Analysis: What If Research Confirms Fracking Is Not the Danger Environmentalists Fear?


Fracking has become one of the causes célèbres in the environmental world, where activists fear the process of injecting fracking fluid deep into underground oil and gas wells, to extract the fuel, can produce a number of toxic contaminants into the water supply.

“Hydraulic fracturing, informally referred to as ‘fracking,’ is an oil and gas well development process that typically involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure into a bedrock formation via the well,” the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) explains on their website. “This process is intended to create new fractures in the rock as well as increase the size, extent, and connectivity of existing fractures. Hydraulic fracturing is a well-stimulation technique used commonly in low-permeability rocks like tight sandstone, shale, and some coal beds to increase oil and/or gas flow to a well from petroleum-bearing rock formations. A similar technique is used to create improved permeability in underground geothermal reservoirs.”

Indeed, activists cite research that suggests that surface, ground and drinking water has become contaminated due to fracking. In Pennsylvania, over 1,400 environmental violations have been attributed to deep gas wells utilizing fracking practices. Pollution from truck traffic, chemical contamination around storage tanks, habitat fragmentation and damage from drilling to environmentally-sensitive areas are all related to fracking, activists claim.

However, this week, the Associated Press reports that “a landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, found no evidence that chemicals or brine water from the gas drilling process moved upward to contaminate drinking water at one western Pennsylvania site.”

The Department of Energy report, released Monday, represented the first time an energy company allowed independent monitoring of a drilling site during the fracking process. They allowed researchers to monitor the site for 18 months afterward. “After those months of monitoring, researchers found that the chemical-laced fluids used to free gas stayed about 5,000 feet below drinking water supplies,” the AP reported.

“The fracking process uses millions of gallons of high-pressure water mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart rocks rich in oil and gas. That has led to a national boom in production, but also to concerns about possible groundwater contamination,” they reported.

This is clearly not the last word on the subject. The AP notes, “The department monitored six wells at one site, but oil or gas drilling at other locations around the nation could show different results because of variations in geology or drilling practices. Environmentalists and regulators have also documented cases in which surface spills of chemicals or wastewater damaged drinking water supplies.”

Moreover, the long-term impact of injecting chemicals into the ground might take far longer than 18 months to become evident.

The AP quotes Maya K. van Rossum, of the Delaware Riverkeeper group, who stated that there are a range of harms from shale gas development, including “methane gas leaks, and wasteful use of fresh water and air pollution.” In her view, the Energy Department study “confirms a point that the Riverkeeper has been making: that faulty well construction is the root cause of most problems, not fracking chemicals migrating up through rocks.”

Another study published this week examined drilling sites in Pennsylvania and Texas and found that faulty well construction caused pollution, but not fracking itself.

Naturally, industry officials trumpeted the news, claiming that the study reflects “the industry’s long and clear record of continuously working to enhance regulations and best practices aimed at protecting our environment.”

However, the AP reports that the study did yield surprises. “It found that the fractures created to free oil or gas can extend as far as 1,900 feet from the base of the well. That’s much farther than the usual estimates of a few hundred feet. The Energy Department researchers believe that the long fractures may have followed existing fault lines in the Marcellus Shale or other formations above it.”

They add, “The department study also ran into problems with the manmade markers meant to track possible long-term pollution. The Energy Department said it was able to track the markers for two months after fracking, but then that method had to be abandoned when it stopped working properly.”

So, while this report does not take the practice of fracking out of the woods entirely, it may change the focus of the environmental protests from banning of fracking to better regulations and guidelines. That is, if the goal of activists is to protect the environment rather than ban a practice they seem to disagree with.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    “The Department of Energy report, released Monday, represented the first time an energy company allowed independent monitoring of a drilling site during the fracking process.”

    First, a disclaimer. I have not read the study itself. My comments are limited to the information in David’s article.

    A few thoughts about this study, and the difficulty in drawing conclusions from studies.
    1. The fact that this study was “allowed” by an energy company should be a cautionary note
    about how representative this site may or may not be in the first place. This would be the
    equivalent of a drug company only allowing the study of its most benign product and then
    saying “see, our drugs are safe”. The statement might be correct, or it might not be. No
    way of knowing due to insufficient information.
    2. The importance of breaking down the individual components of the study is illustrated by
    the finding of fractures extending further than generally thought to be the case. This would
    seem to be important in the determination of optimal location.
    Also, the confirmation of faulty construction associated with the process of fracking as
    opposed to the process itself seems a valuable feature of the study and an area for future
    regulation, be that industrial self regulation or governmental regulation.

    What the study also does is to illustrate the importance of not leaping to or acting upon very limited information. This should apply equally to both sides of this controversy, both the full steam ahead with this safe and necessary energy source and the ban all fracking groups.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these two groups would agree to use the resources and knowledge of both sides to move forward with best practices for both the environment and the economy instead of pitting one against the other ?

    1. Frankly

      I generally agree with all of this.

      The problem is that politcs have supplanted real information and even common sense as the impetus for the debate. I find the majority of people more generally in support of fracking to be open and interested in any and all information related to benefits and costs/impacts. However, I know a lot of people in opposition – and all strongly left in politics – that are rabid reactionaries on the topic of fracking. Recently I was in Boston visit relatives – both far left of center university professors. The subject of fracking came up during a car ride and I could have been dealing with some Bible Belt religious reactionary arguing that there is or is not a heaven and hell.

      The problem with the strong reactionary opposition to fracking is that it destroys the credibility of those holding the position… because it is dismissive of all of the benefits derived. Also, it turns the conversation into some strange political morality fight that destroys the value of the conversation.

  2. DavisBurns

    One company allowed our government to monitor six wells at one tracking site. This is one bit of data, we can’t extrapolate from it. Our government should be monitoring as many wells in as many places for as long as scientists think it is necessary. When we have more data, we can make informed decisions.

    Regarding taking the oil and gas out to improve the economy–I wonder how much oil and gas we should leave in the ground for use by future generations. There are substitutes for oil and gas for many of the things we do but for the processes for which fossil fuel has no substitutes, does it make sense for us to take all of it out of the ground as fast as possible now? Should we leave some of the resources for future generations? Some states have established trust funds by setting aside some of the profits for future generations but money won’t buy mining, smelting and manufacturing of metals for future projects without fossil fuels.

  3. Anon


    “In late 2010 in Parker County, TX, the EPA’s investigations led it to issue a rare emergency order because at least two homeowners were in immediate danger from a well saturated with flammable methane. More than a year later, the agency rescinded its mandate without explaining why. A subsequent Associated Press story reported that although the EPA had scientific evidence connecting the driller, Range Resources, with drinking water contamination, they changed course after political pressure from the company and its lobbyists…”

    “…More recently, the EPA abandoned its fracking study in Pavillion, WY, which found benzene, a known carcinogen, at 50 times the level that is considered safe. However, even with this evidence, the EPA handed its investigation over to the state of Wyoming, whose lead politicians have vocally supported fracking. Moreover, this research will be funded by EnCana, the very company whose drilling and fracking operations may have caused the groundwater contamination in question.”

    “The EPA conducted an investigation into the contamination of our aquifer, and discovered that drilling was responsible,” said John Fenton a rancher from Pavillion. “But rather than finish, they knuckled under to political pressure and turned the investigation over to the very state and company that denied there was a problem in the first place. President Obama needs to tell the EPA to reopen its investigations.”

    This is why I do not trust the federal or state gov’t in regard to fracking. I am not a die-hard environmentalist, nor a liberal. I am actually a conservative. But IMO the gov’t has been so lax in regulation on the issue of fracking, I wouldn’t trust anything they said now about the issue. I believe there is enough evidence that fracking has the potential to contaminate our groundwater sources, that a moratorium ought to be called until the gov’t can put more stringent requirements in place that would virtually guarantee 99% safety of groundwater. I have absolutely no patience now with the EPA, which has been so corrupted their credibility is nil. We had a toxic site (under Target) that was never cleaned up, and now the toxics have migrated towards Mace Ranch homes. This never should have been allowed to happen.

  4. tj

    Very interesting comment about Target’s site!

    A problem not mentioned above is the triggering of earthquakes due to fracking.
    Oklahoma’s senator was a big proponent of fracking until earthquakes began happening in his state. Now he’s calling for investigation.

    More oil and gas consumption, more warming, more drought, more climate disasters.

    There’s no mention in the article above of the water table depth. Some areas in PA and western NY have a very high water table which would make the test results not applicable to other areas where groundwater is stored much deeper.

  5. Biddlin

    Having spent much of my youth in Western Canada, I have strong feelings about the obvious environmental impact that hydraulic fracturing has had on Alberta. Once green and golden meadows have been turned, forever, into black. filthy marshes, that mar the formerly Elysian landscape. The greed driven boom has twisted the once quaint and bucolic Fort McMurray into a cesspool of sex shops and bars, full of the rabble that quick employment with no questions asked brings, making the streets and indeed the whole town, unsafe and undesirable for decent people. There is also ample evidence of accidents and outright obfuscation by the mine operators and collusion by Canadian regulators.
    Tue, 2013-06-11 DESMOGCANADA:

    “Gov’t Report: Companies Break Commitment to Contain Toxic Tar Sands Waste
    Alberta’s Energy Resource Conservation Board (ERCB), the agency in charge of regulating the province’s energy resources, quietly released a new report on Friday afternoon finding that tar sands companies have “failed to meet their commitments” when it comes to dealing with the massive lakes of toxic sludge that are a by-product of their operations.
    You can download the full PDF version of the report here: ERCB Tailings Management Assessment Report.

    Just my twopence and a halfpenny duty.

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    If it is not the danger that environmentalists fear, wouldn’t that be GREAT news? And shouldn’t we further it’s use, and ween ourselves off Middle Eastern oil?

    Here are some global issues to consider.

    1. Next year, or five years from now, I will not be surprised that in some instances, there are minor issues with fracking. No solution is perfect! But it is how these minor issues compare to alternate choices, and alternate energy costs. For example, we could rely more heavily on coal, but we know that that is horribly filthy. Solar is the new darling, but it is quite expensive, and not a consistent source of power. It cannot provide baseline power needs.

    2. Any discussion should include the enormous environmental benefits of fracking (and Natural Gas). Fracking has significantly contributed to us lowering our CO2 emissions by 20 percent, so if you believe in the so-called man-made Global Warming, you should support fracking.

    3. In both 2012 and 2013, EPA studies showed that there were no ill effects from fracking.

    4. From this article (below), there are over 10 government studies which reveal that there is no proven connection proving that fracking causes groundwater contamination.

    5. Hollywood has produced two fiction movies that trump the dangers of fracking, so we know how the far left thinks.

    6. The economies of Texas and North Dakota are BOOMING! Workers at Target make $17 an hour in North Dakota because they have such a huge need for workers. Supply and Demand.

    7. If we lowered out energy costs in the US, it is possible that we could regain some of our lost manufacturing jobs. Cheap, clean, reliable energy, something western Europe has a problem supplying.

    The benefits far outweigh the costs.

    1. Frankly

      Nice post.

      I have some conservative religious friends that just cannot accept homosexuality.

      I some liberal friends that just cannot accept fracking.

      I put them in the same category of being guilty of irrational nincompoopery.

      But I do support their freedom to practice irrational nincompoopery as long as it does not materially harm others. And if they attempt to act on their irrational nincompoopisms in a way that materially harms others, they need to be taken to the public square and flogged.

    2. Anon

      Sorry, but the EPA has no credibility on the issue of fracking. See my earlier post. Anyone who supports fracking outright just has not been paying attention to the problems it has caused in many a community, and the political shenanigans thereof.

    3. DavisBurns

      Natural gas isn’t the panacea the industry would like us to believe. From Propublica
      Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

      The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

      When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.”

  7. Biddlin

    Oil sands are being extracted using a similar method, called VAPEX. Halliburton currently has well fracking operations at Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Fahler and Clairmont.
    We’ll see the results in the USA soon enough, as Texas and Pennsylvania have embraced the earning potential, if not the actual technlologies.
    Black gold fuels as much conflict and grief as it does “conveniences,” sez me.

    1. Frankly

      Vapex is the band name of an e-cig. I am not familiar with fracking to extract oil sands. But if there is some technology to do that, you should support it rather than the open pit mining they do instead.

  8. Biddlin

    I understand that much of Davis doesn’t even want the stuff coming through town on a rail car, so they might understand Canadians’ feelings about the much more hazardous position in which they find themselves.

  9. Frankly

    I think, and please correct me if I am wrong, that the REAL problem some people have with fracking is that the resulting drop in in the price of fossil fuel is messing with their agenda to move the world to run on sunlight, wind and batteries.

    But then, how do those people reconcile the adverse economic and social impacts from enacting policies that cause the cost of energy to increase dramatically from a ban on facking? Are they okay with a few thousand more fixed income seniors dead from freezing and heatstroke due to too high energy costs? Are they okay with greater poverty and more people out of work because US industry cannot effectively compete with other countries exploiting fracking technology to lower their energy costs?

    I don’t know anyone that wants or welcomes serious environmental impacts from energy production. We should be working to make it as clean and as safe as possible. But let’s be honest here… the environmental nuts want a complete ban. And so they should be branded as people-haters as their agenda would result in a lot of unnecessary misery and pain to a lot of people.

    1. Anon

      The problem I have with fracking is that it has contaminated many a town’s groundwater supplies. The EPA has absolutely no credibility on this issue (see my earlier post). As I said before, I am not a liberal but a conservative. I am not an environmentalist. I want our nation free of dependency on foreign oil. But unfortunately the fracking industry is so corrupting, and has proven themselves to be so completely ruthless, that if I had my way, I would call a moratorium on all fracking until a set of regulations was developed to make sure ground water is no less than 99% safe from fracking.

      1. Frankly

        We don’t need a moratorium. And that would cause great harm to people and the economy and more people.

        I think there are challenges to this claim that it has contaminated many a town’s groundwater. I think the “many” is a myth. I think there are few more than are contaminated by standard drilling practices.

        The drilling and exploration companies are liable for the environmental damage that can be proved they cause. They already have plenty of motivation to practice safe methods.

        But I support testing and oversight and assessments to make sure it is kept clean and safe. But no bans.

    2. Barack Palin

      You are exactly right Frankly. Fracking could be proven to be perfectly safe and the environmental left would still want it banned because it doesn’t fit their agenda.

      1. Don Shor

        There are some who will tell you that quite openly: that they don’t want us to exploit more fossil fuel sources because it will, in their opinion, slow the shift away from carbon-based energy. I’ve never quite figured out how they intend to mitigate the economic harm that would do to poorer people.
        But many other people — left, right, center — have serious, valid concerns about the safety of fracking, the lack of regulation, and the quality of enforcement of the existing regulations. Some don’t trust states to implement effective regulation because natural gas has been too lucrative for them to want to impede its development in any way. Others don’t trust the federal government to do it. Certainly we can’t trust industry to self-regulate.
        While I don’t agree with a moratorium, I think there is a need for a strong federal role in this, and until that happens states like California will have to lead the way with strict regulations.

        1. Frankly

          I actually agree with this too.

          But the point about trust is interesting because it is often misplaced. Think about it this way… what reasonable human wants to seriously pollute the environment to extract fuel? What company wants to face fines and the huge cost of cleanup for a environmental calamity they caused?

          We have a ton of regulations and oversight, but for these nervous nelly conspiracy people, they never think it is enough.

          There was an interesting op-ed in the WSJ yesterday that reported on a survey of trust of corporations. It is very interesting, and I intend to write a VG article about it and connect it to our own economic development debate.

          When asked if they trust corporations, the majority of people in the industrialized west largely said no. Meanwhile, 85% of the people of China said yes.

          There are times when the root cause of trust issues are more complicated than they seem. And the consequences of a significant deficit of trust can be catastrophic for a society. We need to problem solve on that. I have my ideas for where the trust perception problems primarily originate from and it is a primary source of my direct partisanship.

      2. DavisBurns

        Why not say what YOU think and what fits your agenda instead of speaking for an ill defined group that consists of people who do not speak with one voice. Let the people who self identify as liberals just say what they think and you speak for yourself.

    3. TrueBlueDevil

      They don’t really care about the poor or the working man. They want control, and many see themselves as smarter than you or I. I read an article a while back where the author also claimed that Liberals see themselves as morally superior to Conservatives, so that gives them a lot of mental leeway. They want to tell us how to live, where to live, what kind of car to drive, and how to heat our house.

      A friend from South America told me this: environmentalists are like a watermelon, green on the outside, and Red on the inside.

      Amnesty and the EPA / Global Warming is how narcissists like Barack Obama and Eric Holder will tell us how to lead our lives.

      1. Don Shor

        I believe many conservatives feel themselves to be morally superior to liberals as well. I believe there are lots of people who want to control the behavior of other people. Sometimes we actually do it together, by enacting laws and stuff.

        Putting on my [moderator] hat now:
        1. Your friend from South America is painting a rather broad brush to assert that environmentalists are communists.
        2. I really don’t see how it serves any civil discussion for you to be using labels like ‘narcissists’ and pulling the President and the Attorney General, and immigration policy, into a discussion about fracking. This is the kind of thing that takes Vanguard conversations off track.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          If the environmental lobby was really that concerned about our carbon output, they would first close our southern border. I understand this has been a hot topic in enviro communities, but it still exists. More people, higher birth rates, more children, more carbon.

          This lobby would also gain more standing and authenticity if they endorsed nuclear power, which produces zero CO2. Even the IPCC suggests building 1,000 nuclear power plants.

          1. David Greenwald

            You have it backwards, less people in the US, but not overall on the planet. Question is whether people use more carbon footprint here or in the developing world per capita.

  10. tribeUSA

    Don–good balanced post.

    No question that groundwater needs to be monitored–need baseline groundwater monitoring (at least 1 year before fracking starts to capture seasonal changes), monitoring during fracking, and continuing monitoring for decades after completion of fracking. Monitoring of the shallow subsurface/shallow aquifers is fairly straightforward and inexpensive; the “how to do it right’ has been worked out pretty well now for most common geologies (fractured hardrock remains a challenge), there is a long history of shallow subsurface monitoring of surface or shallow subsurface source contaminants. What is new about fracturing is the additional monitoring needed at depth; which the posted article alludes to: intermediate and deep aquifers are expensive to monitor (deep monitoring wells needed are expensive); the concern is that fracking at depth can compromise the integrity of relatively impermeable geologic barriers (i.e. the shale or shale-like rock and other rock layers between the typically very deep fracking depths and overlying deep aquifers); resulting in leakage of hydrocarbons and fracking fluids upward into overlying deep aquifers. Since it is too expensive to have a dense network of deep monitoring wells, only a sparse network is practical; such that the timescale for the leakage to be detected is likely on the order of decades; and by the time it is detected, a large area of the aquifer would be contaminated. This poses a ‘moral hazard’ for the drilling company; likely contamination would not be detected for a decade or more after completion of fracking, long after the drilling company executives have moved on to enjoy their 3rd vacation house, yacht, etc., and liquidation of the drilling company itself (not of course, due to any fear of trailing lawsuits that might catch up). So this is one of those tricky problems that requires long-term monitoring; a trade-off between providing inexpensive hydrocarbons and helping keep energy affordable, and protection of deep aquifers from semi-permanent ruin (recall the current state of groundwater in California, particularly the central valley and right here in Davis; where wells are being placed deeper and deeper due to contamination or depletion of overlying shallow/intermediate depth aquifers).

    So I am for fracking; with the provision of long-term monitoring, and special laws to address the above–mentioned moral hazard re: the possibility of slowly blooming deep aquifer pollution.

  11. DavisBurns

    What If Research Confirms FRACKING Is Not The Environmental Danger Environmentalists Fear?
    Well, that would be better than if our aquifers are polluted, wouldn’t it? Now if we can just do the research (and that means monitoring freely to get the data to so the research) then we could have an intelligent discussion. 6 industry selected wells at one site is not a meaningful sample.

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