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Tina Casey headshot

Make That Three Black Eyes for Natural Gas Fracking

By Tina Casey

Yet another natural gas fracking study has come out, and the latest news should raise more red flags for vehicle fleet managers who are looking to replace diesel with a cleaner fuel, namely compressed natural gas or hydrogen sourced from natural gas. The latest study, from Stanford University, warns that thousands of fracked natural gas wells in the U.S. have been drilled at relatively shallow depths, potentially exposing local water resources to contamination.

Natural gas fracking, then and now

Fracking is short for hydrofracturing, the practice of extracting oil and gas from rock formations by forcing vast quantities of chemical brine deep underground.

In addition to the potential for contaminating groundwater, surface water resources are also at risk from contamination by spent fracking brine, as described by the new Stanford study:

"As part of the so-called frackwater they inject into the ground, drilling companies use proprietary blends of chemicals that can include hydrochloric acids, toluene and benzene. When the wastewater comes back up after use, it often includes those and potentially dangerous natural chemicals such as arsenic, selenium and radioactive radium drawn up from subterranean recesses."

Fracking has been used in the oil and gas industry for decades, but its impacts escaped notice for many years. Until very recently fracking occurred mainly in remote, thinly populated areas in the western U.S. That explains why the industry has been able to claim that the practice has a long track record of environmental safety -- at least, until recently.

After the Bush administration exempted fracking operations from federal environmental regulations, the practice exploded into more populated areas and farming communities, including Midwestern and Northeastern states as well as California (note, for example, the photo accompanying this article, which shows a fracking operation within an agricultural area, in sight of a nearby home).

That, in turn, has given rise to more impacts, and pushback has been growing rapidly.

A recent protest against a fracking operation in one South Los Angeles neighborhood illustrates how fracking has evolved from a relatively unknown, primarily rural operation to become an invasive force in established communities. In the case of California, the issue also has environmental justice implications, as a recent study has revealed that fracking operations are concentrated more heavily in Hispanic and non-white neighborhoods.

As the impacts of fracking have become more clear, local communities and entire states, most notably New York state, have placed moratoriums on the practice or banned it outright.

Yet another black eye for natural gas

This should be a banner year for the U.S. natural gas industry. More utilities are ditching coal and turning to natural gas for cleaner power generation, compressed natural gas is becoming popular as a low-emission alternative fuel for vehicle fleets, and hydrogen -- sourced primarily from natural gas -- is beginning to emerge as a zero-emission fuel for forklifts and other logistics vehicles, among others.

However, this has also been a banner year for studies demonstrating that cleaner emissions at the burn point need to be weighed against the natural gas fracking lifecycle.

The latest study from Stanford tears another hole in the industry's case for the safety of fracking. According to some fracking proponents, there is a very low risk of contaminating local water supplies because the wells are drilled deep underground.

However, the study found that:

"... At least 6,900 oil and gas wells in the U.S. were fracked less than a mile (5,280 feet) from the surface, and at least 2,600 wells were fracked at depths shallower than 3,000 feet, some as shallow as 100 feet. This occurs despite many reports that describe fracking as safe for drinking water only if it occurs at least thousands of feet to a mile underground ..."

In addition to recording well depths, the study also looked at water use:

Perhaps most surprisingly, the researchers discovered that at least 2,350 wells less than one mile deep had been fracked using more than 1 million gallons of water each. Shallower high-volume hydraulic fracturing poses a greater potential threat to underground water sources because there is so little separation between the chemicals pumped underground and the drinking water above them.

The findings indicate the need for improved safety standards for shallow wells, but the cat may already be out of the bag, as explained by lead researcher Rob Jackson:

"The public pays to clean up acid mine drainage today because of poor practices decades ago," Jackson said. "What are we doing today that may cause problems tomorrow?

Piling on the bad news for fracking

July really has been a bad month for fracking news. At the beginning of this month, TriplePundit noted three new developments that mess with natural gas's clean image, including "lost water" issues raised by the U.S. Geological Survey, a British government report that links fracking to destructive impacts on rural communities, and the aforementioned New York state fracking ban, based on a study that similarly connected the practice to undesirable impacts on established communities.

Last week, we also took note of a study undertaken by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, which linked the density of fracked wells to a "meteoric" increase in local hospitalizations.

This all comes on top of an incendiary article in Newsweek earlier this year, followed up with more detail by Rolling Stone, that linked fracking to miscarriages and infant deaths in a region of Utah. Though anecdotal, the story is consistent with a study released by the University of Pittsburgh in June, finding increased incidence of low birth weight babies in a region of Pennsylvania.

Light at the end of the fracking tunnel

Fossil natural gas has serious lifecycle issues that fleet managers should not overlook, but more sustainable alternatives are emerging for compressed natural gas vehicles, including landfill gas and biogas.

For hydrogen fuel cell fleets, the future also looks promising. While hydrogen is sourced primarily from natural gas today, water-splitting with wind and solar energy is beginning to emerge among other more sustainable sources.

Image credit: Rob Jackson/Stanford University

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey