I attended the Society of Environmental Journalists 23rd Annual Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee from October 2 through October 6. There was a ton to see and do as we were hosted by a city that has really turned its polluted past around. I was impressed by the electric shuttles that run every 5 minutes from dawn til dusk and by green infrastructure that was evident downtown. Along the river was clean and inviting, especially to someone who rarely sees large bodies of moving water.
As a resident of West Texas, I was particularly interested in the tour that I attended Thursday morning - Fracking Tennessee Style. I met John Bonar, an Engineer, Atlas Energy and Anne Davis, Managing Attorney, Nashville Office, Southern Environmental Law Center. Their insight into fracking was very different from what I'm used to in West Texas. What I realized from the tour was that not all hydraulic fracturing is done the same. Tennessee has laws that prevent oil and gas companies from using any more than 200,000 gallons of water in the frack process. West Texas by contrast uses from 2 million to 6 million gallons a well. Tennessee doesn't need to. They are after the natural gas and according to John Bonar, most of the gas is pretty close to the surface, within 50 to 90 feet below ground. They don't use water to extract it, they use CO2.
By contrast, in West Texas, we are after the oil which is much deeper in the earth and often flare the natural gas because it comes in such large quantities that we don't have the infrastructure to keep up with it and the price for natural gas is so low that it isn't profitable to capture it. Several oil and gas companies in Tennessee are in the process of building CO2 plants to have the substance readily available once fracking becomes viable. At $3 an MCF, Atlas can't make fracking work. At $5 to $6 an MCF, there may be fracking again.
Another obstacle that the West Texas oil boom doesn't have to contend with is environmental activism. There aren't many activist groups in this part of Texas and if there are, they haven't raised their voices very loudly yet. Anne Davis' and the Sierra Club of Tennessee have been instrumental in keeping companies like Atlas from fracking up the Tennessee hills. According to their website, "SELC and our partners have led the charge against a University of Tennessee proposal to lease thousands of public land acres in the Cumberland Forest to an oil and gas company for hydraulic fracturing."
We visited the Cumberland Forest on our tour, and I have to say it looks nothing like West Texas. One tiny natural gas well with one tank here and there scattered through the hills seemed like a minor footprint to me, someone used to seeing hundreds of pump jacks with batteries of 6 to 8 tanks stacked throughout the West Texas desert.
The contrast between Texas and Tennessee is obvious. The climate is different - in Chattanooga the fog rises from the valleys and impedes traffic. In West Texas the sun shines through a partly cloudy sky and its usually 80 degrees by 10 am. Tennesseans have mountains and ancient forests and we have an arid climate and desert-like foliage where you can see for miles in any direction.
However, one thing that is universal between the two states is that oil and gas exploration moves economies. Even though activism has slowed the Tennessee oil boom, the economics of gas exploration will be the true test. Five dollars an MCF could make all the difference in the world.