What is Fracking?
On January 4th, the drama “Promised Land” will premiere in theaters across the country. The basis of this film is centered on the subject of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, and the possible consequences of this drilling process on nearby communities. Though fracking may seem like an odd topic to choose for a Hollywood film, it has gained a lot of recent attention regarding concerns about environmental impacts, particularly water contamination.
Hydraulic fracturing is a means of extracting resources like natural gas and oil from underground by pumping fluid, usually a mixture of water and chemical additives, into geological formations like shale and coalbed. The pressure from the fluid creates fractures underground, allowing extraction of the resources. A large portion of fracking is conducted in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Ohio. These states are on top of the formation called Marcellus Shale which is one of the most important gas reserves in the United States. Fracking can also be found in other parts of the country, such as Colorado, Texas, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Though fracking has been performed for many years, it was brought to our attention in 2011 when the EPA reported that sampling showed that water contaminants in a local aquifer in Pavillion, Wyoming were possibly associated with fracking operations. This study was initiated because many local residents complained the drinking water had a bad taste and odor. EPA stressed that the fracking conditions in Pavillion were different from conditions in other parts of the country because it occurred in and below the aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells. Therefore, water sources in other parts of the country may not be at risk of contamination if the fracking conditions are different.
So how can fracking result in contaminated water?
As mentioned previously, fracking fluids contain chemical additives. These chemicals are added to change the fluid properties. For instance, some chemicals are used to increase the thickness of the fluid. Hundreds of different chemicals may be used and the types used will vary depending on the site and company performing the fracking. Many of these companies prefer to not publicly disclose the chemicals used which causes more concern.
As part of a 2011 study, the US Committee on Energy and Commerce surveyed 14 leading oil and gas companies to learn about the composition of the fluids used for fracking. The most common chemical used was methanol. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were also frequently used. These chemicals are not regulated by the EPA due to their low toxicity. A small percentage of companies were found to use petroleum compounds like benzene and toluene which are regulated by the EPA because they are highly mobile in ground water and are known human carcinogens. Other additives, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls, are not chemicals of concern but people are curious about their purpose as an additive.
The additives can possibly contaminate water sources through several routes. A common method of fracking fluid disposal is via underground injection of wastewater. EPA determined that this method is not likely to contaminate drinking water sources though it is mentioned that they reserve the right to conduct additional studies if necessary. Other means of wastewater disposal have a greater risk of water contamination. Since there are no specific national standards for fracking wastewater disposal, some wastewater is transported to treatment plants which are not all equipped to treat this type of water, according to the EPA.
Spills are probably one of the greatest sources of surface water contamination. From January to July 2012, several natural gas drilling incidents occurred in Pennsylvania alone. Thousands of gallons of production fluid were spilled in several of these incidents.
Since this process of natural resource extraction is quickly gaining in popularity, the EPA is still in the process of establishing regulations for fracking. Proponents of fracking, which often include local residents, firmly believe that it is a drilling method that is necessary to increase economic development and energy independence. It is important, however, that the operations are conducted responsibly in order to prevent unnecessary contamination.