What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Fracking is currently used in 90 percent of the nation’s natural gas and oil wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable. Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells.
Many of the chemicals used in shale gas drilling, such as benzene, are hazardous. Long-term exposure to such chemicals can have serious health consequences. Because the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use.
Despite their attempts to keep the make-up of fracking fluids secret, we do know something about what they contain. A recent study conducted by Theo Colburn, PhD, the director of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado, has so far identified 65 chemicals that are probable components of the injection fluids used by shale gas drillers. These chemicals included benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All of these chemicals have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high.
Communities Damaged by Fracking
People living in the vicinity of shale gas drilling have reported foul smells in their tap water. In some instances gas well pipes have broken, resulting in leakage of contaminants into the surrounding ground.
One small town in Pennsylvania called Dimock, for example, has been devastated by fracking. Cabot Oil & Gas drilled dozens of wells in Dimock. Sadly, problems with the cement casing on 20 of those caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. In some cases, levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps. In April 2010, state environmental regulators fined Cabot $240,000, and ordered it to permanently shut three wells and install water-treatment systems in 14 homes within 30 days or face a $30,000 a month fine. Cabot’s more than two-dozen pending drilling applications were also put on hold.
The violations seen in Dimock are not uncommon in Pennsylvania. A 2010 report issued by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association found that the state has identified 1,435 violations by 43 Marcellus Shale drilling companies since January 2008. Of those, 952 were identified as having or likely to have an impact on the environment.
Texas’ Barnett shale region is another area where fracking is booming. In August 2010, an air sampling in the Texas town of DISH by Wolf Eagle Environmental “confirmed the presence in high concentrations of carcinogenic and neurotoxin compounds in ambient air near and/or on residential properties.” In June 2010, tests by the Texas Railroad Commission showed arsenic, barium, chromium, lead and selenium in a residential water well in DISH. The tainted water turned up at a home in DISH shortly after a nearby gas well was drilled.
Results of air testing by the commission released the same month detected benzene concentration, 37 parts per billion, at a Devon Energy complex on Jim Baker Road between the towns of Justin and DISH. The highest benzene reading overall, 95 ppb, was detected at a Stallion Oilfield Services commercial disposal well in Parker County. All six facilities that state inspectors revisited are within about 1,000 feet from people’s homes.
Earlier this decade, the Canadian drilling company EnCana began ramping up gas development in the Pavillion/Muddy Ridge field of Wyoming. In the summer of 2010, the majority of Pavillion residents who participated in a health survey reported respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, itchy skin, dizziness and other ailments. According to the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, many residents also reported that their well water was tainted by fracking. Various ailments residents reported are associated with contaminants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified in Pavillion well water, Earthworks said.
Such reports don’t even begin to tell the whole story of the damage fracking has done to communities and the environment across the country. Our firm is trying to get the word out, and our hydraulic fracturing lawyers are working with our clients to hold drillers and others involved in this industry accountable for the devastation fracking has caused.
Environmentalists and the natural gas industry are getting ready for a battle in Congress over something known as “hydraulic fracturing.”
“Fracking,” as the industry calls it, involves injecting a million gallons or more of water and chemicals deep underground to pry out gas that’s locked away in tight spaces.
Environmentalists want the federal government to regulate the practice because, in some cases, fracking may be harming nearby water wells. The industry says regulation should be left up to the states.
Hydraulic fracturing allows drillers to dramatically increase production. The chemicals pumped underground with the water help drillers bore through the hard rock. The pressure used is tremendous — about 300 times a typical garden hose. That creates small cracks in the rock that allow gas to escape.
Steve Harris believes that pressure also ruined his well. He lives on 14 acres south of Dallas. Shortly after a driller fracked a nearby well, he and his neighbors noticed a change in water pressure.
“When you’d flush the toilet — in the back where the bowl is — water would shoot out the top of the bowl,” says Harris.
When he took a shower, there was a foul odor, and the water left rashes on his grandson’s skin. His horses stopped drinking from their trough, and there was an oily film on top of the water.
Similar stories are popping up around the country. In Ohio, a couple’s house blew up when gas from their water well filled their basement. A woman in Colorado blames her health problems on the chemicals used for fracking.
For the most part, people nearby don’t even know what chemicals are being injected into the ground — companies don’t have to report that.
Theo Colborn, who founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, based in Paonia, Colo., has spent years trying to figure out what chemicals the industry is using, with some success. She says removing the exemption fracking has been given from the Safe Drinking Water Act would bring some much-needed light to the industry.
“Believe me, we have a lot of good people within our federal agencies that would love to be working on this issue and addressing it. And they can’t — it’s hands-off right now,” says Colborn.
Generally, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates anything that could affect underground drinking water supplies. But in 2005, the industry successfully lobbied for the exemption for fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That leaves regulation up to the states, which don’t have the kind of resources the EPA does.
“We have no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is causing problems,” says Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Without evidence of problems, he says there’s no reason to pile on more regulation.
“I think people need to have more faith in the regulatory agencies that are watching it very closely and their ability to respond to issues if they arise,” says Fuller.
But environmental groups are lobbying Congress to get that exemption overturned as hydraulic fracturing becomes increasingly common. Halliburton, which pioneered hydraulic fracturing, says about 35,000 wells are fracked each year.
Gwen Lachelt of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project says that politically, now is the time for those on her side of this issue to move.
“We have a different presidential administration. We have new regions of the country that are now experiencing oil and gas development,” says Lachelt. “New York City is a case in point. … Companies are wanting to drill natural gas wells in New York City’s drinking watershed.”
Several City Council members have expressed concern over that idea, and there’s been talk of finding a way to ban drilling in that region.
But the natural gas industry argues that more regulation will push up prices. To be sure, hydraulic fracturing is, in part, responsible for the low natural gas prices consumers are paying now.
Colorado School of Mines professor Geoffrey Thyne understands that. Still, he wants the industry to start encouraging more scientific research on fracking.
“Let’s prove to everybody what we’re saying — that’s there’s absolutely no danger — but let’s do it in a rigorous way we can defend,” says Thyne.
Thyne says the industry also could agree to stop using harmful chemicals in the process. Already, several of the largest drillers have agreed to stop using diesel, which can poison groundwater with benzene.