Our opinion: Weighing the risks

Ever since ancient man found out the smoke from his fire could sting his eyes and make him cough, man has been searching for completely clean energy and coming up short.

Thousands of years later, we are still coming up short.

Yes, we have found cleaner, less environmentally hazardous sources of useable energy, but virtually none that are both practical and completely harmless, either to our health or the health of the planet.

About eight years ago, geologists and engineers, many of them working for the U.S. Department of Energy, determined that a shale formation deep beneath less than a half-dozen states in the Northeast could give up vast amounts of relatively clean-burning natural gas. The formation had been known long before that, but had been considered unfeasible and uneconomical to exploit with normal drilling techniques, because the shale layer was so thin and normal drilling could only pierce tiny bits of it.

Wary at first, exploration companies were cajoled by the DOE to try a new method, the development of which was underwritten by the DOE. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing made the Marcellus Shale one of the richest sources of energy on earth. And, to top it off, natural gas is a relatively clean energy source. And, to top that, the sudden and massive influx of natural gas on the market reduced its price enough to compete with dirtier fuels.

While all of this sounds like a real-world fairy tale with a happy ending, there was a shadow tempering the euphoria. The drilling required to produce those billions of cubic feet of gas also produced millions of gallons of wastewater containing all sorts of chemicals, many of which are harmful in sufficient quantities to humans and animals.

Like the conundrum of spent nuclear fuel rods, society now searches for a safe way to dispatch Marcellus wastewater.

It is not impossible. Technology has started to catch up to the problem, providing a couple reasonable solutions. One is to recycle the fluid, using it over and over to produce more gas. The other is to inject it so deep into the earth’s crust, that it cannot migrate to aquifers we rely on for drinking water, let alone rise to the surface.

Deep wells are increasingly being seen as a good plan, but that plan requires the transportation of the fluid to the disposal wells, which can be hundreds of miles from the original production zone. Up to now most of the fluid earmarked for deep injection has been transported by truck or by rail to wells in Ohio, even a couple in western Warren County.

Now there is a proposal before the U.S. Coast Guard to allow barges to transport the fluid from the northeast to appropriate wells in Texas and Louisiana. A single barge can handle 70 tractor-trailer loads of water.

There are risks: Things that travel on top of the water have the potential for leaking or ending up under the water.

But, there are risks in ground transportation as well, as people in a small Canadian town who watched recently as much of their community was destroyed by a runaway train can attest.

The fact is, Marcellus gas and the production method to extract it is here to stay. Barges already transport millions of gallons of crude oil and gasoline every day. And yes, accidents occur.

But, if the Coast Guard deems the risks reasonable and promulgates such regulations as necessary to reduce those risks, carrying frack fluid by barge seems a reasonable proposal.

Ancient man could easily ameliorate the smoke problem. A cave was no place to build a fire, and sitting up-wind provided him warmth without the air pollution.

Alas, we don’t enjoy such simple solutions.