of energy that has been dominat- ing national discourse of late: fracking. The actual name is hydrofracking, which is short for hydrolic fracturing, but everyone recognizes its shortened name. And although fracking is taking place all across the United States, the most prevalent and headline-grabbing location for fracking is in the Marcellus Shale, a 600-mile wide unit of marine sedimentary rock that underlies much of the Appalachian Basin. There's some interesting geology in the approximately 385-million-year-old formation, but the reason this forma- tion is famous is because it contains natural gas in its layers. And geologists believe there's a lot of it; estimates vary, but one monetary value was pegged at $200 billion in fuel. Hot Topic Having a vast energy source would be well and good, but getting natural gas out of shale buried 7,000-10,000 feet below the surface isn't easy. In fact, it was pretty much impossible to get produc- tive amounts of natural gas out of the Marcellus Shale until fracking came along. In a crude summary, fracking involves Todd Danielson is editor of GeoWorld magazine, PO Box 773498, Steamboat Springs, CO 80477; e-mail: 4 GEO W ORLD / FEB R UA R Y 2O12 directional drilling, which starts vertical and can then move horizontally through the formation, thousands of feet to reach the shale. Then water and chemi- cals are pumped into the rocks under high pressure, releasing the natural gas that was previously trapped for millions of years. I saw on Wikipedia that one such well claimed to be extracting 3 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. But like most things in life, there's a cost. And fracking's main detractors believe its environmental costs far outweigh the price of the fuel. For starters, fracking uses a lot of water, and that water is usually brought in by large trucks that leave their mark on the surrounding communities. The environmental aspects that can be measured, such as radioactive or chemical contamination of local water sup- plies, often are disputed and haven't had enough time be thoroughly examined by scientists. But there are enough warning signs to indicate that problems may not be as understood as some think. All of this, and stories of tap water catching on fire, is why fracking is such a hot topic. The Role of GIS I knew GIS was playing a major role in fracking use and analysis, so I was very happy when Bruce Stauffer, vice presi- dent of geographIT, and Roger Bannister, a hydrogeologist and GIS analyst with Groundwater & Environmental Services Inc., agreed to write a feature article on the subject (see "The Marcellus Shale— GIS Technology Helps Map and Monitor a High-Profile Natural-Gas Play," page 14). I won't just repeat what they say in the article, but the authors do a nice job of conveying how geotechnology is used in several aspects of natural-gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale. Energy compa- nies map where they're drilling, of course, but regulations also have them mapping water sources prior and after drilling, so any contamination of supplies is recorded. They also map where they can contain the large amounts of water used and setbacks for keeping their materials away from sensitive areas. The feature also notes several great Web sites that help track and monitor fracking sites, so communities can see where drilling is happening and where it's proposed. And although fracking is a conten- tious issue, with vocal proponents and critics, using geotechnology has only "upside." Whether fracking's benefits outweigh its negatives is up to citizens and lawmakers, and mapping will play a major role in that discussion as well.

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