Our first campaign:
Fracking: Quit It Already!
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing (hydro-fracking, fracking, fracing) is a technique for extracting hard-to-get natural gas that is trapped in rocks such as those in the Marcellus Shale. Since this layer is buried deep under the earth (between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface), and is comparatively thin (between approximately 50 and 900 feet thick), it is generally accessed with horizontal drilling; in this process, one well hole is drilled down to the appropriate depth and then between one and six horizontal holes are drilled outwards like spokes on a wheel. Millions of gallons of water from local streams are mixed with a variety of chemicals and blasted through the well at high pressure to crack the shale and release the gas.
Companies refuse to release information on the exact chemicals used in fracking fluid on the grounds that it is a trade secret. In general, chemicals are used in fracking to decrease water friction and break up rock. From investigation of patents and other sources of information, it has been estimated that there are over 300 chemicals that go into fracking fluid, most of which are toxic. Between thirty and seventy percent of water used in fracking is pulled back out of the wells as waste, while the rest remains underground.
KEY Coalition is launching a campaign against fracking in the Marcellus Shale because it presents a severe statewide environmental justice issue. The Marcellus Shale layer lies under Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and is third largest natural gas field in the world. As a proportionally large amount of it is under Pennsylvania, the KEY Coalition is well placed to take on this issue. Even the Philadelphia region, in which there is no drilling, could be affected by potential water pollution. Thus, the whole state is impacted.
Fracking poses a variety of environmental issues:
- Water Usage – Given that it takes between two and nine million gallons of water to frack a given well one time, that half of this water remains underground (source), that most wells are fracked up to 10 times in their lifetimes, and the steep estimated increase in the number of wells over the next few years (approximately 32,000 per year (source)), the amount of water that fracking takes is a significant concern in and of itself. This water can either be drawn from local aquifers and streams, leading to depletion, or imported in gas-guzzling vehicles. The fact that this process contaminates all water that it uses with toxic waste makes this issue of even greater concern. (source)
- Water Pollution – Although the exact mechanism by which it occurs is still under debate (see discussion under Scientific Research) and lack of baseline testing makes proving causation difficult, there is an incredibly high correlation between nearby fracking and polluted water. Considering the lack of confounding variables and the fact that contaminated water obviously does not increase the likelihood of fracking, this suggests that fracking can lead to water pollution. Water sources near fracking sites have shown elevated levels of benzene, 2-butoxyethanol and other hydrocarbons, methane, lead, copper, and other toxic compounds (Sources: ProPublica, Un-Natural Gas) Because fracking companies do not publish information on all of the chemicals they are using, it is likely that there are more contaminants present that no one has known to test for.
- Air Pollution – Fracking also leads to significant air pollution. In addition to all of the fumes released by machinery and transport vehicles, fracking fluids stored in open air ponds release volatile organic compounds (VOCs, which have been closely linked with increased cancer rates), sulfur compounds, and methane gas. In the presence of heat and sunlight, the VOCs and the sulfur compounds react with combustion fumes from machinery to form ground-level ozone. Since ground-level ozone exposure can cause severe pulmonary problems, it may turn out that air pollution caused by fracking is responsible for a number of commonly reported fracking-related health issues. (source)
- Toxic Waste – In addition to pollution of groundwater, fracking pollutes all of the water that is blasted through the well, effectively turning it into toxic waste. While fracking companies are quick to point out that the solution they use is primarily water and sand, a milllion gallon solution that is .5% toxic chemicals still contains 500 gallons of said chemicals. This is compounded by the fact that the Marcellus Shale contains many toxins of its own; toxic metals such as arsenic and chromium have been found in similar formations, and can leach into the frack water as the acids it contains eat away the rock surrounding them (source). Moreover, recent studies suggest that the Marcellus Shale contains radium-226, which has led to radioactive waste water (source). This toxic waste is then stored in open ponds on the drilling site, allowing VOCs to evaporate into the air, and, if the pond liner is not properly cared for, allowing other contaminants to leach into the ground. Ultimately, there is no good long term solution for dealing with this toxic soup. Municipal waste water treatment plants are unequipped to handle it, so it must be trucked to a special treatment plant. Even these special treatment plants cannot fully purify the water — levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), which is a measure of dissolved salts and metals in water, remain high after treatment (source). Alternately, some companies have disposed of waste water through a controversial process called deep injection well disposal, in which the waste is stored underground, often in abandoned wells. The need for disposal can be decreased by reuse of fracking fluid – a process wherein waste water previously removed from a well is used for subsequent frackings of that well in lieu of fresh water. This diminishes the total amount of water contaminated by each well, although it does not solve the problem of what to do with the water that is contaminated.
- Short-Term Solution Only – Although estimates for how long natural gas in the Marcellus Shale could supply us with energy for vary drastically (generally from 2 to 28 years) (sources: Geology.com and BusinessWire), the common theme is that it is a finite resource. Ultimately, we will need another solution if we are to continue anything remotely resembling our current lifestyle. It is important that we focus our energy on developing these technologies rather than contaminating more and more of our planet with toxic waste.
Social Justice Issues
- Well Pollution – Aquifers that supply well water to residents of an area can become contaminated as a result of fracking. For instance, in Dimock, PA, the local aquifer became contaminated with methane shortly after drilling began, causing tap-water to be both combustible and unsafe to drink. Because no baseline tests were performed, it is impossible to prove causation. (source) The situation is, however, highly suspicious, given the lack of alternative explanations. Wells have also been contaminated with toxic fracking chemicals as a result of spills, leaks, and improperly laid casings (source). In some cases, alternate water sources have been provided to some residents of affected communities, but this is both uncommon and inconsistent; some residents in Dimock, for instance, were supplied with water while others experiencing the same problems were not.
- Jobs – Extraction operations are often supported as sources of jobs. However, unlike in historic coal mining operations, natural gas drilling is done primarily by large machines that only take a few people to operate. These jobs are generally given to people brought in by the company rather than local residents in need of jobs. Moreover, these jobs dry up as creation of the well is completed and as it stops producing gas. In contrast, jobs at a wind farm would be just as plentiful and more permanent. Workers at a wind farm or other renewable energy plant would also experience a drastically better work environment without the toxic chemicals and fumes involved in fracking.
- Health Issues – The air and water pollution caused by fracking can pose severe threats to human health. Although most evidence is currently anecdotal, for reasons explained below, the anecdotal evidence is both serious and prevalent. Residents have reported issues ranging from headaches, to stomach pains, to livestock and wildlife death, to oily residue on top of their water, to cancer clusters, to pulmonary disorders potentially caused by VOC exposure. Compounds used in fracking also have the potential to form endocrine disruptors. (sources: High Country News, Catskill Citizens, LeanWeb, Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Un-Natural Gas, Marcellus Shale.us). All of these effects line up with those typically caused by the pollutants that fracking puts into the air and water.
- Pipelines – Pipelines to transport natural gas from wells to processing centers are a major eminent domain issue. Requiring a 50 yard clear-cut of trees around them, and stretching for miles across states, they are very disruptive to their surroundings, and can be hard to build around pre-existing property.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the fracking issue is the disconnect between the scientific theory and the results experienced in the real world. Fracking companies constantly cite a 2004 study by the EPA in which it was concluded that because the Marcellus Shale is buried so deep below the water table, fracking fluid should be unable to contaminate groundwater. Theoretically, this makes sense. However, actual tests on the groundwater around fracking sites, as well as the occurrence of certain cancer cases and methane leaks provide fairly substantial counter evidence. So where does this disconnect come from? Due to the fact that no baseline tests are conducted and the chemicals used in fracking are unknown, it is very hard to prove anything conclusively. This was exacerbated by the fact that fracking companies voluntarily agreed to stop using diesel, previously one of the only easily identifiable fracking components (Source: ProPublica). Many have suggested that this was an intentional attempt to inhibit any linkage of fracking the problems that have been loosely correlated with its presence.
The EPA and other scientific bodies have also neglected to do a serious study of the impacts of fracking on the health of the surrounding communities, writing off current evidence as anecdotal. In a disturbing catch-22, this lack of research has made the establishment of any hard facts on the health dangers associated with fracking very difficult. In essence, no data is being collected because no concrete data exists. When simplified like this, of course, the situation seems silly. In practice, however, the root of scientists’ attempts to avoid anecdotal evidence is understandable (science, by definition, requiring hard facts). Understandable, yes, but not at all justifiable; in writing off evidence as anecdotal, people all too often forget that most scientific discoveries are made by investigating anecdotal evidence. Given the large quantity and severe nature of anecdotal evidence suggesting that fracking poses a variety of health risks, this issue requires serious study before any conclusion that there is no threat can be drawn.
Considering this lack of information, it is hardly surprising that there is a disconnect between theory and reality, although the nature of the disconnect is, of course, nearly impossible to verify with current evidence. Some possible explanations, however, include the following:
- The EPA study may have been flawed – In one of the only complete critical analyses of the 424-page study, ProPublica has determined that there are some disconnects between the study’s body and its conclusions, noting that the study reported that “fluids migrated unpredictably — through different rock layers, and to greater distances than previously thought,” despite the study’s conclusion that they “can’t travel far underground,” (source). While it’s possible that the fluids migrated unpredictably but not far enough to contaminate groundwater, these statements are in direct opposition to one another. Given the relatively anti-environmental, pro-drilling attitude of the 2004 EPA, it is not inconceivable that it may have been less than objective in reaching its conclusions.
- Flawed casing may be responsible for groundwater contamination – The 2004 EPA study writes off a number of the more conclusive contamination incidents as the result of improper casing. By law, all natural gas wells are required to have a thick layer of concrete around the edge of the bore-hole while it is going through the water table. This is intended to protect the groundwater from contamination. There is a tendency to write off contamination due to casing failure as an unfortunate one-time accident. However, given the number of contamination incidents for which it has been blamed (EPA, page 15) it would seem to be time to start factoring it in as a legitimate risk factor. This is especially important when we take into account the fact that each casing failure can represent permanent contamination of a large body of underground water. If casing is so hard to install properly (or companies are so irresponsible) that casing failure is this common, then it is something that the government needs to start considering in its analysis of the adverse affects of fracking.
- Frack baths may be leaching into the ground from holding ponds – Currently, fracking fluid is stored in giant tanks that are open to the air. There are few regulations on tank lining, and even less enforcement. Given the corrosive nature of many fracking chemicals, this is a potentially major source of groundwater pollution. This issue is probably also the most easily fixed, even considering the fact that safe storage containers are expensive. However, the presence of methane, a gas released by deeply buried coal, in some residents’ drinking water suggests that at least some pollutants are entering the groundwater from underground.
- Companies may be ignoring regulations – Currently, the Department of Environmental Policy (PA’s statewide government environmental branch) does not have enough people working on enforcement to ensure that rules are followed. There has been incredibly little enforcement. Without enforcement, policy change has little effect. This is of particular concern with regards to waste water disposal.
Clearly, more research needs to be done. KEY Coalition hopes to take some of this task on in the near future. The EPA has also recently committed to doing a follow-up study to be completed some time in 2012.
There are a few bills currently proposed to restrict fracking both in PA and in the broader United States. Key Coalition has not yet taken a stance on any of them.
- The FRAC Act – Officially know as the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, this national legislation was introduced last summer in the House of Representatives by Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Jared Polis, D-Colo, and in the Senate by Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. This bill would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to include fracking, giving the EPA authority over it. Such an amendment would overturn exemption from the SDWA that the 2005 Energy Policy Act granted to fracking. The FRAC act would also force companies to disclose the chemicals that they use in fracking. These changes would give the EPA the power to act to monitor and regulate fracking. This bill was deferred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works in 2009, and it is unclear if and when it will move forward. Some have suggested that it might be most effective if attached to other legislation. (For more information, click here)
- HB 2213 – A bill submitted to the Pennsylvania assembly by Representative Camille Bud George in January of 2010, which attempts to regulate fracking through increased accountability. It would require a representative from the DEP to personally visit each site each time it is sited, drilled, cased, cemented, completed, altered or fracked. Further, for cases of pollution or domestic well damage potentially caused by fracking, the range within fracking will be the assumed cause would be increased. Currently, the damage must be within a 1000 foot radius of the natural gas well. Under HB 2213, this radius would be increased to 2500 feet. It would also force companies to disclose the chemicals they use in a standardized manner (the strength of this provision is debatable, as the bill includes provisions for “trade secrets”). It also increases the cost of the bond that must be purchased in order to drill a Marcellus Shale well from $2500 to $150,000 and reaffirms the rights of towns to regulate what happens within their borders. (for full text, click here)
- HB 2235 – A bill submitted by Representative Greg Vitali in March of 2010, calling for a moratorium on drilling in state forests. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would be in charge of regulation and of providing report contents. (for more information, click here)
- On March 25, 2010, the city of Philadelphia placed a moratorium on fracking in the Delaware River Basin until an environmental impact statement can be completed (for more info, see click here). This occurred in conjunction with the EPA planning to complete a study on fracking over the next two years.