Sunday, June 28, 2015

What the Frack? Hydraulic Fracturing Creates Deep Fissures


Fracking is a current buzzword tossed around, but few people actually understand the basics of what it is or how it impacts drinking water around the globe. Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals, including small amounts of diesel, carcinogenic benzene, even formaldehyde (depending on the specific solution used by the various companies – they all have their own specific recipe), deep into the ground to fracture (split apart) rock thereby releasing natural gas and oil trapped tightly within that rock. Fracking is not a drilling operation, but happens only after a well has been drilled. Therefore improperly drilled wells and/or faulty pipe casings can leak exposing drinking water supplies to a dangerous cocktail of chemicals.

Fracking has been definitively linked to contaminants in drinking water. As reported by investigative news site ProPublica the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report revealing that water contamination discovered in Pavilion, Wyoming, is caused by fracking. EPA tested two specific wells and those tests showed conclusively that there were contaminants in the water. In Wyoming 10 individual compounds related to fracking were found in residents’ drinking water, including benzene, methane, and glycol ethers, and notably the benzene was above legally allowed concentrations. The investigative journalism website ProPublica writes: “The agency’s (EPA) findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale (a massive compound of rock which lies under 60% of Pennsylvania’s land mass at depths of about 9,000 feet) and across the Eastern Appalachian states.” Currently there are currently about 5,000 drilled wells in the Marcellus Shale and another 2,000 are planned. Canada-based Encana Corporation, responsible for the Wyoming wells, has said the data remains inconclusive. Despite the company’s denials, The Wall Street Journal reported that Encana “has been providing fresh water to 21 homes in the area since August 2010, when it began meeting with the EPA and state regulators to find a long-term alternative to well water for the area.”

The EPA study followed complaints from residents of Pavilion, Wyoming (population according to the 2010 U.S. census was just under 200 people so it’s small and off the radar), who voiced concerns about the way their drinking water smelled and tasted. Wyoming fracking wells are a mere 1,200 feet deep, compared to rocks being fracked in Pennsylvania and other spots along the Marcellus Shale, which are thousands of feet deeper than these water wells. Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council says: “Much stronger rules are needed to ensure that well construction standards are stronger and reduce threats to drinking water.” And to a degree this is true. Environmental laws tend to be amazingly weak, but the second part of that equation is one of enforcement. Pollution rules are violated constantly, but the law is rarely enforced.

Common Chemicals Used in Fracking
There are literally hundreds of different “recipes”
for fracking solutions and every company uses
different amounts of whatever chemical they feel
does the job best. Here then are a few of the more
common chemicals in fracking solutions.

Ethylene Glycol (antifreeze)
Ammonium persulfate
Petroleum Distillate (turpentine)
Tetramethylammonium chloride

At any rate, the EPA plans to issue guidelines for states such as North Dakota, and others, to issue permits for use of hydraulic fracturing specifically involving diesel. The EPA has authority under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to make sure hydraulic fracturing operations do not pollute drinking waters when diesel fuels are used in the processes. “The guidance document is not intended to be a regulatory document and would not itself require any state to change its regulations,” says Jim Martin, EPA’s regional administrator based in Denver. “In fact, it is based on existing best practices in use by the industry today.” But if that were the case, issues of water contamination would not keep surfacing across the country as they are in small but increasing pockets. The four-decade-old Clean Water Act of 1972 is frankly a useless document with no teeth, merely suggestions and “guidance.” 

But also understand that fracking is a global problem. The United Kingdom is wrestling with the same issues of fracking and the possible economic boon it can provide, certainly in light of their dwindling fossil fuels, in spite of Scotland’s vast oil deposits. And China too is now looking into fracking as a way to stabilize their own economic base, provide jobs and energy independence. The issue will not go away anytime soon. But is begs the larger question: when will we cease dependence on dwindling and limited fossil fuels and commit to a source of clean, renewable energy? When will we source our energy in such a way that it will not pose a threat to our world of water? I truly fear we are a long way off. 

1 comment:

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