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Hydraulic Fracturing, Safety, And America's Future

You've probably seen the television commercial. If not, it features an attractive blonde with a calm, reassuring voice emphasizing America's bright future from hydraulic fracturing (a/k/a "fracking") for oil and gas:

The energy is often contained in shale rock, which must be fractured or broken apart in order to release and access the energy supplies. Many people are concerned about safety and contaminated ground water. If you listen closely to the commercial, it briefly mentions safety:

"... new technologies are safely unlocking vast domestic supplies of oil and natural gas ..."

So, how safe is fracking? Does it threaten ground water? ProPublic investigated and reported:

"A peer-reviewed study published in 2014 found that drinking water wells near fracking sites in Pennsylvania and Texas were contaminated with methane that had the chemical signature of gas normally found only deep underground. Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor of earth system science who coauthored the 2014 study, told us that drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing has “contaminated ground waters through chemical and wastewater spills, poor well integrity, and other pathways.”

The report emphasized that how one defines the term "fracking" matters when discussing safety:

"Fracking involves injection of a large volume of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals (known as fracking fluid) deep underground to fracture the rock and allow gas to seep out. It is also used for oil extraction... the term “fracking” is sometimes used to describe the entire process of drilling for natural gas, but that isn’t accurate. After a well is drilled, cemented and prepared in other ways, only then is the well “fracked” — the actual stimulation of rock far beneath the earth’s surface to allow extraction of the gas."

So, it is critical to define fracking as the whole process, not a subset such as only the fracturing of rock:

"... the scientists we interviewed say that it doesn’t make sense to separate fracking from the entire gas and oil production process, and there is ample evidence that the overall process can cause contamination of water supplies. As we noted above, the new DOI rules cover the entire process including fracking, well casings and other activities."

Some of that evidence:

"Among the first studies specifically linking natural gas development and fracking to water quality was a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 that analyzed drinking well water near fracking operations in Texas and Pennsylvania. In that study, which was coauthored by Jackson at Stanford, researchers identified the presence of methane — the primary component of natural gas — in drinking well water near unconventional drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania and the Barnett Shale region in Texas. Using chemical signatures of certain gases, the researchers were able to determine in several cases that the methane was from deep underground — evidence that the drilling operations had caused the contamination. The study found that faulty and leaky wells were likely to blame...”

When you view a commercial or hear a fracking proponent claim that there's no proof that fracking contaminates ground water (e.g., it's safe), you now know otherwise. During an open, honest, and complete conversation about safety everyone defines the terms they use, and hopefully address the entire process. If it's unclear, demand clarification.

In my opinion, to claim something is safe while only addressing part of the process is simply dishonest. Words matter. Definitions matter.

ProPublic also reported:

"Partially in response to [safety] concerns, the Department of the Interior finalized a regulation on March 20 regarding hydraulic fracturing and related activities on public and tribal land. The regulation includes a number of provisions related to fracking and other aspects of natural gas drilling activity. For example, the rule includes “[p]rovisions for ensuring the protection of groundwater supplies by requiring a validation of well integrity and strong cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones through which the wellbore passes.” It has specific requirements for constructing cement casings for wells, and monitoring pressure on certain well parts during fracking operations. And it also requires disclosure of the chemical contents of fracking fluids."

That sounds sensible to me, since the regulation looks at the whole process. Of course, fracking proponents oppose the federal regulations, and want to shift regulations locally to the states:

"Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, opposes the regulation. He, along with 26 cosponsors, introduced a bill that would specifically put the responsibility for regulating relevant oil and gas operations in the hands of the states rather than the federal government."

That sounds like: if you can't fool all of the people all of the time, then maybe you can fool some of the people. Ground water supplies don't magically stop at state lines or boundaries. Ground water contamination doesn't magically stop at state lines, either.

When I think of fracking and safety, it is important to remember the history of how we got here:

"The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained a provision that has come to be known as the "Halliburton Loophole," an exemption for gas drilling and extraction from requirements in the underground injection control (UIC) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Other exemptions are also present in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act."

So, this law was enacted during the Bush-Cheney administration's tenure. That energy producers pursued these exemptions before starting the current fracking boom speaks volumes. They probably knew that water contamination was likely, and/or that they couldn't safely drill and extract oil and gas. So, too, did compliant politicians.

You can't have a bright future with polluted drinking water and groundwater. Inhofe's proposed legislation should be opposed. Contact your elected officials, and tell them what you think.

What are your opinions of fracking? Should regulations be shifted to only the states?


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