Drilling Technique Under Scrutiny
Tom Kenworthy explains the debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing—a natural gas drilling technique that may be causing water contamination.
Four years after a widely used but controversial oil and gas production technology was exempted from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Congress is taking another look at the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is used in most U.S. oil and gas wells and involves pumping a combination of water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure deep into rock formations that hold oil and gas. The process fractures the rock and holds open the fissures to allow oil and gas to flow to the surface.
The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, or FRAC Act, was recently introduced by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) to respond to longstanding claims by homeowners and environmental groups that the technique can lead to the contamination of water supplies with natural gas and chemicals such as benzene that threaten human health. It also comes amid new natural gas discoveries that suddenly have the country awash in reserves that could be used to substitute for coal in many power plants and serve as a bridge to a low-carbon future.
Natural gas accounts for about 22 percent of U.S. electricity generation. It is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal per unit of energy. It has therefore been cited as a possible transition fuel that would assist in the fight against climate change. A study by the Potential Gas Committee, the major authority on natural gas reserves in the United States, recently indicated that domestic reserves are 35 percent higher than previously thought. However, the problems with fracking have the potential to undermine support for increasing its use as a power generation fuel.
The debate over fracking’s possible risks and whether it is sufficiently regulated has intensified as the process has become more commonplace, and natural gas development has soared and expanded into residential areas in recent years. The oil and gas industry has recently begun a multimillion campaign to defend the practice against the new legislation, which would force the industry to disclose the chemicals it uses and would make fracking subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fracking poses no threat to drinking water, the industry argues, because it takes place thousands of feet below groundwater supplies and because steel and cement well casings prevent the chemicals that are used and then largely recovered from escaping. Federal regulation would cost up to $150,000 per well and would force the closure of 57 percent of domestic oil wells and 35 percent of gas wells, according to the industry. Existing state oversight is adequate and there have been no documented cases of contamination of drinking water supplies, claims the industry.
Deep gas formations are “thousands of feet below the land surface and are separated from freshwater supplies by layers of steel casing, protected by concrete barriers as well as millions of tons of hard, dense solid rock geologic formations,” said Chesapeake Energy Corporation Vice President Mike John during congressional testimony on June 4.
At the same hearing, Scott Kell, the president of the Ground Water Protection Council—an association of state regulatory agencies—said existing state regulation of hydraulic fracturing is “generally adequate,” though he recommended that companies develop and implement best management practices for the technique. “A one-size-fits-all federal program is not the most effective way to regulate in this area,” he concluded.
The industry’s stance was seemingly corroborated by a 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency on hydraulic fracturing. The study found that fracking in coal beds “poses little or no threat” to underground drinking water.
But the report drew a vigorous dissent from one EPA expert, environmental engineer Weston Wilson, who protested the study in a letter to members of Colorado’s congressional delegation. Wilson called the EPA study “scientifically unsound” and “unsupportable.”
A 2008 study prepared for Garfield County, Colorado—where more than 5,000 wells were drilled between 2000 and 2008—undercut the EPA’s conclusions. The study, a collaborative effort that involved the participation of a Maryland-based environmental engineering firm and the University of Wyoming, found that methane contamination of water wells has increased with more drilling. The methane was traced to the same formations where drilling has taken place.
Pro Publica, an independent nonprofit group that produces investigative journalism, has written extensively on hydraulic fracturing, including on the Garfield County study. It asserts that more than 1,000 cases of water contamination near areas of oil and gas drilling have been documented by courts and government agencies across several states:
“In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply,” Pro Publica reported. “In other cases, the contamination occurred not from actual drilling below ground, but on the surface, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks, and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs, and water wells.
“It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of each contamination, or measure its spread across the environment accurately, because the precise nature and concentrations of the chemicals used by industry are considered trade secrets. Not even the EPA knows exactly what’s in the drilling fluids. And that, EPA scientists say, makes it impossible to vouch for the safety of the drilling process or precisely track its effects.”
Kell, the Ground Water Protection Council president, said in his testimony that reports of more than 1,000 cases of water contamination “are not accurate,” and submitted statements from regulators in five states as evidence.
But anecdotal reports of water contamination, including a television news video of a Colorado homeowner setting afire the water pouring from his kitchen faucet, has stoked the public debate.
The Natural Resources Defense Council argued in a 2007 report on the health and environmental effects of oil and gas production in western states that toxic chemicals used in energy development directly affect human health. “Many people who live near oil and gas operations experience symptoms resembling those that may be caused by the toxic substances found in oil and gas or the chemical additives used to produce them…[ranging] from eye and skin irritation to respiratory illness such as emphysema, thyroid disorders, tumors, and birth defects.”
The recent boom in the development of shale gas or unconventional gas, in areas such as Texas, Louisiana, and the Appalachian basin have intensified the debate over fracturing. New York state legislators have recently introduced legislation to ban hydraulic fracturing within New York City’s watershed.
Federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing seems a sensible precaution. As Rep. DeGette said in introducing her legislation in early June: “I support natural gas drilling. It’s an important part of our economy in western Colorado. However, I don’t think we should be developing those resources at a potential risk to the public, particularly their drinking water.”
Natural gas holds potential as a more widely used electric generating fuel during the transition to zero-carbon renewable energy sources due to its lower carbon dioxide emissions, its abundance, and the existence of infrastructure. But development should be conducted in a responsible manner that protects valued landscapes and public safety and health. The FRAC Act is an important step in that process.
Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Thanks to Alexandra Kougentakis for her help on this piece.
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