Free of federal policy, is hydraulic fracturing outpacing science when it comes to our drinking water supply?

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” W.H. Auden

I begin each morning boiling water in my bright green kettle; pouring it over strong smelling coffee grounds in my French press. For years, I never gave much thought about my faucet providing clean water until my work brought me to places where this wasn’t always an option. Over the course of three years, I spent time in the coalfields of Appalachia witnessing water systems contaminated by many sources, but mainly by the coal industry. Bright orange streams, tea colored baths and drinking water failing EPA standards are not uncommon to the region.

Recognizing the gravity of the health and environmental impacts of the coal industry and our nation’s desire for energy independence, we are now riding the wave of natural gas development. This process has typically been reserved for the southern and western parts of the country, but it is now pressing eastward with developments in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations underlying West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Current accessible geology for hydraulic fracturing is shown below.

Courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration
Courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration

According to the American Natural Gas Association (ANGA), the natural gas industry provides the country with “clean, abundant and reliable energy”. This home grown industry, has generated jobs, sales from drilling rights and other forms of economic growth. In order to meet electricity needs, The US Energy Information Administration forecasts that natural gas electricity production will nearly double by 2035. In our rush for domestic production, many argue that the pace of expansion exceeds the science of understanding the impacts and many citizens have concerns about the safety of their water supply.

Of course this has myself and many others wondering; are we doomed to a similar environmental fate dealt by the coal industry, or is natural gas our safe, reliable answer for energy? Before I get into the policy involving federal clean water laws, lets start with the process of hydraulic fracturing. Keep in mind, I am not an engineer, geologist or any type of scientist. I am a layperson, which may make my simple vernacular easier to digest.

Citizens Protesting Hydraulic Fracturing; Courtesy of Rodale News
Citizens Protesting Hydraulic Fracturing; Courtesy of Rodale News

According to the US EPA, the process of hydraulic fracturing involves pumping a fluid at high pressures to create fractures in a geologic formation “stimulating the flow of the natural gas or oil to the surface”. The fluid is mainly comprised of water and sand, but various chemical additives are included. Once surfaced, the natural gas or oil is stored in trucks or tanks and later piped to another facility to be converted into energy.  Along with the gas or oil, the fracturing fluid and naturally occurring water found returns to the surface.  The returning fluids are known as “flowback” and “produced water” and may not only contain the original chemicals, but other naturally occurring materials such as hydrocarbons, radionuclides, and metals.  Often the wastewater is stored in tanks or ponds and then injected deep underground. There are some instances where underground injection is not an option and must be treated at a wastewater facility. The visual tells a much better story than I do.

Hydraulic Fracturing Process; Courtesy of Propublica
Hydraulic Fracturing Process; Courtesy of Propublica

Policy to protect underground drinking water sources has been in place since the 1970’s with the enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.  However, hydraulic fracturing is not subject to the same standards as other industries with regards to these acts.  In 2004, during the Bush administration, the EPA released a report that stated that hydraulic fracturing posed little to no threat to our drinking water. Shortly after the report, language was added via the Energy Policy Act of 2005 making exemptions to the fluids used in the fracturing process from protection of the Safe Water and Clean Drinking Water Acts. The bill also created a loophole, known as the “Halliburton Loophole”, that allowed the industry to suppress the disclosure of the chemicals used in their fracturing operations.

While policy and the fracturing processes are in place and underway, the science still remains unclear. Concerns about infrastructure failure, produced water injection, release of naturally occurring materials and human error are being debated. While published studies releasing conflicting findings about the impact on safe drinking water fuel the debate. Information extremes from ANGA, which states that the practice of hydraulic fracturing has been examined by multiple agencies (GWPC, EPA, IOGCC) and found the process to be safe, to the documentary Gasland, which paints a bleak picture for the future of our water supply.

Directly in the middle of the debate is the EPA that has stated that “in no case have we made a definitive determination that the process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater. But there are several routes by which fracking could at least potentially cause problems”.

In 2011 one of the first peer reviewed papers concerning natural gas and drinking water, Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  This study out of Duke University concluded that methane levels were significantly higher in wells closer to fracking operations in aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York.   The Marcellus Coalition heavily contested these findings citing issues with the non-random sampling methodology of the study.  They also argue that methane in wells has been a “longstanding challenge for many Pennsylvania communities” predating natural gas drilling.  A similar study, yielding different results was investigated by Penn State University.  They collected and analyzed over 230 pre and post fracturing samples within 1,000 feet of the Marcellus wells and found no significant before and after changes in water quality.

As the scientific debate continues, cases of elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and methane have been found in wells close to fracturing operations.  Often definitive connections to the natural gas industry are difficult to validate. Natural gas companies have settled claims in high profile cases of VOCs in drinking water supplies in Pavilion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania, but have done so without admission of guilt. While some may see clear correlations, it is up to science to determine whether the impacts are a result of the hydraulic fracturing process.

Although hydraulic fracturing may not be “free” of federal policy, there are loopholes in place that allow natural gas to develop outside of the intent of the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts. We are fully into a natural gas boom as wells continue to spread by the thousands.   At this rate of development, it is difficult for scientific studies to keep pace. Rather than fully understanding the impact on drinking water before natural gas drilling began, the approach has been reactive. Whether or not we are trading energy independence and economic gain for clean drinking water…..we will have to wait for science to answer that question.

This blog shall examine the science and policy of hydraulic fracturing throughout the country, with a particular focus on people and their drinking water. With the recent flooding events in Colorado, the next entry to the blog will explore the impact of natural disasters on hydraulic fracturing infrastructure.

One thought on “Free of federal policy, is hydraulic fracturing outpacing science when it comes to our drinking water supply?

  1. Sydney Maiers October 24, 2013 / 7:25 pm

    Hydraulic fracturing is the process of pumping a fluid at high pressures to create fractures in a geologic formation which stimulates the flow of the natural gas or oil to the surface. It affects the government by providing energy, jobs, sales, and other forms of economic growth. Although it is outside the intents of the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts, there are loopholes that allow natural gas to develop. This will effect me because it could be an abundant source of clean energy. Also, it can provide jobs for my generation. There are a lot of debates over whether or not hydraulic fracturing is safe and whether it should be done.

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