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    Hydraulic Fracturing: What are the Environmental Risks?
    Entry posted August 16, 2010 by Lauren617Elite Contributor, last edited January 19, 2012 
    1623 Views, 9 Comments
    Hydraulic Fracturing: What are the Environmental Risks?

    With so many questions and challenges concerning our energy future and climate change, domestic natural gas has taken off as a “greener” alternative to burning oil and coal. Recent advancements in drilling have vastly expanded the size of the natural gas market. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (also, frac’ing) as it is often referred, is the process of stimulating wells to extract natural gas (and oil). It involves breaking shale several thousand feet below the surface of the earth by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressures to shatter the rock and release the valuable resources. EPA projects that 20% of domestic natural gas will come from shale by 2020. However, as more and more fracking operations crop up from coast to coast, questions of their real environmental costs are also growing.


    Operations spreading

    Fracking has been going on in the United States for more than 50 years, but recent advancements in horizontal fracturing technology have created an explosion in the number of wells and have brought fracking east to states like New York and Pennsylvania.  In a sense, fracking has created a modern day gold rush. And because  local and state economies have been under extreme economic pressure due to the recession,  many officials  and locals have-- until recently--welcomed the added revenue from permits and taxes that move in with the drilling companies, not to mention job creation.

    Fracking Fast Becoming an Environmental Hot Button

    A new source of clean energy right in our own back yards, just waiting to be released? Like most things that sound too good to be true, fracking has some serious side effects. Here is my non-scientific summary of the risks. 

    Chemical Releases  

    The chemicals used in the water mixture that is injected into the wells is toxic, but most drilling companies will not disclose the actual make up of their concoctions, labeling them trade secrets. There are concerns about how these chemicals are handled, the impacts they are having underground, and the potential for spills on the ground when they are eventually transported to waste treatment plants.  There have been many complaints about fracking chemicals being released into drinking water supplies and because there are convenient Bush-era exclusion to water-safety regulations in the 2005 Energy Bill, fracking companies are not taking all of the precautions they could.  (Note that Halliburton is heavily involved in fracking.)

    Water demand

    Fracking is a very water intensive process and in areas where water supply is low, residents are concerned that operations can cause scarcity issues.

    Retention ponds

    Manmade retention ponds or pits are used to hold the water/chemical/sand mixture that break the shale, creating giant pools containing toxins like chloride, barium and strontium in the middle of rural lands and forests.  There have been reports of wildlife mistaking these ponds as natural bodies of water and being poisoned. In one recent story, cattle were quarantined based on concerns of sending contaminated meat to market after the animals were thought to have been drinking water from a leaking pit adjacent to the farm.   

    Creation of new underground pathways

    There are concerns that new underground pathways will transport not only the chemicals involved in fracking process itself, but also any other spills or plumes that happen to intersect them.

    Methane gas leaks

    Methane is one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Scientists have documented that methane from fracking can leak and traveled through underground pathways and eventually be released into the atmosphere. .

    Fracking Studies Underway

    A 2004 study by EPA showed that fracking was not a risk to groundwater, but with the swath of complaints that have arisen lately, EPA announced in late 2009 that it will revisit this finding.  EPA is currently in the process of further defining the study that is set to take place starting this fall and into 2012 by holding public meetings in impacted areas. As Pat Coyne mentioned, one meeting that was supposed to take place in upstate New York last week was canceled when 8,000 people were expected to attend. Organizers are now working to find a larger venue for the meeting.

    The growing cases related to fracking operations are quite troubling. When I think about it, I get concerned about whether there will ever be clean, safe energy! It is quite depressing and overwhelming if you let your mind wander… It will be interesting to see where this goes. With any new technology, there are unforeseen risks and it seems like we are just cracking the surface on those involved in fracking …no pun intended. Okay, I realized the pun and left it in so maybe it is intended.

    What do you think? Is fracking the next big environmental issue? 



    • LSchnapf

      anyone interested in this topic should try to watch "Gasland". There is plenty there for people on both sides of the debate.....

      • Alpha Environmental, Inc.

        Lauren, I thank you for bringing up this topic, and for doing so in a balanced and reasonably objective manner.  Considering the facts as I understand them to be, that was NOT an easy thing for you to do!

        Yes, "Gasland" (HBO) is an excellent documentary on this topic.  Personally and professionally, I feel that the entire process of fracking is an environmental abomination.  Without getting TOO political, certain of our "leaders" with big time interests in Haliburon, managed to get this practice exempted from the Clean Air and Clean Water acts as part of an overall energy bill, which amounts to yet another abomination.

        Lauren, if you are a member of LinkedIn, there are several groups there that I encourage you to also post this information in, as I feel this is one of the most disturbing issues of today, and that it's receiving very little exposure, allowing it to remain basically hidden.  This HAS to be brought to the full attention of the public, environmental professionals, and legislators as well.  In my opinion, the potential damage to the environment by the practice of fracking is greater than the Gulf Oil spill, yet it is not being addressed nearly enough.



    • LSchnapf

      Fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the Energy Act of 2005 so that the process would not be regulated as an injection well. This followed a number of court decisions that split on the issue. Proponents of the exemption said the process should not be regulated as an injection well because wastes were not being injected but useful chemicals associated with the fracking process.

      Surface runoff from fracking or groundwater contamination associated with leaching from the surface ponds may still be subject to enforcement. Many  proponents of fracking have said there are no documented cases of groundwater contamination from fracking. However, these statements use a narrow definition of groundwater contamination. They refer to the upward migration of chemicals from the fracking process into the overlying acquifers. These statements do not hold up under scrutiny when one looks at the ENTIRE fracking process (e.g., contamination from surface ponds or escape of methane thru defective well casings).

    • Community Admin

      Lauren a comment from LinkedIn:

      Janos CastroLauren, I recently completed a technical paper on sustainability of alternative energy and I agree with the comments made. Not only are there exclusions for oil and gas companies drilling for natural gas in the 2005 Act but there are also exclusions in the current proposal. There are reports of chemicals such as diesel fuel being injected in the fracking process and evidence of contamination of the aquifers. O&G companies claim that they can control the leaks of these chemicals by building concrete and other layers of protection through the injection holes - typically these reserves are found under the aquifer, thus they must drill through it to get to the deposits. This is not the problem and focus of concern of some environmentalists however, it is the fact that once these uncontrolled fluids get injected there is no proven way to control where they go. Some studies prove that these liquids have filtered through into the underground drinking water (aquifer). You can find online several reports of people/towns reporting sickness from drinking water, smells coming from underground, water odor, etc.

      There is also the (major) issue of water allocation for production of NG. Many states in the US are already facing water shortages (nature cannot replenish drinking water faster than what we are consuming it). Allowing the rapid and careless growth of NG production poses a major risk to water allocation for drinking purposes.

      Natural gas, when consumed, produces about half the CO2 Equivalent emissions as coal but its production leads to high risk of chemical contamination of our drinking water and added CO2 Eq. emissions.

      Natural Gas is being marketed as a CO2 reduction alternative, but what everyone should be talking about is Hydraulic Fracking and underground water contamination

    • HDP

      It is of utmost importance to note that if performed correctly, fracing is essentially OK for the environment.  However, it is the one well in 100 or the careless operator (eg BP) not following industry protocol or cutting corners. 

      One mistake on the completion protocol and the gas (methane, condensate, and frac fluid) migrates up the well annulus and ends up in the shallow potable aquifer over the gas field.  Long-term remediation would be extremely difficult. Short term impact is a loss of potable water probably for miles around, depending on aquifer permeability

    • CorrectiveActionSoftware

      Based on a degree in Petroleum Engineering, actual first hand field experience in fracturing, and over 25 plus years of experience in environmental policy, and other health and safety issues, hydraulic fracturing is the least of our worries.  Yes, there are risks, but these risks are very minor compare to the other risks.  In the words of Peter Sandman, it's all about what we control.  If we control it the risks seem small. If someone else is in control the risks are large.  Controlling risks is all about having corporations put compliance management software and systems in place and making it part of a day to day occurence.

    • Lauren617

      Thanks for all your replies. Good to see comments on both sides of the issue. Alpha, you're right, it was hard for me to be objective! I'm not a scientist, but the dangers seem clear to me. 

      Another disturbing story related to the increasing environmental costs of energy is that of the Canadian oil sands. The process leaves behind toxic tailings ponds  full of chemicals like arsenic, nickel, cadmium and benzene and is also extremely water intensive. Albeit from a biased source, this article tells of how scientists are finding increasing concentrations of chemicals in these tailing ponds, which are said to be leeching chemicals into wetlands. 

    • Frank Kotch



      Hi Ms. Rosencranz,


      I liked your take on the subject topic. There was a discussion a couple of weeks back on The Environmental Bankers Association's LinkedIn forum about this that stirred up quite a bit of heated discussion based on the recent documentary "GasLand". It was a fascinating documentary out in areas of Colorado and Wyoming, I believe. A couple of more dramatic parts were the flammable tap water that ignited when the author of the movie lit a match next to the kitchen faucet. Another was documented cases of benzene and toluene in some of the rancher’s blood.

      One of the members of the EBA disagreed with the documentary and it was interesting to get his position below.

      "The movie GasLand is unfortunately full of incorrect information

      The movie asserts that the 2005 energy bill pushed exempts the oil and natural gas industries from Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law, and about a dozen other environmental and Democratic regulations.”

      This assertion, every part of it, is false. The oil and natural gas industry is regulated under every single one of these laws — under provisions of each that are relevant to its operations.

      The process of hydraulic fracturing, to which Mr. Fox (Author of the movie) appears to be making reference here, has never in its 60-year history been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). It also has never been regulated in the EPA’s 40 year history. It has, however, been regulated ably and aggressively by the states, which have compiled an impressive record of enforcement and oversight in the many decades in which they have been engaged in the practice

      The EPA said that Congress never intended to regulate this activity. In a 1995 letter “EPA does not regulate – and does not believe it is legally required to regulate—the hydraulic fracturing of methane gas production wells under its UIC Program. There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water (USDW).”

      The law in question is the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The purpose of it was to settle the question as to whether hydraulic fracturing was regulated in the SDWA. Congess agreed that the SDWA never was regulated by the SDWA. The Act was supported by nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Senate (74 “yea” votes), including the top Democrats on the Energy Committee; current Interior secretary Ken Salazar, then a senator from Colorado; and a former junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. In the U.S. House, 75 Democrats joined 200 Republicans in supporting the final bill, including the top Democratic members on both the Energy & Commerce and Resources Committees. Bipartisan support for this bill shows that it was far from being “pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney. "


    • LSchnapf

      Given the numerous dry cleaners that have been allowed to discharge to septic systems without treatment that are regulated under the SWDA, I would suggest that the states not done as stellar job at regulating as Frank would suggest.

      I also suspect that the risks of Fracking in 2005 were not as well known just as the risk of vapor intrusion was not well understood prior to 2000.

      The number of senators voting for the energy act of 2005 should not be construed as an endorsement of the SDWA exemption for Fracking. This was a couple of lines in a complex, hundred page bill. I would suspect most Senators were not even aware that Halliburton and Cheney had stuck the exemption in the bill.

      That being said, Fracking is an important potential source of domestic energy for the country and if it is properly regulated can help our country wean itself off foreign oil while producing lots of tax revenue and jobs.