It’s been another bad week for fracking. On top of previous studies, a new report has linked this controversial natural gas drilling method to earthquakes in Texas, and another new study has exposed water pollution risks in New York. Nevertheless, a group of federal legislators chose this week to release a letter lobbying for more natural gas exports, which puts them in the unenviable position of advocating for increased risks to U.S. communities.
Earthquakes and Fracking
Fracking is a method for retrieving natural gas from shale formations by pumping a chemical brine underground. Among other issues, disposal of the brine is problematic. The U.S. EPA has estimated that about 2 billion gallons of brine daily are disposed of in 144,000 injection wells around the country.
The new study from the University of Texas study uncovered a strong link between seismic activity and a group of injection wells in the Barnett Shale region in the northern part of the state. The researchers found more earthquakes than a previous analysis of the Barnett Shale had identified, but all were too small to have an impact on the surface.
Though the Texas study concluded that this seismic activity did not pose a danger to the public in that region, it supports a finding reached last year by seismologists from Columbia University who studied earthquakes in Ohio and linked them to a nearby fracking brine injection well.
In that instance, the earthquakes were felt on the surface, raising concerns about impacts on buildings and infrastructure.
Water Contamination and Fracking
Undertaken by Stony Brook University, the New York study examined different pathways for contamination related to fracking operations in part of the Marcellus Shale region, which encompasses numerous high-population areas throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and other states.
The researchers concluded that “the disposal of contaminated wastewater from hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as “fracking” – wells producing natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region poses substantial potential risks of river and other water pollution.”
The study found elements of risk throughout the operation, including the potential for spillage from trucks transporting brine, failure of storage lagoons on the surface, failure of well casings, and systematic leakage or migration of fracking brine from wells.
The study also linked higher levels of contamination in rivers to discharges from wastewater treatment facilities that handle spent fracking brine.
Fracking and Risk
Under the Bush administration, fracking was granted an exemption from federal clean water regulations and disclosure rules, making it virtually impossible to quantify risks and impacts beyond local, anecdotal evidence.
Nevertheless, a body of evidence is building on environmental and public health impacts, including the release of the potent greenhouse gas methane from drilling sites as well as earthquakes and drinking water contamination. The Obama Administration has also mounted an effort to identify the contents of fracking brine and establish a more protective regulatory framework.
Fracking and Natural Gas Exports
The legislators advocating for more natural gas exports represent Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. These states have long dominated the natural gas scene, but competition from the Marcellus region and elsewhere is eroding that position and driving them to find new markets.
If fracking was a benign or impact-neutral operation, there wouldn’t be much of an issue around stepping up exports of natural gas.
However, given the evidence at hand, expanding the export market for natural gas will help accelerate the pace of fracking operations and result in increased risk for more U.S. communities.
Aside from short-term or episodic impacts, the long-term consequences could be significant in terms of endemic regional public health issues and economic malaise.
A recent study of coal mining operations in Appalachia provides a glimpse into the future of communities dominated by fossil fuel extraction, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.