Addressing Hydraulic Fracturing Issues One-by-One
Jane Van Ryan
Posted November 12, 2010
A few days ago, a reader submitted a comment to this blog in which she posed several questions about hydraulic fracturing. Her final question asked why the hydraulic fracturing issue had become so adversarial:
"You have a great deal of knowledge to share regarding this process. Why don't you share it to make sure we can extract these resources in a way that reflects the trade-off we as citizens wish to make concerning the use of our resources and our quality of life?"
Although we have shared quite a bit of information about hydraulic fracturing on this blog, this question makes it clear that this reader and perhaps many other Americans continue to be concerned about fracturing and want to consider the pros and cons for themselves. To that end, I am providing the following third-party information. I encourage you to read it, click on the links, and decide for yourselves.
Hydraulic fracturing -- Hydraulic fracturing is a practice used to coax oil and natural gas from hard rock formations. It involves forcing large amounts of pressurized water, a proppant (usually sand), and very small amounts of chemicals down the wellbore to create tiny fissures in the rock so the oil and gas can flow through the wellbore to the surface. Hydraulic fracturing has been used in more than one million wells during the past 60+ years. National Geographic produced an animation illustrating the practice and as you'll see, the fracturing occurs well below the aquifer and is separated from groundwater and drinking water supplies by hundreds or thousands of feet of solid rock.
A list of the chemicals used in the fracturing fluid is available at EnergyInDepth.org. (This information appears on an oil and natural gas-sponsored website but it comes from the Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council.)
Drinking water contamination -- U.S. government studies have found no evidence of drinking water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a study to assess the contamination potential of underground drinking water sources (UDWS) from the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluid into coalbed methane (CBM) wells. EPA found "the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells poses little or no threat to USDWs and does not justify additional study at this time." EPA also reviewed incidents of drinking water well contamination believed to be associated with hydraulic fracturing operations. It found "no confirmed cases linked to fracturing fluid injection of CBM wells or subsequent underground movement of fracturing fluid."
In 1998, the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and a team of state agency representatives conducted a survey of state oil and natural gas agencies to establish an accurate assessment of the number of active CBM wells associated with hydraulic fracturing. Based on the survey of 25 oil and natural gas producing states, the GWPC concluded, "there was no evidence to support claims that public health is at risk as a result of the hydraulic fracturing of coalbeds used for the production of methane gas."
EPA is developing a study plan now for a congressionally-mandated review of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. The study is expected to be finished in 2012.
A recent documentary about hydraulic fracturing implies that fracturing has contaminated water wells in Pennsylvania. However, John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently told Reuters, "It's our experience in Pennsylvania that we have not had one case in which the fluids used to break off the gas from 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground have returned to contaminate ground water." Hanger's comment appears in this Reuters article.
The Safe Drinking Water Act - Despite claims to the contrary, hydraulic fracturing has never been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This act was enacted in 1974 to ensure water supply systems serving the public meet appropriate health standards. It was specifically designed to establish a federal-state partnership to "protect drinking water from contamination by the underground injection of waste," not the use of hydraulic fracturing fluids used to enhance oil and natural gas production. Fracturing fluids were never included under the act. To clarify this point, Congress included language in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 making it clear once and for all that underground injection fluids or propping agents were excluded from the SDWA.
Critics have alleged that hydraulic fracturing was "exempted" from the SDWA and have mischaracterized the language in the 2005 law as a "loophole." These statements are not accurate.
State vs. federal regulation - Some members of Congress have introduced legislation to regulate hydraulic fracturing under federal law, rather than allow the states to continue to have regulatory authority. The GWPC examined this issue in 2009 and issued a report concluding that the regulation of oil and natural gas field activities is best accomplished at the state level where regional and local conditions are understood and where state regulators are on-hand to conduct inspections and oversee operations.
Benefits of hydraulic fracturing - It's estimated that 80 percent or more of new oil and natural gas wells drilled in the United States will require hydraulic fracturing to enhance production. New wells provide energy for all Americans, revenues for local, state and the federal governments, lease and royalty payments for landowners, as well as create well-paying jobs, improve U.S. energy security, and encourage economic growth. About 9.2 million U.S. workers are supported by the oil and natural gas industry, and tens of thousands of additional jobs could be created if the industry were allowed to increase its U.S. operations and drill for more domestic energy for U.S. consumers.
Finally, industry best practices and existing state regulations have proven effective in protecting water resources from impacts related to drilling and production activities, including hydraulic fracturing. API continues to develop industry guidance specific to this topic, including documents on well construction, water use and management, and surface environmental considerations.
Have surface spills occurred? Yes. Mistakes have happened, and the responsible parties have been held accountable. The vast majority of oil and natural gas wells have been drilled, fractured, and managed appropriately.
If you have any questions or concerns about hydraulic fracturing, please submit a comment.