Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and sand into shale rock formations at high pressures to shatter the rock and release the gas. Fracking a single gas well can use millions of gallons of water and hundreds of tons of chemicals. Over 70% of fracking fluid remains in the ground and is not biodegradable. Watch the 2 1/2 minute musical video that explains fracking:
Fracking is used in 36 states with widely varied regulations. Drillers use the technique in new areas without adequate government oversight that fully evaluates the effects on human health and the environment. By using large amounts of water, fracking can cause a shortage of local water resources. The chemicals used, which drillers claim are proprietary secrets, can poison drinking water, rivers, and lakes from toxic underground leaks and above ground spills. Documents obtained by the New York Times show that fracking wastewater containing radioactivity far higher than federal regulations say is safe is sometimes hauled to sewage plants which cannot adequately treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination near drilling sites around the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently studying the effect of fracking on drinking water resources. The research includes the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing, from acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced water and its ultimate treatment and disposal. The initial study results are expected by the end of 2012, and the final report will be issued in 2014.
The Australian publication Climate Spectator cautions that fracking requires a lot of water, millions of gallons, sometimes several times over to get gas flowing in a well. According to the Texas Water Board, for example, "the drought-ridden state’s requirements (18 million acre-feet of water) already outstrips its supply (17 million), which is why it has already had to contemplate rationing allocations to industry, farmers and manufacturers. By 2060, those needs are expected to increase to 22 million acre feet, with only 15.3 million available. In short, it will have only two buckets of water for every three it needs. And this is without factoring in the impact of shale gas."
Texas is already facing a drought which has cost the state $5 billion." The shortage of water will limit shale gas production or drive up its costs in many areas of the U.S. and the world. See "BHP's Texan Water Torture" by Giles Parkinson.
It's not just greenhouse gases that are of concern in drilling for shale gas. Other volatile organic compounds are released in the air near shale gas operations that affect people's health. Garfield County is at the center of Colardo's shale gas gold rush. Residents there complain of the effects of shale gas chemicals on their health. Pollution from benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and toulene causes headaches. asthma, nausea, nosebleeds, and muscle cramps. See the 7 minute New York Times video on the health effects of air pollution near shale gas wells (If you get a message that the video is not available, try again. It usually works on the second try)
In May, Cuadrilla Resources had to stop drilling in Lancanshire, Britain because two tiny tremors of 2.3 and 1.5 magnitude were recorded in the region. Exploration was halted over concerns that the seismic activity had been caused by deep drilling and hydraulic fracturing which blasts huge volumes of water through rock at high pressure to extract the gas. The company commissioned a report by a team of independent seismic experts who concluded that the company's fracking probably did cause the seismic shocks.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey has found that hydraulic fracturing may have triggered a series of 50 seismic events in Oklahoma that followed a 2.8 magnitude quake. Among other recommendations, the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board requested more research on “Understanding induced seismicity triggered by hydraulic fracturing and injection well disposal.”
Simona Perry, an applied anthropologist has been collecting data on rural families living amid Pennsylvania's gas boom since 2009. Families told her that they could not share their experiences due to nondisclosure agreements with the gas companies. Families suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes and sore throats as drilling operations expanded on their land and in their neighborhood are not able to tell their neighbors. Regulations prevent doctors and researchers from gathering the data they need to analyze the health and environmental impacts of fracking, and the nondisclosure agreements silence whole communities living near the rigs.
Chemicals used in fracking fluid and their concentrations are often exempt from disclosure because they are considered trade secrets. Other exemptions buried in state and federal law allow drillers to avoid disclosing contents of fracking fluids returning from deep underground.
Read Truthout reporter Mike Ludwig's article: "Silencing Communities: How the Fracking Industry Keeps Its Secrets" or listen to his 10 minute interview on fracking in Ohio and Pennsylvania with Mike Papantonio on Ring of Fire Radio: "The Fracking Industry's Dirty Secrets."
The New York Times reported that for over a quarter-century efforts to increase federal regulation of the oil and gas industry have been undermined by narrowing the scope of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies and leaving out key findings. In 1987, for example, EPA researchers' conclusion that some of the waste from oil and gas drilling was hazardous and should be tightly controlled was left out of the final report given to Congress. EPA officials told Carla Greathouse, the author of the study, that her conclusion was changed because of pressure from the Office of Legal Counsel of the Reagan White House.
The EPA studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress considered whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. An early draft report commented on the potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned possible contamination of an aquifer. The report’s final version left out these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking “poses little or no threat to drinking water.”
In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Drilling companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed to inject known hazardous materials underground adjacent to drinking water supplies.
The Subcommittee for Shale Gas Production recommended that action be taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the rapid expansion of shale gas production across the country. Otherwise there would be a real risk of serious environmental harm.
Subcommittee Chairman John Deutch, an MIT professor, said: “Industry, working with state and federal regulators and public interest groups, should increase their best field engineering practices and environmental control activities by adopting the objective of continuous improvement, validated by measurement and disclosure of key operating metrics. This is the surest path forward to assure that shale gas is produced in an environmentally sound fashion, and in a way that meets the needs of public trust.”
Deutsch stated that environmental issues need to be addressed now – especially in terms of waste water, air quality, and community impact. The subcommittee's report noted that joint federal and state efforts to ensure water quality were not working smoothly, and called on the EPA to improve oversight as it studies the potential effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. It called for the monitoring of air emissions and water quality, setting regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies, establishing industry best practices, and training workers. A copy of the report can be downloaded at the Shale Gas Subcommittee's website.
Environmental organizations wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order directing agencies in his administration to adopt the subcommittee's recommendations that apply to federal agencies without delay. See their letter to President Obama.