Water, Methane, and Fracking: The Truth is Out There
In 2011, scientists at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina published a seminal report suggesting that hydraulic fracturing operations in a shale formation in northeastern Pennsylvania had seriously contaminated shallow groundwater supplies with methane. That same year, the anti-fracking film Gasland, which famously depicted residents in Pennsylvania and elsewhere lighting their kitchen sinks on fire due to supposed methane contamination from nearby gas wells, was nominated for an Academy Award, and the debate over fracking kicked into high gear. A follow up study in 2013 by the same Duke team found additional evidence to suggest hydraulic fracturing was responsible for elevated methane levels in drinking water supplies, further enraging opponents of fracking.
Last month, however, a team of researchers working in collaboration with Chesapeake Energy Corp poured over tens of thousands of water samples from the same region in order to determine a link between hydraulic fracturing operations and high levels of methane in drinking water. They found little actual evidence to suggest that fracking operations were contributing to the leakage of methane, and instead suggested that the methane contaminated the water naturally through passages between shale rock formations and water deposits in the Appalachian basin. This follows previous studies, including by the U.S. Geological Survey, that suggested higher concentrations of methane in water above large shale rock formations was a natural occurring phenomenon, while additional research suggested that faulty fracking wells, as supposed to hydraulic fracturing itself, was responsible for tainted water supplies in Texas and Pennsylvania.
So whose research are we supposed to believe? Is fracking really going to set our sinks on fire? Or are the health risks commonly associated with hydraulic fracturing overblown? And if they are, what does that mean for new federal rules being developed by the Department of Interior? Are they unnecessary, or worse, counterproductive?
The answer, as always, is more nuanced. The research, when taken as a whole, suggests that hydraulic fracturing can pose a risk to local drinking water supplies when its used improperly, as supposed to when its used in general. This means that, while hydraulic fracturing has the ability to produce vast amounts of energy resources, it must be utilized responsibly, and that’s where effective, sensible regulation comes into play. While its a bit dishonest to suggest that there’s “never been an instance of ground water contamination” caused by fracking, as U.S. Senator James Imhofe did recently, that also doesn’t excuse states or municipalities to overreact by instituting outright bans on the practice, as New York did in December. Nor is it productive for the oil and gas industry to dismiss out of hand the responsibility of federal, state, and local governments to enact common-sense regulations. After all, these regulations are enacted so energy companies don’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars addressing residents’ complaints that their faucets have turned into improvised flamethrowers.
The recent trend by states and municipalities to outlaw fracking entirely though, as well as to enact regulations via ballot initiatives that fail to take into account the concerns of affected stakeholders, can have unforeseen social and economic consequences. Local towns sitting above shale rock formations, many of which are economically desolate, could reap tens of millions of dollars of needed revenue, not to mention hundreds of jobs, by letting companies frack on their lands. It is unfair, and could be downright harmful, for politicians in Albany or Denver or Harrisburg to rule unilaterally that landowners living thousands of miles away should be unable to take advantage of these opportunities. In some places, the moves have even fueled talks of succession.
So the truth about fracking is this: yes it can be hazardous, but it also can ensure our energy future. Fracking could release methane into our water supplies or into our atmosphere if we are not careful, but it also could lift whole communities out of poverty. The time has come for public and industry officials to embrace sensible regulations, such as new standards for well integrity and water usage, so that the public can rest assured that the most effective safety standards are being implemented with every fracking well. Both sides of the fracking debate have a vested interest in formulating this consensus, one in which the nation can unlock its vast supply of natural resources, but only under the safest possible conditions.