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Hydraulic Fracturing Water Contamination FAQ

What is fracking?

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracking or hydro-fracking, is a form of natural gas extraction by deep well drilling.

How does fracking work?

A pressurized mix of water and chemicals is injected deep underground, either vertically, horizontally or directionally (slanting), to create or widen fissures in shale rock formations or coal beds. Next, sand or some other solid is pumped into the fissures to keep them open and allow methane gas to escape.

Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into a well. The pressure fractures the shale (a clay-rich, sedimentary mud stone) and keeps open fissures that enable natural gas to escape from the well.

I’ve heard natural gas is a clean fuel so why is it an environmental concern?

Natural gas is only clean in its burning stage. The major component of natural gas is methane, which is a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon dioxide, and it is released in huge quantities during extraction.

Besides methane released into the atmosphere, what are other dangers of fracking?

There are several environmental concerns.

1. Excessive water use: Hydraulic fracking uses large amounts of water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one well drilled requires 1 to 5 million gallons of water and more when it is re-fracked. Fresh or potable water going to fracking may increase shortfall for domestic purposes. Wastewater, including its toxic chemical contents, makes its way into rivers and ponds, is disposed of in underground pits and seeps into residents’ water supply.

2. Water contamination: Fracking chemicals (more below) have led to hydraulic fracturing water contamination. These chemicals can contaminate drinking and groundwater during the fracking process; through the wastewater that is used afterward and after the extraction process, the toxic water released with the natural gas can leak from the well for many years.

3. Air pollution: Methane gas escapes during fracking and is a main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. People living near fracking wells have complained of noxious fumes that they believe have caused a litany of health problems, including more asthma cases.

The Times-Tribune (March 2011) said areas in Wyoming that had previously had fresh, clean air are now experiencing smog. “Drilling of new wells, routine maintenance and gas-field equipment release substances that contribute to ozone pollution, including volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.”

4. Increased earthquakes: The US Geological Survey says that fracking “causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern,” but it also says that re-injecting wastewater into fracking wells can cause earthquakes that are “large enough to be felt and may cause damage.” Scientists attribute fracking to the earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, which wasn’t earthquake country before fracking arrived.

5. Improper storage of fracking fluids: Once the fluids have returned to the surface, radioactive contaminated flowback is not safely stored. Stored fluids have been found in unlined or poorly constructed pits that allow toxic waste to seep into local waterways.

Where does most fracking occur?

In the US, most fracking occurs in shale rock such as the Marcellus Shale formation in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland; the Bakken Shale in North Dakota; and the Barnett Shale in Texas.

An oil and gas company has submitted a proposal to our rural town. How can fracking personally affect my family?

Many families have become sick - and have subsequently filed fracking lawsuits - from fracking sites close to their homes. Livestock and vegetation have been killed and attributed to drilling close by. There are up to 600 chemicals used during the fracking process, some believed to cause cancer, birth defects and disorders of the nervous system. As well, naturally occurring but highly toxic substances that are unearthed from fracking and then seep into the water supply can also cause serious health problems.

What is the EPA doing about environmental risks associated with hydro-fracking?

In 2012, the EPA said that fracking chemicals were found in drinking water in Pavillion, Wyoming. That year it conducted a national study to analyze the health and environmental risks associated with hydro-fracking. Also in 2012, the EPA said it found barium, arsenic or manganese at levels high enough to present health concerns in the water supplies of five households after testing around Dimock, Pennsylvania.

In May 2014, the EPA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the types of chemical information that could be reported and disclosed under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and the approaches to obtaining this information for chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing activities.

Why isn’t fracking regulated?

In 2005, fracking was made exempt from the Safe Water Drinking Act by the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill, commonly known as the “Halliburton Loophole.” This allows the oil and gas industry companies to inject unknown and/or toxic materials directly into, below or adjacent to underground sources of drinking water without reporting the chemicals or the quantities of these chemicals to the EPA, or to the public, claiming that information is proprietary. This means that the oil and gas industry can inject known hazardous materials (e.g., formaldehyde, and acetic acids and boric acids, among hundreds of others) directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies.

Now that scientists have proven these chemicals are dangerous, why can’t the government repeal the Halliburton Loophole?

The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness to Chemical Act) is a House bill intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and to require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use. The bill was introduced in 2011 but not yet enacted.

Why can I light my tap water on fire?

Many people report they can light their tap water on fire. This is due to contaminated drinking water aquifers with methane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Benzene, for one, is a known human carcinogen. Despite ignitable tap water, oil and gas companies claim the methane is harmless and that the water contamination has nothing to do with fracking. However, a study by Duke University researchers in Pennsylvania found that water wells near a fracking site were likely contaminated by methane.

What else are fracking scientists and researchers finding?

Researchers at Cornell University concluded that fracking causes a larger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas or oil from its emissions. The University of Texas conducted a study that found no connection between fracking and water contamination, but it later withdrew the results after an investigation revealed that the lead investigator had financial interests in the natural gas industry.

If the EPA doesn’t have any control, who can regulate fracking, or is it the oil industry’s wild west?

Individual states. While the oil and gas industry is exempt from most federal laws concerning environmental protection, consumer protection and health and safely protection, some sates have placed moratoriums on fracking.

What can environmentalists and others opposed to fracking do?

Environmentalists and others opposed to hydro-fracking would like to see a stronger moratorium imposed on fracking until tighter regulations are adopted or at least a ban on hydro-fracking near groundwater well sites, residential areas and livestock operations. They would also like companies to make public the chemicals they use and release into the public water supply.

Why are some people in favor of fracking?

Supporters of the oil and gas industry see fracking as a necessary process in developing oil and gas. Some people believe that, by banning fracking, they are prevented from exercising their private property rights. Land owners/mineral owners who own the rights to oil and gas resources are prevented from using these resources as revenue.

How does the oil and gas industry justify fracking?

Oil and gas companies claim that the fracking fluids and created fractures extend only several hundred feet from the wellbore and don’t reach the surface area. The industry says the fracking chemicals used are “common materials that pose no significant risk to human health and that the amounts of other substances released during extraction, such as benzene, do not exceed the levels considered safe,” according to the CBC (April 2011). It says wastewater is stored in accordance with environmental regulations and recycles flowback water where possible.

Is there any good news about fracking?

Financially, yes. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), fracking helped produce so much natural gas that a supply glut drove gas prices down to a 10-year low in the winter of 2011-2012, and that when lower gas prices made the fuel more competitive with coal for electricity, it helped the country reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions.

I believe my family has health issues due to a fracking well nearby. What are my chances of winning a fracking lawsuit?

The Parr family attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the family decided to go ahead and sue the oil company they claimed was making them sick from its fracking operations. It was the first fracking trial in the US and the Parrs won a $3 million verdict against Aruba Petroleum, the fracking operator. A Dallas jury found that Aruba “intentionally created a private nuisance” affecting the family’s health. Neighbors of the Parrs also sued Aruba. They reached an out-of-court settlement with the oil company.

Attorneys say that this landmark case “will be looked at very, very closely because it has set the stage in a way that has never been set before.” According to Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law school professor who specializes in environmental and administrative law, losing this case was bad for the oil and gas industry.
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Last updated on Sep-24-14

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