The Truth About Fracking

This post is dedicated to a dear friend, Chris Acker.

With proven natural gas reserves constantly growing and prices on a steady decline, talk about natural gas as a major player in our future has never been more pervasive. A lot of this gas is hard to access, but we’re able to get to so much of it because of a process known as induced hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking. Put simply, fracking consists of forcing highly pressurized fluid underground to fracture impervious rock layers blocking access to gas or oil reserves.  Proponents of fracking treat it as a miraculous and largely benign technology that has the potential to deliver us to a clean and energy independent future. Opponents refer to it as a culprit in contaminated drinking water, polluted air and decimated landscapes. This post will examine these claims to try to determine the truth about fracking. We won’t be addressing the arguments for or against natural gas in general (at least not today).

Map of shale gas reserves where fracking is being employed.

Fracking is not a new concept. In fact, various iterations of the modern process have been around for over fifty years. The recent boom in natural gas development, however, has pushed the controversial process into the national spotlight. A primary concern among skeptics and opponents is the potential for the chemicals to enter water supplies. Gas companies have argued that their hydraulic fluids are proprietary, and therefore have not been required to disclose their contents until very recently. One by one, states have begun to mandate the disclosure of these chemicals (although some have dismissed state laws as too weak), and the Department of the Interior is now accepting comments on a proposed rule requiring disclosure for wells on public lands. Many of the chemicals in the hydraulic fluid are toxic – there’s no reasonable debate about this – but the question is whether or not they can be sufficiently contained.

Evidence of chemical contamination is difficult to pin down and often anecdotal, perhaps because of the vast areas under which these operations take place. Still, some compelling data exist. Recently, we’ve learned about accidental spills, long-term leaks and a cover-up. Millions of people have also seen the movie Gasland, which highlights some serious cases of contamination. Some, however, have called into question the signature moment when a Colorado couple lights their tap water on fire (due to excessive amounts of dissolved methane in the water). Apparently, in 2008 the state of Colorado determined that the methane did not appear to be related to oil and gas operations. But this 2011 study by Duke University did find a link between methane contamination in drinking water and fracking at other sites. Regardless of these or other findings, the industry’s argument that the fluid is almost entirely water and sand is nearly meaningless. Though this is technically true, the proportion of water hardly matters if the balance includes toxic chemicals, no matter how dilute the final substance is. The simplest way I can put it is thus: Don’t ingest cyanide, even if it’s just three drops in a glass of water.

Although certain claims on both sides are dubious, it seems clear that at least some contamination of both methane and fracking fluids has occurred in several instances. The question then becomes not “How safe is it?” but rather “How safe can it become?” The EPA is currently conducting a mammoth study on fracking’s health and environmental impacts, although it won’t be out until 2014. This should provide vast reliable data that can inform regulatory decisions going forward.  The industry, however, seems satisfied with the current technology, claiming it is safe and clean. Since increasingly reliable evidence of contamination is popping up across the country, this bravado is a bit unsettling.

The Verdict: Regardless of how you feel about natural gas as an energy source, hydraulic fracturing has serious risks, some of which have already been observed. Although the process may have the potential to provide access to otherwise unobtainable gas resources without compromising water quality, evidence suggests that we haven’t reached that point. Without more stringent regulations, it’s unclear whether the industry will even acknowledge shortcomings and move towards safer practices.

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