Fracking: The Future or the End?
An Exploration into the Viability of the Continued use of Hydraulic Fracturing
Christopher A. Whiteman
Before any new type of car is allowed to operate on public roadways, the public demands rigorous testing and research to be done to ensure that it is safe to use and does not pose any unacceptable to risk to the environment. The same could be said for any new drug, appliance, or other product; the public would want to know that it has been tested to be found safe and non-polluting. Then why would we allow an industry to operate that is both dangerous and a serious threat to the global environment?
Over the past decade or so, natural gas extraction from underground shale deposits has been ramping up at a dramatic pace in the United States. Perhaps the most common industry practice for extracting this gas is a method called hydraulic fracturing, known universally as fracking. The process consists of drilling wells to gas-bearing shale deposits deep underground. Next, volumes of secretive fluids mixed with sand and water are pumped into the well at high pressure to crack the shale, thus releasing the gas, then retrieving the gas along with varying quantities of the original water and chemicals with the addition of heavy metals and other toxic substances organic to the geology of the deposit (Bamberger & Oswald, 2012). The process has been used over a million times since the 1940s but has seen exponential growth with the introduction of new technologies such as horizontal drilling that allow access to deposits heretofore unavailable (Sakmar, 2011). Today, 90 percent of oil and gas wells in the U.S. use hydraulic fracturing (Michaels, Simpson, & Wegner, 2010).
As the industry has grown, so too have complaints and allegations of environmental and health risks associated with nearly every phase of this process. This has prompted the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] to initiate a lengthy study primarily regarding the possibilities of contamination to both drinking water supplies and surface water, as well as the likelihood of other environmental and health hazards (Schmidt, 2011). Despite these concerns, the industry continues unabated. Current evidence indicates that hydraulic fracturing should be stopped because it has been shown to contaminate water supplies, pollute the environment with toxic chemicals, endanger public health, and contribute to global warming.
In most parts of America, dwindling water resources and ensuring future availability is becoming a concern. Yet, a growing body of case studies, public records, and reports all conclude that fracking poses a danger to watersheds of all types, including drinking water supplies. Gas drilling pollutes water in three main ways: the chemical compounds mixed with water and sand called fracking fluids, wastewater leaks and methane infiltration. An extensive report published in September 2010 called Fractured Communities cites hundreds of case studies including drinking water contamination in eight states where fracking is occurring. Incidents cited include spilling of toxic waste and fracking fluids into surface waterways and infiltration of methane gas into water supplies, among many others in thousands of violations of state and federal policies (Michaels, Simpson, & Wegner, 2010).
A case in point from Pennsylvania shows that faulty well construction and lack of safety procedure compliance on the part of Cabot Oil and Gas caused numerous spills of both fracking fluids and wastewater between early 2009 and July 2010 (Michaels, et al., 2010). The company was fined and penalized for the spills after failing to resolve the problems, but the permits remained valid. This illustrates the inability of current laws being unable to effectively regulate the industry. The list of recommended actions provided in the Fractured Communities report is exhaustive and would take years to implement. If any official body considered them, they would require both radical policy changes and major expenditures (Michaels, et al., 2010).
In addition to wastewater and fracking fluid pollution, methane leaked from wells has contaminated drinking water supplies(Michaels, et al., 2010). In Pennsylvania, authorities have concluded that water wells near gas wells have incidence of dissolved methane 17 times the average (Lustgarten, 2011b). Concerning the presence of methane in drinking water, a professor of environmental sciences at Duke University named Robert Jackson conducted a test taking samples of drinking water from 60 residential wells near operating shale gas sites. These were tested for the presence of dissolved methane. The Department of the Interior has established standards for the presence of methane in water. Those standards call for hazard mitigation steps be taken at levels greater than 10 mg per liter and consider levels above 64 mg per liter to be explosive. According to the study, the tested wells were significantly greater than the actionable level, averaging 19.2 mg per liter (Schmidt, 2011). Water well and even home explosions have been attributed to methane infiltration in Pennsylvania (Michaels, Simpson, & Wegner, 2010).
Another recent study conducted by the EPA in Wyoming used two separate tests to show that fracking pollution has effected both deep aquifer water and shallow surface water (Lustgarten & Kusnetz, 2011). In one of the tests, the EPA analyzed drinking water from 1,000 foot wells drilled specifically for testing near fracking operations and found ten contaminants that were consistent with known elements of fracking fluids, including benzene, which is a carcinogen. The other findings showed that surface groundwater around old gas and oil waste pits were contaminated, but pointed out that there was no way the pollution from the deep wells was caused by the surface pits. The deep well contamination was caused by fracking (Lustgarten & Kusnetz, 2011).
In many cases, the industry is aware of the problems, but scattered fines and test results are not enough to sway common practice without the presence of regulatory authority. The main problem is lack of regulation. On the federal level the EPA exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act in 2005 (Schmidt, 2011). More locally, states have instituted varying degrees of regulation, but no state has sufficient regulations in place to ensure water supplies stay clean (Finkel, 2011).
Water is not the only thing at risk from gas wells. Evidence also continues to accumulate implicating fracking in other environmental damage ranging from ozone pollution to soil contamination, continually allowed by weak or non-existent regulation.
The Clean Air Act focuses primarily on larger emitters of air pollution for regulation. Shale wells almost never have single source emissions large enough to qualify for regulation under the act (Schmidt, 2011). This leaves a loophole for the industry to exploit because when measured as aggregate emissions, shale wells present a considerable source of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, both constituent parts of ozone. Ozone is a major air pollutant and greenhouse gas (Schmidt, 2011).
The chemicals used in fracking fluids and materials brought back to the surface from underground pose another source of contamination. Drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing fluid. Despite this, some of these chemicals are known and can be quite dangerous in the environment (Schmidt, 2011). Shale gas wells can be fractured repeatedly once drilled, depending on the density of gas in the shale (Sakmar, 2011). Each fracturing operation requires up to 5.5 million gallons of water with as much as two thirds or more of that returning to the surface. This produces hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of waste liquid called backflow that is stored in open, often unlined pits (Manuel, 2010). These fluids contain many dangerous substances, including heavy metals and radionuclides in addition to the original fracking chemicals (Schmidt, 2011). This creates a toxic sludge that is seldom disposed of properly and often contaminates surrounding air and soil (Finkel, 2011).
State and federal authorities are aware of these problems but have been slow to act. Legislation has been introduced in the past two sessions of congress that could potentially make fracking safer but so far, no action has been taken (Sakmar, 2011). A handful of states have issued moratoriums on issuing new permits, though they are only temporary in most cases (Schmidt, 2011). This type of action needs enactment on a broader and more permanent scale until the industry can demonstrate environmental safety.
The combination of ways that fracking contaminates the environment and water resources creates a clear threat to public health. According to Professor of Public health at the University of Pittsburgh Bernard Goldstein, no health studies have been done to quantify the effects of shale gas mining (Schmidt, 2011). The lack of sufficient studies is only the beginning of the public health threat.
To begin with, many of the these wells end up in residential areas and the ramifications of having these massive operations literally in the backyard are severe, starting with controversy regarding land development versus mineral rights, leading to noxious fumes, noise and light pollution of an industrial site next door, and accusations of direct health effects (Schmidt, 2011). Large trucks moving heavy equipment and materials operate 24 hours a day in residential and rural areas (Schmidt, 2011). These trucks often operate with little regard for public safety. In Pennsylvania, for example, authorities issued 669 citations and 818 written warnings to trucks hauling wastewater alone in a two and a half year period (Michaels, et al,. 2010).
Going beyond that, another study conducted in six states on rural residences and farms close to gas wells found that in every instance, medical difficulties were developed by humans and animals because of soil and water contamination (Bamberger & Oswald, 2012). Medical symptoms developed by the humans in the study ranged from burning eyes and respiratory trouble to fatigue, abdominal pain, headaches, and skin conditions. Some of these conditions were severe enough to require hospitalization and physical relocation of the occupants from their homes. Bamberger and Oswald emphasize that their study focused on farm animals, pointing out that these animals make more suitable test subjects because they remain exposed to the environmental conditions present in a contaminated area on a continual basis (2012). In all of these studies, the effects on the animals were more severe than on the humans with drastic results including reproductive difficulties and death in addition to milder symptoms. Two of the case studies provided natural control groups in groups of animals separated on the same property, with the unexposed animals not suffering any ill effects at all (2012). A test conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection of known chemicals used in fracking concluded that 73 percent of them were dangerous to humans and animals. Some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors for which the developmental damage may not be fully realized for generations (Finkel, 2011).
The EPA has committed to a lengthy study of the industry primarily focusing on water contamination(Lustgarten, 2011a) but there is no indication how long it could be before results are known, though another source cites preliminary results within three years (Manuel, 2010). Completion of the study and any subsequent action by lawmakers could take years, even if annually authorized funding remains (Sakmar, 2011). As Bamberger and Oswald as well as Jackson point out, case studies are imperfect evidence, there being no control groups and other elements to ensure a true quantification. If this is true, however, and there have been no true scientific studies to determine the health effects of gas mining, it begs the question of why is this permitted in the first place.
On a far grander scale, the largest threat of fracking is an increase in global warming brought on by increased methane emissions associated with the industry. Natural gas is mostly methane. Methane gas has a large greenhouse gas profile and is more of a threat to climate change than carbon dioxide based on a twenty-year profile (Howarth, Santoro, & Ingraffea, 2012). What this means is that the global warming potential of methane is greatest within twenty years of emission, and while it is in the atmosphere, it is much more radiatively active than carbon dioxide, thus contributing to a higher, faster spike in atmospheric temperature. Methane creates 44 percent of the United States greenhouse gas footprint (Howarth, et al., 2012).
Methane leaks throughout the drilling process and common industry practice is to vent methane directly to the atmosphere following active fracturing (Howarth, et al., 2012). Up to 85 percent of gas extracted after fracking is completed gets vented to the atmosphere instead of being burned off or captured, according to the EPA (Howarth, et al., 2012). Compounding this estimate is the result of a study by investigative public interest group Propublica that determined the amount of methane emissions being reported by the EPA from gas wells and pipelines was up to 50 percent underestimated (Lustgarten, 2011b). This creates an immeasurable quantity of methane directly injected to the atmosphere.
In addition to that, 30 percent of natural gas consumption in the United States is used for electricity generation while the remainder is mostly used for heating. The existing infrastructure for heating gas distribution is old and inefficient; resulting in additional emissions that are also immeasurable, further contributing to climate change (Howarth et al., 2012).
The United Nations and a large percentage of the scientific community predict drastic changes in Earth’s climate in the near future unless drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, happen now (Howarth et al., 2012). The United States is a major global contributor of greenhouse gases and its industry practices are copied the world over regarding the natural gas industry (Sakmar, 2011). In fact, the U.S. has made itself a model for the world to follow with the Global Shale Gas Initiative, founded by the Department of State in 2010 to help other countries develop their own methane gas resources (Sakmar, 2011). If global warming is to be reversed or at least not exacerbated, then the U.S. needs to drastically reconsider its energy policy.
Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas contaminates water supplies and is exempt from regulation at the federal and most state levels. It causes soil and air pollution because of this under-regulation and imperfect industry practices. The pollution caused results in a direct threat to public health and the environment in the air, the water and above and below the ground. Furthermore, unchecked methane emissions are a strong contributor to global warming, bringing the world closer to irreversible tipping points in global climate. As it is practiced today, hydraulic fracturing should be stopped because it has been shown to contaminate water supplies, pollute the environment with toxic chemicals, endanger public health, and contribute to global warming.
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Lustgarten, A. (2011a, June 29). EPA fracking study to focus on five states – but not Wyoming. Propublica. Retrieved from http://www.propublica.org/article/epa-fracking-study-to-focus-on-five-states-but-not-wyoming
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Lustgarten, A., & Kusnetz, N. (2011, December 8). Feds link water contamination to fracking for the first time. Propublica. Retrieved from: http://www.propublica.org/article/feds-link-water-contamination-to-fracking-for-first-time
Manuel, J. (2010). EPA tackles fracking. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(5), A 199.
Michaels, C., Simpson, J.L., Wegner, W. (2010, September) Fractured communities: Case studies of the environmental impacts of industrial gas drilling. Riverkeeper. Retrieved from: http://www.riverkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Fractured-Communities-FINAL-September-2010.pdf
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