Ohio's energy sources: Natural gas

Part two in a series about how Ohio sources its energy for electricity.

In Ohio, 23 percent of energy for electricity comes from natural gas. Natural gas is non-renewable fossil fuel used as a source of energy for heating, cooking and electricity generation. It is a product of the remains of plants and animals that were alive millions of years ago, thus the reason it is considered a "fossil" fuel. After these plants and animals died, they decayed into thick layers mixed with sand and silt. These layers are buried under layers of silt, sand and rock. Pressure and heat changed some of the remains to coal, some into oil, and some into natural gas.

Most of the gas used as energy in the United States is drawn from wells or extracted in conjunction with crude oil production. Other gas that is trapped in shale requires hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” a relatively newer gas extraction technology. Energy companies drill to reach natural gas trapped far below the earth’s surface. Rock must be broken in order to reach it. Fracking produces cracks in the rock that then releases the flow of natural gas. These wells are drilled vertically hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface of the earth. Additionally, horizontal sections extending thousands of feet may also be included in the wells. To fracture the rock, large quantities of fluids at high pressure are pumped down the well. This fluid consists of water, proppant (solid material such as sand or man-made ceramic), and chemicals that produce fractures in the shale. The gas rises to the top of the well, and is captured.

Burning natural gas for energy produces fewer byproducts than coal or petroleum. The emission of carbon dioxide is about half of the rate of coal, so fewer greenhouse gases are released. Almost all natural gas used in the United States is produced in the United States, reducing the need for imports. Consumption of natural gas in the United States is expected to rise 25 percent over the next 25 years. One of the reasons for the increase is the wider use of hydraulic fracturing, which makes it possible to reach the natural gas trapped in shale.

The great increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing does not come without environmental issues. After the gas is released and contained during the fracking process, wastewater is left over as a byproduct. This wastewater has been shown to contain toxic chemicals such as barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony, and may also be potentially radioactive. Currently, this wastewater is not regulated by any federal agency. This leaves the tracking and handling of the waste up to states.

One method for disposing of the wastewater is to inject it back into the ground, using injection wells. The Center for Public Integrity has found that states are struggling to keep pace with the waste stream, and rely on the fracking industry to self-report and self-regulate. Pennsylvania has increasingly restricted the disposal of drilling waste, while Ohio has not formalized any fracking waste rules yet. As a result, Ohio’s injection well disposal industry has grown. Wastewater from Pennsylvania and West Virginia is taken to Ohio for disposal. In 2015, Ohio took in nearly 29 million barrels of fracking wastewater. Thirteen million came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

There is a lot of concern that the toxic, potentially radioactive, wastewater can contaminate groundwater after being forced underground. Another concern is a rise in earthquakes from wastewater underground disposal. In March 2014, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources ordered an energy company in Mahoning County to halt all fracking operations due to four earthquakes in the area. The area had no history of earthquakes. Ohio has more than 200 active injection wells for oil and gas waste. Pennsylvania has seven injection wells.

In conclusion, while the burning of natural gas does not produce the greenhouse gas emissions that burning coal does, there are a lot of environmental concerns that need to be addressed in regards to the waste that hydraulic fracturing produces, and how to dispose of that waste. I hope you have a better understanding of the use of natural gas as energy – I know I do! Stay tuned for my next column on nuclear power as an energy source in Ohio. 

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Volume 9, Issue 3, Posted 9:53 AM, 02.07.2017