Little more than a decade ago, the United
was running so low on natural gas that companies were making plans to
cover the shortfall with imports of liquefied natural gas. Today, though, the
marine terminals built to dock huge LNG ships in Texas, Louisiana and Maryland
are being converted to ship gas out, not just bring it in.

This remarkable reversal of fortune is the result of a
dramatic boom in a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or
“fracking,” which uses high-pressure water mixed with chemicals and sand to
crack open shale formations. This technique has brought a surprising amount of
new gas production from states as disparate as Texas, North
and Pennsylvania — enough combined with conventional supplies to
last perhaps 100 years at current consumption rates

That’s game-changing, wildly underdiscussed news. Gas now
meets only about a quarter of the nation’s energy needs, much of it for home
heating and industrial use. But if estimates of shale gas reserves are correct —
and they seem to just get bigger — gas could begin to displace oil as a fuel for
vehicles and might even help unseat coal as the nation’s dominant fuel for
generating electricity. Price pressures would ease; dependence on unstable
supplies of foreign oil could decline.

But, as with other energy sources, there’s a catch, and
it’s a big one. Fracking has caused some serious problems in many of the places
where it has been used over the past several years, enough to threaten its
promising future.

Cracking open dense rock formations to extract oil and gas
requires enormous amounts of water, as much as 5 million gallons for a single
well. That can strain local water resources and create serious problems if the
wastewater that comes back to the surface isn’t carefully handled.

There have been incidents in which wastewater laden with
chemicals and radioactivity from formations thousands of feet below the surface
leaked onto adjacent properties, severely damaging them. Companies have disposed
of wastewater at sewage treatment plants that might not have been able to remove
all the fracking chemicals.

There’s also a furious battle going on between the industry
on one side, and homeowners and environmentalists on the other, over whether the fracking process has contaminated drinking water

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