With a new gas-fire electric plant on the horizon, public health and environmental concerns surrounding the process used to harness natural gas cast a dark shadow.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known, is the process of using chemical-laced water and sand to harness natural gas by blasting apart shale deposits deep below the earth's surface. And while many laude it for its cost effective methods, others believe its potential impacts on public health and to pollute underground aquifers make its use dubious.
Although Iowa has shale deposits, said Bob Libra, state geologist, many of them are not ideal for harnessing natural gas, making it unlikely that the company performing fracturing would do so in Iowa. Most of the U.S.'s shale used for natural gas is contained in Texas and New England.
T-R PHOTO BY DAVID ALEXANDER
Alliant’s proposed gas-fire plant will be built near its Sutherland Generating Station, shown here Friday evening. The gas piped into the new plant will likely be harvested using hydrofracking.
Alliant has yet to settle on a transmission provider to pipe the gas for the $750 million gas-fire electric plant that awaits approval from the Iowa Utilities Board on more than 50 permits. However, Ryan Stensland, a spokesperson for Alliant, said in an email correspondence that the company will likely go with Northern Border or Northern Natural Gas to carry the gas from wherever it is harvested.
Northern Border already has a gas pipeline that runs through Marshalltown.
If fracking is to provide the gas, it will likely occur outside of the state, but, at press time, Alliant could not provide details as to where the gas would come from or which company would perform the drilling.
At least some of that concern surrounding fracking arises from the fact that the 2005 Energy Bill exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
A 2011 study by scientists at Duke University found that gas drilling can often cause methane to leak into water supplies and even into people's homes. The study concludes that the problem is not with fracking, but with drilling. Poorly drilled wells, not fracking, lead to methane leakage.
"If you have a well that doesn't work, the chemicals come up and get into fresh water zones," Libra said. "It is very very unlikely that the fracturing process itself is releasing the water with the chemicals."
However, methane contamination falls under state and federal regulations while fracking enjoys a special exemption.
Stensland called fracking a "game changer" for the natural gas industry. But, even if the government were to outlaw the process tomorrow, Alliant would still use natural gas to power the proposed station. However, he said since fracking is the easiest way to extract the gas, limitations on fracking would likely affect pricing.
Companies like Dow Chemical that use natural gas to manufacture plastics and other makers of chemicals and fertilizers are building plants across the country to take advantage of low natural gas rates, which are roughly a quarter the price they are in Asia.
According to a report by the University of Houston, low natural gas prices benefited the United States economy by more than $100 billion last year alone.
Many say more investigation in needed into the effects of fracturing.
While it is unlikely the chemicals used in fracking are able to seep up through a mile or more of bedrock to be able to contaminate drinking water, studying the fracking process at the same rate the industry is exploding proves difficult, Libra said.
Although a 2004 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that surveyed state regulators found that fracking poses "little to no threat" to groundwater except when diesel fuel is used, it also reported finding potentially dangerous materials linked to hydrofracturing wells in Wyoming in 2011.
Libra said many fracking sites have not been studied to determine what the conditions were prior to the wells being dug.
A Natural Resources Defense Council analysis of state regulations relating to fracking shows that Iowa does not mandate that companies that use hydrofracking disclose which chemicals they will use or notify land owners when fracking will occur on their property.
However, Libra said because fracking rarely occurs in Iowa, many of the laws on the books have not been updated since prior to the natural gas boom.