Shale Gas: It’s Not the Fracking That Might Be the Problem. It’s Everything Else

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Spencer Plat t/ Getty Images

Men with Cabot Oil and Gas work on a natural gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site on Jan. 18, 2012 in South Montrose, Pennsylvania.

If you were trying to invent with a term that sounds as scary as possible, you couldn’t do better than “fracking.” That’s industry terminology for hydraulic fracturing, the process used to get at unconventional natural gas and oil contained in tight rock layers that need to be cracked open—or fractured—so drillers can get at the good stuff inside. For environmentalists and activists who worry about the impact of shale gas and oil drilling, though, fracking has become a one-word slogan, a term that just sounds like an epithet—and, if you’re a Battlestar Galactica fan, actually is one. (So say we all.) The energy industry has come to hate the term, but it’s here to stay.

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Yet there’s some evidence that while fracking sounds dangerous, the documented damage from shale gas exploitation isn’t coming from the frack so much, as it is from the other parts of the drilling and producing process. A study by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas-Austin—and released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is happening, weirdly, in Canada—found no direct connection between the process of hydraulic fracturing and reports of groundwater contamination. Instead, researchers concluded that the problems associated with fracking tend to be due to mistakes made in other parts of the drilling process, like casing failures that allow drilling fluids and gas to escape from a well, poor cement jobs and spills on the surface. “These problems are not unique to hydraulic fracturing,” Charles Groat, an Energy Institute associate director and the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

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The Energy Institute researchers looked at three formations where fracking is being done: the Barnett Shale in North Texas, the Haynesville Shale in western Louisiana and northeast Texas and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, New York and parts of Appalachia (where I spent time last year). The study didn’t find any confirmed cases of drinking water contamination that occurred because of pathways beneath the ground opened up by fracking, but that’s not surprising. With the exception of one recent Environmental Protection Agency study of drinking water near shale gas wells in Wyoming, no one has found definitive evidence of fracking chemicals moving via underground fractures into groundwater.

But that doesn’t mean shale gas drilling is problem free. Far from it, as Environmental Defense Fund’s Scott Anderson pointed out in a post on the study:

  • Many reports of groundwater contamination occur in conventional oil and gas operations (e.g. failure of well-bore casing and cementing) and are not unique to hydraulic fracturing.
  • Surface spills of fracturing fluids appear to pose greater risks to groundwater than hydraulic fracturing itself.
  • Blowouts – uncontrolled fluid releases during construction and operation – are a rare occurrence, but subsurface blowouts appear to be under-reported.
  • The lack of baseline studies makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.
  • Most state oil and gas regulations were written well before shale gas development became widespread.
  • Gaps remain in the regulation of well casing and cementing, water withdrawal and usage, and waste storage and disposal.
  • Enforcement capacity is highly variable among the states, particularly when measured by the ratio of staff to numbers of inspections conducted.

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The study makes sense to me. Fracking sounds scary, and the idea of using a small amount of explosives and chemicals to open up fractures in rock thousands of feet below the surface just seems like invitation for disaster. But—as the gas industry itself argues—groundwater is usually fairly close to the surface, while shale gas is thousands of feet beneath. The chance of a fracture somehow reaching from the shale layer to the groundwater level seems physically unlikely.

But gas drilling is a dirty, difficult business, and things can and do go wrong at or near the surface. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the entire shale gas industry, but the reality is that drilling is an industrial process, and mistakes happen all the time. (See the blowout now ongoing on a North Shore oil well in Alaska.) It’s one thing if those mistakes are happening in lightly populated areas in the West or in Alaska, where the oil and gas business is a way of life and the number of people who might be affected by a spill is relatively low. (Though, as ProPublica’s Abraham Lustgarten has pointed out in his posts about the Pavilion case, hardly nonexistent.) But Pennsylvania and New York—where the local opposition to fracking has been hottest—are far more densely populated, which means any of those drilling mistakes will be felt by more people. It’s not just what’s happening that’s feeding the controversy over fracking—it’s where.

The debate over fracking and shale gas is far from over, with President Obama hyping the potential of natural gas even as the Interior Department takes tentative steps towards tougher regulations of the practice. All of which means we can look forward to more fracking debates. For frack’s sake.

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