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Fracking provides boundless energy, jobs, and earthquakes?

By Mario Garcia and Ronnie Polidoro

Rock Center

The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of natural gas -- by President Barack Obama no less --  and in some of the economically hardest hit areas in this country there are signs of recovery. Across America natural gas exploration has opened the job market with tens of thousands of good paying jobs with benefits and 401Ks. To get all that gas, however, the industry uses a method known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” and some worry if it’s safe.

Rock Center’s Harry Smith visited an oil fracking site over a year ago and reported on a boomtown in Williston, N.D. Since the report, viewers raised concerns of the process’ environmental impact. So to dive deeper into a process under pressure from the public, Harry Smith visited multiple natural gas fracking sites.

Fracking releases natural gas encased in giant underground formations of shale rock.  Using a drilling rig, “frackers” send a pipe 5,000 to 7,000 feet vertically then they curve it horizontally through a shale bed. Water mixed with sand and chemicals is sent down the pipe under tremendous pressure and shot into the shale bed, forcing out the natural gas. A pipe is then put down the drill hole and the gas flows through that pipe and is collected. After the drilling the chemicals mixed with the water and sand need to be disposed of.

Americans have been trying to crack loose the natural gas for decades. In 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission even set off a nuclear explosion underground in Colorado to try to get at it. It didn’t work. Since then, new technology to set the gas free has made widespread exploration possible. Some of the richest beds are in New York, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, but more than 800 gas wells were drilled in 2011 around the country, all of which utilize fracking to get the gas.

Already, the boom is benefiting consumers.

In Scranton, Pa., local utility company UGI Energy Services recently tore up West Locust Street and, within a few hours, had installed a natural gas line to Howard Penny’s house. Penny, a local tire technician, told Smith that price -- natural gas is currently about one-third the cost of fuel oil -- was the reason he switched from oil to natural gas.

“It’s a no brainer. It’s a lot cheaper,” Penny said. 

The boom in energy is amazing even to famous oil and gasman T. Boone Pickens. Pickens has spent a lifetime in the energy industry and has tried his hand at just about every kind of energy – even wind.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago now this going to happen, I would’ve laughed at you,” Pickens told Smith.

Pickens says natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, abundant and ours.

The boom also is helping the beleaguered U.S. manufacturing sector.

In Youngstown, Ohio, TMK-IPSCO, a new state-of-the-art pipe finishing factory, keeps 75 employees busy on two shifts -- all to service gas exploration. 

TMK-IPSCO’s CEO Vicky Avril has been in the steel business for several decades, most of her life, much of the time trimming payrolls and laying off workers. But fracking has fundamentally changed the equation, she says.

“To me, this is a career maker,” Avril told Smith. She believes fracking is a great avenue to walk toward energy independence and provide more jobs for people who have been out of work.

That’s good news for Ohioans like Kyle Burrati, who was unemployed for a year before being hired at TMK-IPSCO.

“Honestly, I feel really blessed that I got a job here because, you know, the whole United States has been hit by the recession and for them to come here and open this plant, it’s wonderful,” Burrati said graciously.

But some in Youngstown aren’t convinced, including Ohio State Rep. Bob Hagan who grew up in Youngstown and saw the town’s old steel mills and blast furnaces fade away. Hagan, a Democrat, says he is worried about the environmental consequences that will accompany the new source of energy.

 Hagan and other environmental groups worry that disposal of toxic fracking waste could poison the region’s water supply. The concern is that the chemical used in fracking are toxic and could contaminate water supplies.

That disposal has already left some in Youngstown shaken in ways no one anticipated.  In 2011 on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, Youngstown had two significant earthquakes. The first was a 2.7 magnitude quake and the second 4.0. Columbia University seismologist John Armbruster was hired by the state of Ohio to determine the cause of those quakes. In his expert opinion the high pressure used to dispose of the waste water caused the quakes. In March 2012 the state agreed and closed the site indefinitely. The state of Ohio believed him and shut down the well where the fracking water was being disposed. It remains closed.

“Youngstown has no history of earthquakes before these for the 100 plus years since the area was settled,” Armbruster said. 

Another state struggling to figure out how to tap the boundless energy is New York. There, it’s an issue so contentious it has pitted neighbor against neighbor, especially in the rolling hills upstate.

In Cooperstown, N.Y., for example, the CEO of beer maker of Ommegang Brewery, Simon Thorpe, is proud of what his company brews, but is concerned that fracking will ruin his pitch perfect ingredient: water.

“You can’t make world class beer with polluted water,” said Thorpe.

However, a mile down the road from Ommegang, at Jennifer Huntington’s dairy farm, sentiment about fracking is markedly different. Jennifer’s family feel like they have been good stewards to the land and note that water is just as important in milk as in beer. But Jennifer is convinced a fracking can be done safely. In fact, she sold the rights to drill for natural gas below her precious pasture, a move that she said has made her an unpopular person in town.

“We all love this area, none of us want to see it ruined. We just kind of have a different vision,” Huntington told Smith.