Last summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came out with a draft report on fracking and drinking water contamination that appeared to be a cry for help.
The EPA’s state-of-the-science assessment concluded that no widespread impacts could be discerned. But the agency further concluded that data scarcity and quite a few other “limiting factors” effectively prevented it from assessing the true scope and nature of the problem in terms of water resources nationwide. In other words, the state of the science on fracking research was — and is — miserable.
Nevertheless, research teams are hammering away at the connection between fracking and drinking-water contamination, and the latest development comes from a research team at Stanford University.
The new Stanford fracking report
The Stanford fracking report was presented last weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the title, “Does Hydraulic Fracturing Allow Gas to Reach Drinking Water?”
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, an oil- and gas-drilling method that involves shooting vast amounts of chemical brine underground. Much of the attention has focused on the potential for these chemicals to contaminate resources in and around the drilling site or at fracking wastewater disposal sites.
The Stanford report took a related but different angle. It looked at the potential for natural gas from the drilling site to contaminate local water supplies.
Generally the report echoed the EPA’s assessment, noting that the number of specific, confirmed problems is small relative to the total number of fracked wells in the U.S. However, the report nails down the causes of some of those problems, making the case for stronger regulation of the natural gas industry.
Speaking of the natural gas industry, this is a good point to pause and mention that the report’s lead author is Stanford professor Rob Jackson, who is a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy. Precourt was recently established as Stanford’s natural gas research hub.
Jackson is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, which tracks natural gas issues among other environmental topics. Both institutes are engaged in steering the natural gas industry toward more sustainable fracking practices, as illustrated by this snippet from a 2014 Stanford News Service article posted on the Stanford Woods site:
“The environmental costs – and benefits – from ‘fracking,’ which requires blasting huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations, are the subject of new research that synthesizes 165 academic studies and government databases…”
“Society is certain to extract more gas and oil due to fracking,” said Stanford environmental scientist Robert Jackson, who led the new study. “The key is to reduce the environmental costs as much as possible, while making the most of the environmental benefits.”
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at that new fracking report. Jackson describes part of the problem as an issue with well engineering, with or without the involvement of fracking. He cites one high-profile case in Parker County, Texas, where the drillers only cemented the top and bottom of a well, leaving a 4,000-foot stretch in the middle without a liner:
“The gap allowed gases to move up and down freely like a chimney and contaminate the drinking-water supply,” Jackson explains.
As for fracking itself, Jackson’s study suggests that the common practice of drilling one mile or more below the surface should be adequate to protect drinking water supplies. The problem occurs when wells are more shallow. Jackson found more than 2,600 shallow wells in the U.S., defined as less than 3,000 feet, many located in California:
“We found a surprising number of places where companies are fracking directly into shallow freshwater aquifers,” he says. “In no other industry would you be allowed to inject chemicals into a source of drinking-quality water.”
Yet another black eye for fracking
The Stanford study may disappoint some community advocates looking for solid evidence that would trigger federal action. But when you consider it in the context of other studies, the evidence is piling up that fracking is a major public health issue.
Consider the activity just in the past year. The state of New York kicked off 2015 with a statewide ban on fracking, following an exhaustive study by state health officials. In June, TriplePundit noted three new fracking studies: one linking fracking wastewater to earthquakes, another that raised alarms over the impact of fracking operations on water quality in Texas, and another associating lower birth-weight with mothers living near gas wells in Pennsylvania.
Also in June, a long, detailed article in Rolling Stone magazine followed up on an earlier Newsweek report on anecdotal evidence of infant mortality linked to fracking in Utah.
In July 2015 another fracking report linked a significant increase in hospitalizations to the “meteoric” rise in natural gas wells in Pennsylvania. Another report from Jackson on the risk posed by shallow wells was released later that month.
In related news, earlier this week the Associated Press ran a story on another fracking angle: the competition for water resources between the drilling industry and agriculture.
Rounding out the issue is the latest round of earthquakes in Oklahoma, which researchers linked to the use of injection wells for disposing of fracking wastewater.
State regulators placed some restrictions on the use of disposal wells, but the temblors continue. A mini-swarm of three earthquakes occurred last week at slightly below the benchmark level of 3.0 magnitude, and earlier this week a major 5.1 magnitude earthquake was among a swarm of 11 to hit northwest Oklahoma. The largest quake was felt across Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Nebraska, Texas, Arkansas and Iowa, the Associated Press reported.
Fortunately there were no reports of injury or damage, but stay tuned …
Photo (cropped): “Technician Alissa White collects drinking water near an oil and gas field in Parker County, Texas” by Rob Jackson, Stanford University.