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Tim Shaffer/Reuters/Landov

Fractured policy

Science | Panel considers safety of emerging gas extraction technique

The pressure is building on the cutting-edge but contentious natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The drilling technology, which forces a mixture of water and chemicals deep underground into shale formations to unlock gas, could be responsible for 47 percent of U.S. natural gas production by 2035 (triple its 2009 share) and keep prices moderate in the meantime. But critics think it could foul the drinking water of thousands of Americans.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) stoked the debate in early May with its discovery of methane-the principal component of natural gas-in private water wells near fracking sites in Pennsylvania and New York. Gas companies argued many water wells were known to contain methane before drilling began-and they criticized the study's lack of "baseline" data that would more clearly indicate where the well-water methane had originated. But the study authors think the connection is clear enough: They found methane concentrations in private wells located within about 3,000 feet of drilling sites to be seven times higher than normal, perhaps a result of leaky gas well shafts. (High methane content in household water is an explosion hazard but is otherwise considered harmless, although the long-term health effects are unclear.)

Incidentally, the researchers found no evidence in the water of fracking fluids, potentially toxic chemicals used in the extraction process that are the worry of many environmentalists and some residents. Concern over the fluids prompted New York to ban large-scale fracking operations last December (the ban expires in June), and days before the PNAS study came out, the Obama administration created a seven-member panel of experts to recommend new regulations for fracking within six months.

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The panel is chaired by former CIA director John Deutch, currently a director of Cheniere Energy, a company dealing in liquefied natural gas. It includes Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, and Kathleen McGinty, who was an environmental advisor to Al Gore during his tenure as senator. The panel could help make drilling safer-or promote onerous restrictions on the extraction of cheap gas. The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the effect of fracking on groundwater but won't have results before 2012.

Cold call

A leak of diplomatic cables by the classified document clearinghouse WikiLeaks clouded an otherwise upbeat meeting of eight northern nations in Greenland in May. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland, comprising the Arctic Council, met to discuss Arctic territorial and environmental issues and agreed to a protocol governing search-and-rescue efforts-the first legally binding agreement ever produced by the 15-year-old council. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members she would "raise the visibility" of Arctic issues back home. But the leaked cables suggested there were, in fact, growing tensions between the nations over the North Pole's resources, such as its huge oil reserves, made more accessible by warmer temperatures. In one cable, the foreign minister of Denmark allegedly joked to U.S. officials that "if you stay out, then the rest of us will have more to carve up."

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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