It’s not fracking itself, but the sloppy practices surrounding it—or pre-existing issues that hadn’t been studied before fracking started—that cause groundwater contamination, a study released in Vancouver has found.
In other words, fracking is only as good, or harmful, as the companies that practice it. And groundwater needs to be studied in places where fracking is planned, as well as regulated closely.
Those are the conclusions and recommendations of a study, which was funded by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which runs from February 16 through 20.
The lack of scientific evidence proving cause and effect between incidents like flammable tap water, a dramatic scene in the award-winning 2010 Josh Fox documentary Gasland, and fracking led the Energy Institute team on a quest to “separate fact from fiction,” as they said on the university’s website, and verify the science behind the contamination allegations. In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, holes are drilled deep into shale beds and are then injected with a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals to liberate trapped natural from pockets of rock. The water and chemicals must be cleaned up after the gas is liberated, and here is where fracking allegedly falls short.
“Given the magnitude of the resources that are becoming available in both countries—the United States and Canada—this is a major issue,” said Energy Institute director Raymond Orbach in a video ahead of the conference.
The researchers, led by the Energy Institute’s associate director, Charles "Chip" Groat, said they did not find evidence that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (the clinical name for fracking) were present in and thus contaminating aquifers.
"The bottom line conclusion of our study is that in the states we investigated, we found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself, the practice of fracturing the rocks, had contaminated shallow groundwater," he said at the AAAS meeting, according to BBC News. The study was conducted in the Barnett Shale, in north Texas; the Marcellus Shale, in Pennsylvania, New York and portions of Appalachia; and the Haynesville Shale, in western Louisiana and northeast Texas, the Energy Institute said.
The researchers also said that the groundwater-contamination reports were no worse or frequent than those in conventional oil and gas extraction practices and so were not unique to fracking. Neither did they observe any such leakage at the depths at which the actual fracking was taking place. Any contamination that did occur was more related to equipment failure than to the practice of fracking itself, the study concluded.
As for methane in wells, it seems to have already been present, and from natural sources, rather than being put there by fracking, the researchers said. Lastly, those spilled puddles of fracking fluids at ground level were the more likely cause of any contamination—in other words, fracking done right would not create such residue.
The study did find that blowouts, or “uncontrolled fluid releases during construction or operation,” are rare “but appear to be under-reported,” the Energy Institute said.
Fracking has become an issue with the advent of horizontal-drilling technologies that make this gas more accessible. And groundwater contamination is only the beginning of the debate. Fracking has been shown to increase seismic activity, as witnessed by several small earthquakes in British Columbia attributed to the practice.
Of course, such conclusions are small comfort to people like John Fenton of Pavillion, inside the boundaries of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. After Canadian oil company EnCana upped its oil-production operations nearby and added fracking to its portfolio, his well water started to get funky, and other residents started reporting symptoms ranging from headaches to respiratory issues, as Indian Country Today Media Network reported earlier this month.
The Environmental Defense Fund, which consulted on the study but was not involved in drawing conclusions, said that this is not the last word.
“The report deserves widespread attention. But it is by no means the final word on these topics,” wrote EDF senior policy advisor Scott Anderson, in an EDF blog post responding to the report. “Chip Groat, who led the study on behalf of the Energy Institute, plans to tackle additional topics in the future. These include air emissions from natural gas operations, induced seismicity and a field and laboratory investigation of whether hydrogeologic connectivity exists between the Barnett Shale and aquifers and other geologic units above and below the formation.”