How Shale Energy Reshapes American Security

May 3, 2013 Topic: EnergyGrand StrategySecurity Region: United States

How Shale Energy Reshapes American Security

The United States will be less vulnerable to foreign crises, but it will gain new liabilities.

Hence, any conflict or intense rivalry with a shale-producing adversary will generate interest in disrupting the flow of these essential water supplies. Some countries will be particularly vulnerable because they lack adequate, diversified sources of water: for example, China harbors 20 percent of the world's population but just 6 percent of the world's water resources. Others are vulnerable not because they lack those resources but because the water has to be piped over significant distances to shale wells: thousands of temporary pipelines have powered the fracking of the Marcellus shale, for example.

Highly targeted operations against strategic water supplies have been carried out in previous conflicts, such as the Allied air attack on the Ruhr dams in Germany in May 1943, when low-level precision bombing breached the Mohne and Eder dams and temporarily diverted huge quantities of water away from the Nazis' industrial heartlands. In the contemporary world, "smart" missiles would be used against such carefully chosen targets, and their effectiveness would depend on highly accurate and up-to-date intelligence about the source and flow of water. But other, more covert means could also be deployed.

America's energy security will require that water supplies be closely guarded and also diversified. The Barnett Shale in Texas, for example, currently uses several sources of water, including the Trinity and Brazos rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, streams and ground water. Energy security will depend on building new water pipelines to feed wells, perhaps even underground pipelines for added security.

In the forthcoming shale-energy era, water will acquire further strategic significance because of what happens to it during the fracking process. Some of this water subsequently returns to the surface after it has come into contact with various pollutants and chemicals, including salts, organic hydrocarbons, inorganic and organic additives and naturally occurring radioactive materials such as uranium, radium and radon. These pose a substantial pollution risk. In this wastewater "flowback," these dangerous elements can exceed federal drinking water standards several times over. In the United States this is happening because of the relative freedom that shale gas operators have been granted under the "Cheney-Halliburton Loophole" of the 2005 Energy Act, which specifically excluded fracking from the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act. This loophole has enabled companies to avoid disclosing the chemicals they use in the fracking process.

These substances can be toxic to people, and can also interact with disinfectants at drinking-water plants to form cancer-causing chemicals. At the very least this is quite sufficient to cause a major health scare. The sheer scale of the risk to public health became clear in a 2012 study that said even in a best case scenario, an individual well would release some 200 square meters of contaminated fluids. It added that, if just 10 per cent of the Marcellus Shale region is developed, the volume of contaminated wastewater “would equate to several hours flow of the Hudson River.”

Unless it is properly treated for recycling and disposal, this flowback can contaminate rivers and other water supplies. Evidence of this contamination risk has prompted calls in the United States for much closer study of the environmental risks posed by fracking, and for controls over the way in which wastewater is disposed of. At present, much of the flowback is moved off site and injected underground.

These flowback dangers could herald "environmental warfare." Terrorists or other national enemies could seek to divert wastewater through sabotage. Thus, Homeland Security will likely want to monitor removal of this wastewater and study how its flow could be disrupted. Even a groundless "scare story" about the contamination of drinking water to a major city could devastate public morale. But actual disruption could adversely affect public health in serious ways.

The shale revolution promises major economic and geopolitical gains for the United States. But it will also require strategic adjustments as it reshapes U.S. interests.

Roger Howard is the author of five books on international relations, including Operation Damocles: Israel Versus Hitler's Scientists 1951-67, published next week.