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9. What are some of the common criticisms aimed at fracking?Submitted by MikeChalberg on Wed, 2012-05-02 16:04
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In the last several years there has been an amazing amount of debate surrounding the possible environmental implications caused by large-scale fracking. There have been numerous, large demonstrations around the world against the expansion of fracking. In 2011, the New Jersey legislature voted to outlaw fracking. Though the bill was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, he still instituted a 1-year moratorium on fracking while the process went under investigation. Meanwhile, the legislature, as of 2012, was attempting to override his decision. Other states have also put moratoriums on fracking while the long-term risks are being assessed. Elsewhere, France and Bulgaria have both banned fracking nationally, the first nations to do so.
Given these recent trends, the future of fracking is very much up in the air. So what exactly are the environmental concerns which are driving so many people against fracking? Below is a list of the main issues brought up and some specific instances which are used to support the concerns.
Opponents to fracking argue that water contamination will greatly increase in areas near the the natural gas drills. There are two main sources of potential contamination of the water table: (1) excess methane released during the process which is not captured and brought to the surface; and (2) the chemicals used in the slickwater solution escaping the casing of the well.
Numerous cases around the country have been brought to the public's attention. Some people have reported finding sand and dirt, grease residue, and increased levels of methane in their drinking water. In several instances, most famously in a scene of the 2010 documentary GasLand, homeowners are able to light their tapwater on fire due to high levels of methane.
The fracking rigs are designed to keep both the excess methane and the used slickwater safe from the water supply. These wastes are either brought back to the surface and stored above-ground or are left in a sealed underground reservoir. But there have already been several instances of wastewater leakage or spills. Moreover, little is known about the lifespan of the underground containers. Eventually the toxins could escape the reservoirs and possibly reach the water table.
The process of fracking also causes the release of several naturally occurring radioactive elements in the rock. These elements can easily be brought to the surface along with the natural gas. Some companies carelessly store these chemicals, increasing the risk that they reach local streams or rivers, contaminating the water supply from above. There is also the argument that there is currently not nearly enough accountability in the fracking industry.
In 2008, local residents were warned not to consume the tapwater due to dangerous levels of toxins. Though not confirmed, the toxins are believed to have originated from local fracking wells. The steel and concrete casings of the fracking well are quite resilient but do not guarantee protection against leaks. One of the freshest rivers in America, the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania, is now listed as one of the most endangered due to nearby fracking in the Marcellus shale field. Millions of people get their drinking water from the Delaware River, and there have already been numerous cases of contaminated tapwater in the areas that have been linked to local fracking wells.
Despite water pollution standards and regulations set by the EPA, groundwater contamination can still occur. One of the largest natural gas companies, Chesapeake Energy in Oklahoma, was fined several hundred thousand dollars for water pollution. The EPA is currently conducting multiple studies regarded the matter; yet they do not expect to release the results until 2014. According to preliminary reports, fracking wastewater contains excessive levels of total dissolves solids, fracking additives in the slickwater, toxic metals, and radioactive elements. Furthermore, there are currently no regulatory standards for the disposal of fracking wastewater, and many local treatment and waste facilities are ill-equipped to handle the chemicals.
In Wyoming the small Wind River Indian Reservation began to have increased water pollution following the construction of dozens of fracking rigs nearby. Residents claim that this has been happening for years. Though many in the area support drilling, they are arguing for more stringent regulation to protect the groundwater. In 2011 the EPA conducted a full investigation into the matter. Residents near this rig as well as others have reported increased levels of cancer, liver and kidney problems, and neurological disorders. The Wyoming case is unique because the natural gas sits far closer to the surface than typical shale gas formations. Because of this, universal laws and regulations are not sufficient. More case-specific judgment is necessary.
Finally, though fracking companies have recently been forced to give full chemical disclosure of the slickwater used ("fluid disclosure"), this still does not prevent them from using the chemicals. Toxins are being pumped into the ground across the United States. It took years for the EPA to require full disclosure of the chemicals used in the process. Prior to this, the oil and natural gas industries were the only industries exempt from such a requirement. This was coined the "Halliburton Loophole," so named because of suspicion that former Vice President and Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, played a key role in keeping the EPA out of regulating this aspect.
Air pollution has also been a concern due the release of greenhouse gases during the process. Fracking companies are able to capture the majority of the methane that rises toward the surface after fracking, but a significant amount still escapes. Though the quantity of methane released is far smaller than carbon dioxide from a typical industrial plant, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas. There have been several studies done recently comparing the air pollutants of fracking and coal. Experts have estimated that about 2% of the natural gas which is extracted is not successfully captured. Fracking also releases volatile organic compounds which are the main source of urban smog. Several types of confirmed carcinogens are also expelled in the waste. Most of this pollution occurs after the well has been drilled but before it is properly hooked up to transport pipes.
There has been an increasing number of small-scale earthquakes in areas surrounding fracking rigs. The wells are dug so deep and with such force, that actual earthquakes, though small, can result. The underground disposal units are also generating concerns. They have been linked to larger earthquakes, including over ten in 2011 near a large Ohio rig. There have been similar reports in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arkansas. NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce sums up the difference between the two types of earthquakes:
"Hydraulic fracturing pumps a lot of water underground, where it's used to crack the rock and liberate gas. This may cause tiny quakes, but fracking goes on for a day or two, and the quakes are small.
Recent quakes reported in Ohio and Arkansas are associated with wastewater wells, not fracking wells. The water first used in fracturing rock is retrieved and pumped into these waste wells, which take in lots of water. And at more than 9,000 feet deep, the water is under high pressure that can build up over months or years. It's this pressure that can actually create earthquakes."
Ohio has opened numerous facilities across the state to house the wastewater from fracking wells in nearby Pennsylvania. Though the state gets compensated nicely, the pollution and earthquake worries have forced the state to temporarily suspend further fracking waste disposal. There are alternatives for disposing the toxic water, but surface storage or treatment is very expensive and, in many locations, not possible. Seismologists can also scout certain areas to find an optimal location for the wastewater reservoirs, but the process currently costs $10 million for each well.
Waste of Freshwater
Each large-scale rig uses millions of gallons of freshwater to frack the shale just one time. This water cannot be recovered because it is mixed with numerous toxins. Therefore, if fracking were to continue at its current rate or increase, hundreds of billions of gallons of freshwater would be lost every year. According to estimates in Pennsylvania, the site of a large section of the Marcellus shale fields, the natural gas industry uses 1.9 million of the 9.5 million gallons of water used in the state every day.
Mineral vs. Surface Rights
One problem for individuals with natural gas beneath their land has been the issue of mineral rights. Mineral rights differ from simple property rights. In fact, when a property is sold, the mineral rights can, and often are, held by former landowners. Because of the possibility that the land contains valuable natural resources, owners of mineral rights do not often want to sell. In most areas of the world, the government owns all mineral rights, but in the United States landowners own the ground beneath and air above the surface of their property.
But because the mineral rights are often more valuable than the surface rights, there have been numerous occasions in which the mineral rights owner is compensated far more lucratively by fracking companies than the surface rights owners. Meanwhile, it is the landowners that have to deal with any pollution issues. Many have complained about this process, arguing that it is unfair to the landowners. Moreover, in some instances, the homebuyers are not informed that the owners of the mineral rights intend to lease the rights and allow drilling. In North Carolina, the nation's largest homebuilder, D.R. Horton, is building homes without granting the homeowner the mineral rights. The company then transfers the rights to its subsidiary, DRH Energy. Drilling the property can not only be a significant nuisance, but it can also greatly reduce the value of the property.