After three years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the first report arguing that chemicals used to hydraulically fracture or “frack” rocks in the search for natural gas polluted local water. In this case, the pollution is occuring in the Pavillion field in central Wyoming. According to CNN, immediately after the draft report was released, the Wyoming Department of Health and Human Services then told local residents to find alternative sources of water for drinking, cooking, and use ventilation when showering due to dangerous chemicals in the water.
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves using a wellbore drill and then pressurized fluids made up of chemicals and water to create fractures and channels deep in rock beds. The fissures then help release trapped petroleum, natural gas, or coal seam gas. Once a fissure is made, “proppants” are injected into the rock beds to keep the fractures in place.
Fracking fluids are in large part made up of water. According to some estimates, an initial drilling operation can use between 60,000 and 600,000 gallons of water, and then consume 5 million gallons over the life of the excavation. Also, some 750 chemical additives are used with the water to make fracking fluid. According to a 2011 U.S. House of Representatives report, “more than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.” The problem is that these chemicals seep into the aquifers and are then drunk by those living near the wells.
According to The New York Times, the E.P.A. report in Wyoming was prompted by complaints by locals about the poor smell and taste of the water. To find the source of the problems, the E.P.A. tested the groundwater supply. “The agency’s analysis of samples taken from deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicated the presence of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above standards in the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards, and high methane levels.” The E.P.A. added that “data suggest that enhanced migration of gas has occurred within ground water at depths used for domestic water supply.”
Encana Oil & Gas (USA), which bought the Pavillion field in 2004 and has put in almost 170 wells there since then, basically argued that nature polluted the local water supply. One spokesman said that “finding methane and benzene in two deep test wells drilled for the study is what you would expect in a gas-rich zone.” In addition, the process of extracting natural gas didn’t pollute the water: “enhanced migration of gas as a result of drilling was unlikely in the Pavillion field, since drilling had reduced pressure in the underlying rock, thus reducing forces that can lead to gas seepage.” Matt Mead, governor of Wyoming, added that the study didn’t have enough data and was “scientifically questionable,” calling for additional research.
Forbes argues that the study only zooms in one site but could mean that the E.P.A. is moving to create more stringent rules nationally or even ban the practice. Limiting fracking use could mean more expensive energy prices and lost opportunities, given some “90 percent of gas wells drilled today require fracking for completion.” In addition, oil wells in North Dakota thought to contain 24 billion gallons may also require fracking for extraction. To ensure fracking continues, Forbes calls for more stringent federal rules, which would make the process more expensive for energy firms, but also safer for communities.
While Wyoming is dependent on oil and gas drilling for a major part of its economy, the local community around Pavilion indeed finds current fracking practices unsafe. John Fenton, the chairman of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, told The New York Times: “This investigation proves the importance of having a federal agency that can protect people and the environment. Those of us who suffer the impacts from the unchecked development in our community are extremely happy the contamination source is being identified.”
As hydraulic fracturing grows in use and fracked areas come closer to major suburban areas in Oklahoma, Colorado, Pennsylvania, “anxieties about the hydraulic injection process and its consequences” are also increasing. The eye-opening film GasLand, which was recently nomimated for an Oscar for best documentary, may have also spurred local communities into demanding tougher regulations from state and federal regulators to protect drinking water.
Still, the battle is now state-by-state. The Guardian writes that New York is currently debating whether to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and open its lands up to fracking. One NYC hearing on the proposals brought more than 900 irate organizations and individuals. Local environmental and community organizations across the U.S. also want fracking practices to be more closely examined for their possible connections with earthquakes, high levels of air pollution, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Explore the full draft report, which is now being peer-reviewed. Also, read a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Fracturing of Pennsylvania,” which examines that state’s experiences with fracking in thousands of sites over the past three years.
Image credit: Hydraulic Fracturing Rig / NPR