Ten years ago few people had even heard of the energy extraction technique known as 'fracking.' Now the issue is set to play an important role for many US voters in the presidential election in November.
"We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years," US President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union speech this year. As pundits began scrambling to confirm or debunk the claim, Obama went on to assure Americans that his administration would "require oil companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use."
Note the word public. While the president promised transparency on public property, he made no mention of drilling on private property. And private property is where most fracking-related conflicts are taking place.
Few energy extraction methods have proved as divisive as fracking, or the fracturing of underground shale to access natural gas reserves. The process involves drilling to depths of two to three kilometers below the earth's surface before pivoting the drill horizontally. Explosive charges then blast fissures through the layers of shale, releasing trapped natural gases.
In the process, however, drilling chemicals can migrate vertically into local water sources - and from there, residents claim, into homes.
Romney versus Obama
States such as Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, have embraced the new extraction method with enthusiasm. Barry Kohl, a geology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, told DW that natural gas can potentially replace coal in power plants, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
He also said that, with regards to the presidential candidates, the policies are slightly different. Romney would probably roll back regulations on the fracking industry, while Obama will most likely continue the practice, but with more monitoring, Kohl believes.
More fracking? Less fracking? More regulation? Less regulation? Assuming Barack Obama's speech was correct, Americans have 99 years to resolve the issue.
Eric Smith, from the Energy Institute at Tulane University's Business School frames it differently, though. "The real question about shale is which direction do you want the country to go?" he told DW. "We can regress into some sort of Stone Age population where we could support about a third of the population that lives in the United States today, but everybody will have organically grown food - or we can go into a regime where we have 300 million people in the country, and those people eat better, live better, and have longer lives - all the things associated with good energy supplies."
Financial and environmental questions
In a lasting image from the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary film "Gasland." a man turns on his kitchen tap and then sets the water on fire. Natural gas from nearby fracking operations, he claims, is the culprit. A second film, "Truthland", released in June of this year, attempted to refute many of the claims made in “Gasland.” Yet dozens of homeowners who live close to fracking sites continue to report contaminated water and soil supplies due to leaky pits. Some have even reported an increase in earthquakes.
If the 'fraccident' stories are largely anecdotal, though, it's because the data related to fracking is the private property of oil and gas companies. Shannon Dosemagen, co-founder of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, hopes to change that through low-cost monitoring tools originally used in volcano research.
"Tests have already been done at volcanoes to see if there's hydrogen sulfide in the environment. We’re trying to modify those tests. We'd like to eventually test at gas patch sites for detection of hydrogen sulfide that's leaking from wells," she said.
Dosemagen says tools that check hydrogen sulfide will allow communities affected by shale gas extraction to run tests on their own water supplies.
According to "Gasland", many companies are settling any legal claims that are made, on a case-by-case basis out of court. There's no doubting the rapid growth of fracking though and it’s financial potential, according to Eric Smith.
"It's gone from being almost unmeasurable to constituting about a third of our gas supply within about 10 years.”