It’s been a long time coming, but the U.S. EPA will finally assess the pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking. It’s a mining method that involves injecting massive amounts of chemical brine deep underground in order to release natural gas (among other things). According to an article in the New York Times, hydraulic fracturing involves more than 260 chemicals, including benzene and many other toxic substances. Maybe that hasn’t drawn too much notice in sparsely populated areas but there’s a natural gas drilling boom going on in higher-population states like Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus shale formation is drawing gas companies like flies to honey, and now people are starting to pay attention.
In most places you can’t even dump out a few pints of toxic chemicals such as used motor oil without getting into serious trouble with the law, so how is it that all these fracking people (corporations are people, too!) get to dump umpteen millions of gallons without any kind of accounting whatsoever? I mean, isn’t there a little something called the Clean Water Act, right? Right? Hello, anybody there?
Hydraulic Fracturing and the Clean Water Act
Actually there is a little something called the Clean Water Act. Its primary focus is surface water such as lakes and rivers, though with some wiggle room it could indirectly apply to ground sources like wells and aquifers. There is also something called the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 but hydraulic fracturing was exempted from that, an omission that was reaffirmed by the EPA under the Bush administration. Fracking was also exempted from the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Then there’s the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act of 1976, which covers the use and disposal of hazardous substances, but fracking is also at least partly exempt from that. And just to top things off, the chemical brines used in fracking are considered proprietary and companies are under no obligation to disclose what’s in them (so they don’t).
Hydraulic Fracturing: Who’s Minding the Store?
Er…you! That’s basically where things stand in the hydraulic fracturing hotspot state of Pennsylvania (pdf). According to the Penn State Cooperative Extension, state regulations only require gas well operators to be responsible for pollution in drinking water supplies within 1,000 feet of the well. That isn’t much to begin with (geologists are just beginning to understand the long distance consequences of underground mining), and on top of that there’s at least three huge catches. First, the pollution has to occur within six months after the well is completed, which is a very short window. Second, the gas company is under no obligation to perform before-and-after tests, which means that the property owner has to incur a pretty hefty expense just on the outside chance something bad happens. And third – well heck, if a company don’t disclose what chemicals it is using, how can you prove that their gas well is responsible for the chemicals that show up in your water supply?
One Step Beyond Hydraulic Fracturing
In New York State, another fracking hot spot, alarm bells are going off because part of the Marcellus formation is directly under a watershed that provides drinking water to about 9 million people. The state is looking for ways to prevent gas well drilling on these lands, and that includes developing alternatives like biogas from cow manure, which kills two birds with one stone by helping the state’s large dairy industry put its manure to good use. Among the flood of new biofuel discoveries, researchers have developed a strain of algae that coulds produce fuels identical to petroleum fuels, which basically cuts out the fossil fuel middle-man and its environmentally destructive harvesting methods. In the mean time, considering the available evidence on hydraulic fracturing, it’s a safe bet that forthcoming EPA report won’t be pretty.
Image: Natural gas flame by BotheredByBees on flickr.com.