5. Does Fracking Cause Earthquakes?
This is a tricky question, as minor earthquakes occur daily and earthquake prediction is still an inexact science. However, a federal study found the rates of minor localized earthquakes increased six-fold along gas fields in Oklahoma and Arkansas from 2009 to 2011. This uptick in earthquake activity seems to go hand in hand with the increase in fracking in the area. Other geologists have raised concerns that the fluid injected during the fracking process may be lubricating rock slip faces and allowing them to move more freely. This is, however, a difficult assertion to prove; for example, Ohio environmental officials concluded in early 2012 that fracking did not cause a rash of small earthquakes in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.
4. What Should Be Done With Fracking Waste?
Any form of mining activity produces runoff, which sluices into nearby rivers if not properly contained. Mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and even radioactive radon can often leech into the soil, and in the past, limited precautions were taken to prevent this. Most fracking wastewater, known as brine, is disposed of deep underground; according to the EPA, more than 144,000 wells infuse in excess of 2 billion gallons of this brine underground in the U.S. every day. But in other states, the wastewater is stored in open pits, or even treated in municipal wastewater treatment plants before being discharged into waterways. In Pennsylvania, for example, state records show that 3.6 million barrels of fracking waste were released into rivers from waste treatment plants in a recent one-year period. This brine solution may also contain exotic elements such as barium and strontium that waste treatment plants are ill-equipped to handle. Concerns about waste runoff also run high in upstate New York, where the Hudson River basin drainage area supports the water supply of millions in the New York City and tri-state area.
3. Does Fracking Pollute Groundwater?
This is the most controversial issue in fracking, especially in rural areas, where residents concerned about water quality often find themselves in conflict with neighbors whose livelihood may depend on a gas well located on the family farm. Viral videos, news reports and an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Gasland, have shown landowners claiming that their water is not potable, and that they can often even ignite water straight from the tap. Gas companies have routinely dismissed any link between fracking and groundwater contamination. A study released in 2012 by MIT concurred. After studying 43 reports of groundwater pollution near fracking sites, researchers concluded that the process of fracking itself had not caused any of the incidents. However, the report noted that in some cases, shoddy drilling techniques — poorly sealed drilling wells — had spread poisonous fluid into the water table.
A ruling by the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of 2011 may well prove to be a landmark case. The EPA stated that “compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, Wyoming.” That's a notable finding, because earlier in the year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had told Congress she was "not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water. …" The EPA noted that its findings of fracking well pollution applied only in that specific case in Wyoming. Current laws vary from state to state as to how close oil companies can drill to the water table and how deep wastewater needs to be disposed of, if indeed at all. Although fracking was first done in 1947, modern methods weren’t used until the 1990s. Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996 set new standards for Underground Injection Control. Prior to this, runoff was often allowed to sit above ground in huge tailings ponds, where toxic chemicals could concentrate and leech into the groundwater. Congress has, however, exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act in 2005 after the Bush administration declared the EPA had gone too far in setting regulations. Congress has thus far frustrated attempts by the EPA to gain more oversight.
2. How Should We Handle Air Pollution From Fracked Wells?
Often overlooked, the process of fracking adds to air pollution as well. During the process of fracturing the rock by injecting water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure, gases need to be vented. This is a process known as “completion,” and it may go on for two to 10 days before a natural gas well becomes productive. Gases released can include benzene, a known cancer-causing carcinogen, and methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Recent standards set by the Obama administration in early 2012 seek to set limits on emissions and guarantee that gases released in the process are captured.
1. Where Do We Go From Here?
In the end, any discussion of the merits versus the hazards of any form of energy resource extraction goes back to what kind of society we want to have. Energy executives declare that we currently sit on “Two Saudi Arabia’s equivalent in natural gas” while the newly minted “shale-ionares” are pleased to sell or lease their land to gas companies in these cash-strapped times. The process is fraught with legal and political pitfalls. At present, environmental standards are often enforced de facto on a state-by-state basis. Perhaps this will only encourage gas companies to press ahead with business practices that make it more profitable to simply “pay the fine” rather than follow guidelines.
Despite the controversy, some states have been eager to begin fracking. Officials are wary of potential dangers, and are weighing the risk vs. reward scenarios, but in a field so new, the situation is far from settled. Case in point: North Carolina, where there has been a bipartisan push to begin fracking. These pro-fracking efforts have been based in part on estimates that the state might be sitting atop a 40-year supply of natural gas, which could lead to strong economic growth in some depressed areas. More recent research in 2012, however, found the state might have only a five-year supply. In the end, such a short-term solution may be a boom for some, but it poses a potential threat to the fresh water supplies that we’ve come to count on.
One More: Viral Fracking Video
In 2011, David Holmes and some fellow New York University graduate students produced a video, My Water’s on Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song), highlighting the issues involved in fracking. In addition to raising questions about fracking, it also sparked debate about whether such videos qualify as credible journalism.