The profitable – and controversial – mining practice could be coming to our state.
For a long time it seemed hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would bypass Arizona. The state is poor in natural gas, so there seemed little need for the process of injecting a pressurized chemical cocktail into the ground to pulverize rocks and extract the fuel trapped within. But New Mexico Tech researchers’ March announcement that their state shows strong potential for gas and oil production indicates that Northeastern Arizona might also be sitting on a fortune in shale oil. It’s part of the Mancos Shale, a 90-million-year-old, 60-billion-barrel formation spread under much of the West.
Almost all of Arizona’s Mancos Shale is on the Navajo reservation, near the Navajo Generating Station in Page, says M. Lee Allison, director of the Arizona Geological Survey. But he cautions that researchers don’t yet know if Arizona’s portion contains shale oil. “There is almost no data on the oil or gas potential of the Mancos in Arizona. We can only say it looks attractive in New Mexico so it may be worthwhile to further investigate the unit in Arizona.”
To explore for oil, the Navajo Nation Oil & Gas Company will seek a state permit from the Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, says Nation spokesperson Erny Zah. The commission is nested within Allison’s agency, which relies on grants and contracts with federal agencies for about 90 percent of its funding. Zah says no other company has approached the Navajo for permission to explore, an approval process that can take years.
Fracking has existed since 1949, with energy companies using it more often as natural gas becomes harder to extract. The process also works for shale oil, and for another profitable substance: carbon dioxide. About 10 Arizona wells have been test-fracked in the past 15 years for CO2. Delivered under pressure via long distance pipeline, CO2 is used to coax hard-to-get oil from aging wells in Texas and New Mexico. Last year the pipeline company Kinder Morgan paid $30 million for fields rich in CO2 (and helium; see sidebar) near the town of St. Johns in eastern Arizona. That’s all the company’s saying right now.
Fracking releases chemicals that have been linked to water, air, and soil pollution, and sickness in humans and animals. The process has even been linked to earthquakes. It also requires large outlays of water, equipment and infrastructure.
Allison says he’s heard worries from Northern Arizona officials but says, “There’s been a national hysteria created about fracking.” He concedes that environmental contamination happens, not due to the fracking process but because of shoddy work sealing off the wells dug for fracking. That distinction is unlikely to quell the controversy. A judge temporarily stopped California fracking when he ruled the federal government must weigh environmental concerns before it issues permits. Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which co-filed the suit, tried to stop fracking altogether. “If fracking were to gear up in Arizona, we’d fight it with everything we’ve got,” spokesman Pat Sullivan says. “We would certainly look for opportunities to challenge this dangerous practice in court.”
Global footnote: Fracking for natural gas is coming to the U.K., where officials promise to avoid the “reckless” mistakes of the U.S. industry. Among other things, they plan thicker shields to keep gas out of groundwater. If extra care works for the Brits, it might let Zonies sleep easier, too.
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