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Operating oil and gas well profiled on cloudy sky
Operating oil and gas well profiled on cloudy sky

THE MOVIES, FACEBOOK and e-mail campaigns, incendiary speeches and general anxiety are provocative: Gouts of flame erupting from kitchen taps, reports of contaminated drinking water, dead cows and poisoned towns.

On the other side, gas and oil companies and public-opinion lobbyists promise cheap, environmentally responsible energy and plenty of jobs and cash for everyone.

Fracking. It’s what divides us. And after controversial development on the East Coast, the northern Great Plains and the Intermountain West, it’s in Nevada.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been around for decades, but the rise of natural gas as a replacement fossil fuel for coal, combined with new techniques for extracting it, have rapidly expanded fracking’s presence in the last decade. It has made millionaires of landowners in Pennsylvania, and environmental advocates of ranchers in Colorado.

The technology essentially depends on drilling a deep hole — a mile or more deep — and then breaking up the deep rock to release trapped gas. A mix of water and chemicals are used to help drill and break up the deep material and facilitate the transport of the gas to the surface.

Only one company, Texas-based Noble Energy, has a fracking effort underway in Nevada at this point, and it started operations earlier this month on a drill in Elko County, about 350 miles north of Las Vegas. It is too soon to tell if there’s something down there worth retrieving. However, the company has more than two dozen applications for drills on land leased from the federal government or private land in rural Nevada.

The positive side for Nevada and Las Vegas would be jobs, economic development and diversification, equipment sales and rentals, and tax revenue. The downside, of course, would be environmental degradation, including contamination of what is often called “Nevada’s most precious resource” — that is, water. (Media accounts differ as to whether water, or our children, is the most precious resource, but they’re generally neck-and-neck in the precious competition. We’ll call it a tie.)

Living in Las Vegas, it’s easy to forget about the “Cow Counties” that make up more than 90 percent of the land of our state. If people think about rural Nevada at all, they think of it as an enormous Big Empty.

There’s more than an element of truth in that. Some of the counties up there (wave vaguely in a northern direction) have just a few thousand residents and few discernable economic or historical reasons to exist.

Nonetheless, rural Nevada is big, and the fracking that energy companies hope to develop there could have a big impact on Las Vegas. The city already benefits from mining in rural Nevada, from tax revenues (some would like to see more), equipment sales and rentals.

There’s another reason that what happens in rural Nevada matters down here. The Colorado River, source of 90 percent of our urban water, is in trouble. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (and before that, the Las Vegas Valley Water District) has been looking at rural Nevada’s groundwater for a quarter-century as a potential source for water to supply growth or as a replacement to failing river water.

Christian Gerlach lives in our big city, but he still cares what happens in Elko County.

“Yes, I’m a born and raised Las Vegas resident,” says Gerlach, who works with a local marketing company. “But I saw Gasland a few years ago and it got me interested in fracking. … Personally, I love the whole state. This state is the state that I call home and where I hope to live the rest of my life.”

Gerlach and allies have started petitions in an effort to block fracking development in the state. He says the state “is bending over backwards” to fast-track the industry here.

2010’s Gasland and its sequel, Gasland II, which came out this year, are documentaries that expose what the filmmakers say are the dangerous outcomes from hydraulic fracking. Gas industry experts vehemently dispute many of the films’ conclusions.

But one issue raised in the movie is definitely true: Federal energy legislation passed in 2005 and supported by the Bush administration specifically exempts the fracking industry from the federal Clean Water Act.

That does not mean that there’s no regulation. The Nevada Division of Minerals is now charged with permitting Noble’s fracking operation while keeping the environment clean. More state regulations are coming.

Legislation passed earlier this year requires the Division of Minerals and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to jointly come up with complete regulations to protect groundwater and air quality, but the state isn’t required to have those rules in place until 2015.

In the meantime, the exploratory work continues. The company commenced drilling its first Nevada exploratory well test Sept. 2 on land leased near Elko. The company predicts the well will reach a depth of more than 12,000 feet — more than two miles — by the end of the year. The company will decide what to do after the well is completed. A Noble spokeswoman said the company anticipates spending about $30 million on exploration activities in Nevada in 2013.

David von Seggern is a retired UNR geologist who has worked for oil and gas companies. He’s also on the executive committee of Nevada’s Sierra Club. He’s got a nuanced view of the potential threats and benefits of fracking.

“We should be concerned about it, just like every other state is concerned about it,” Seggern said. Just as the state is working to develop regulations for the growing industry, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to produce an analysis of impacts to water from the technology next year.

“The environmental community is anxious to see what it says,” Seggern says in a bit of understatement. “There has been so little testing and monitoring out there, that we don’t know enough about it.” He notes that the development of the industry is very, very small so far in Nevada, and that as an oil-industry veteran, he says “things proceed very slowly.”

Seggern says the state needs a baseline for water quality; he also says he would prefer that a full suite of regulations were in place before allowing fracking to go forward. “But oil and gas companies can still make a fair case that there’s no connection between fracking and drinking water.”

Glenn Miller, director of UNR’s Environmental Sciences Program and a board member of Great Basin Resource Watch, a conservation group, says that fracking probably won’t be good for Nevada’s groundwater, but also isn’t likely to be a big problem unless the industry really gets going.

“Leaks and contamination are not observed early in the process due to the slow movement of groundwater,” Miller says. “Direct contamination of groundwater with the very contaminated flowback and produced water from fracking is not commonly observed, except for methane leaks, and these can be serious.”

Those methane leaks can make groundwater undrinkable, he says.

“Methane leaks are fairly common, and I feel that this is a major problem with fracking,” Miller says. Also, “Surface spills of very poor water have also occurred fairly often, and the salts can affect soils, groundwater and surface water in a major way.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know what the impacts will be, and probably won’t know for a long time.”

Seggern, however, warns that if contamination occurs, especially from industrial solvents that have been used in other states, two things happen: It moves underground in unpredictable ways, and it is almost impossible to clean up the contaminated groundwater supply.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority officially says it has few immediate worries about fracking.

“The Southern Nevada Water Authority has not yet adopted a position on the practice of hydraulic fracturing for the purposes of oil and natural gas production,” says SNWA spokesman J.C. Davis in an e-mail. “Although the scientific data indicate that there is no hydrological connection to Southern Nevada’s present or future water supplies, the SNWA is also aware of concerns expressed by the environmental community regarding the implications of hydraulic fracturing for adjacent groundwater aquifers and air quality.

“Regardless of whether the practice has any implications for Southern Nevada, it is our hope and expectation that the state and federal permitting processes would carefully consider potential water quality impacts, and that any operations conducted would be closely monitored by the regulatory agencies.”

The state says it’s on top of the issue.

“We are charged with making sure that any of the exploration work is conducted in a safe manner so there are no detrimental effects on the water of the state,” says Mike Visher, Nevada Division of Minerals deputy administrator. The regulations in place require Noble or other gas drillers to publicly reveal the fluids used in fracking, although not their concentrations, he notes.

Visher’s division is working with Environmental Protection to develop regulations, continue to investigate impacts to the environment and “make sure the process is done in a safe manner,” he says. One advantage that Nevada has: It can take the results of research from other parts of the country and apply them to the local program, “piece together what makes sense for Nevada, rather than create something from scratch.”

Industry representatives say the concerns expressed by environmentalists are misplaced.

“There’s a lot of allegations in the public domain about groundwater contamination,” says David Blackmon, managing director of Energy in Depth, an “oil and gas information service” that has attacked Gasland as deceptive. Energy in Depth is supported by the industry, Blackmon volunteers.

“The industry is very, very good about protecting groundwater resources,” he insists. Blackmon says the core issue isn’t really about groundwater at all, but the much bigger issue of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Natural gas produced in fracking is a fossil fuel, but it has half the carbon-dioxide emissions of the coal energy it is rapidly replacing.

“The reality of the situation is if you’re going to convert from coal, you’re going to have to go to natural gas or nuclear,” Blackmon says. “Environmental groups have decided to ignore that benefit [of reduced emissions with gas] because they fear that natural gas will slow adoption of renewables. It’s a real benefit to the whole economy and to the environment that some of these groups want to ignore.”

But environmental groups have evidence of groundwater contamination. In Wyoming, in 2011, federal EPA officials linked underground water contamination with fracking. Although the chemicals also were present in surface operations, the depth of the contamination — about 1,000 feet underground — likely meant it came from fracking operations there, they said.

Paul Enos, a lobbyist for Noble, says that Nevadans, north and south, don’t have much to worry about. His company will develop natural gas (if it’s there to develop) responsibly, he insists.

That, of course, is not going to satisfy those, like Gerlach, who have deep suspicions of the oil and gas industry generally and fracking specifically. The number of online petitions on the issue appear to be multiplying.

“There are assertions we lost a lot of visitors just with the talk of possible groundwater contamination from the Yucca mountain project, so can you imagine what this could do to our state?” one petition, on Credo Mobilize, asks. “Not to mention what could happen to the ranchers in northern Nevada, their waters, and industries. … We need to spread the word about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing. And we need to ban hydraulic fracturing in Nevada!”