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Published on May 29th, 2014 | by Susanna Schick


Can The EPA Make Fracking Safe?

May 29th, 2014 by  

Don’t you hate it when people smugly tell you your EV is powered by coal? And you have to (yet again) remind them most* of the US grid is now powered by other sources, primarily natural gas? So the EPA is finally stepping up, after toxic tap water, earthquakes, and shale deposits turning out to be much less productive than predicted. Here’s an overview of some of the big questions in the current fracking debate, with input from NRDC’s specialist on fracking, Matthew McFeeley.

*Results vary by state, of course. Where our electricity comes from, courtesy of the EIA:

energy use in USA

What this chart shows is that by 2014, 59% of our electricity is from sources that are not coal. 13% of the total is from renewables, 19% from nuclear, and 26% from natural gas. Around 2010, natural gas went from providing half as much of our electricity as coal to nearly equaling coal in 2014. As coal has become too costly, mainly due to the high price of emissions reduction, the unregulated natural gas industry has boomed through the use of more innovative extraction techniques, aka hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. But is fracking safe?

EPA’s move to force extraction companies to disclose the chemicals they’re using:

EPA recently announced that they may require companies to disclose what chemicals are being used in fracking. But, it may only be voluntary, as it’s not certain the EPA will force companies to disclose. According to McFeeley, however, “this could and should be the first step toward nationwide rules” for mandatory fracking chemical disclosure.

What about this nonsense in North Carolina, where they’re trying to make it a crime to disclose the chemicals used?

The North Carolina State Senate passed a bill last week that would make it a crime to disclose the chemicals used in fracking if the company claims they are confidential “trade secrets.” Medical groups in North Carolina and other states are concerned about these “gag rules” that may prevent medical providers from getting critical information to other medical providers and to their patients. The North Carolina bill allows the companies to draft their confidentiality agreements, which could prevent the medical professionals from sharing information with their patients and other medical professionals. Doctors don’t want to be put in jail for telling their patients what they’ve been exposed to. Other states have precedents that North Carolina could follow.

Which states have the best/safest regulations for fracking?

“This is an impossible question,” said McFeeley. “Some states have very good rules in specific areas — like Colorado’s new rules on methane emissions — but they have holes in other areas. States like to imply they’re doing a great job across the board by touting specific regulations, when they often have holes in other areas.” And even with good rules on the books they’re often weakly enforced. Enforcement is a major concern, he added.

Would disclosing the chemicals really make fracking safer?

Disclosure is a useful tool, it may encourage companies to use safer formulas, especially if they realize their competitors are using safer chemicals. “If we have a solid regime of disclosure along with water testing it can help identify the source of contamination. But there are a whole host of other regulations that need to exist — well integrity, air pollution, wastewater treatment and disposal, and site reclamation,” McFeeley said.

The EPA hasn’t done anything around well integrity (ensuring that wells don’t leak into aquifers and other water sources) because of the loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, where Cheney ’s buddies from Halliburton worked together to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Some states have created new rules around air pollution or around wastewater. There is some naturally occurring radioactivity in the waste, which can cause problems if it gets into water treatment plants.

With site reclamation, a bond must be posted so that, if the company goes bust, they can’t just walk away without properly plugging it.

How much water is consumed by fracking operations? What is being done to ensure wastewater is treated and recycled?

Water use can vary a fair amount in different areas. It’s not uncommon to use 6-8 million gallons of water in one well. Fracking itself can take a couple of days, up to a week, until the process of fracturing the rock is finished and a well starts producing oil or gas. Some water remains in the formation, and often the wastewater that does come out of the well is so filled with salt and heavy metals that it’s disposed into a different well. These are called “injection wells” and there have been a host of problems like earthquakes and contamination associated with them. These wells exist only to hold this toxic waste. Most, if not all, of the water used in fracking is permanently lost in the water cycle. The chemicals used can actually reduce the effectiveness of the treatment system. Pennsylvania banned fracking wastewater from their treatment plants, because of these problems.

What about methane emissions? How does fracking compare to other sources?

There’s a lot of debate now on the level of methane at oil and gas wells. Bottom-up studies measure emissions at well sites and add them all up. That’s how the EPA does their GHG inventory. Top-down studies fly over an oil & gas basin, generally with planes fitted with methane sensors to measure total methane from those fields then subtract what should be coming from the wells from what is from other sources.

The top-down studies show much higher emissions than the bottom-up studies do. The top-down studies seem to be capturing stuff the bottom-down studies are missing. One possibility for this missing element is super-emitters, who might not be keeping their sites properly maintained. Look at latest GHG inventory to see how Oil & Gas compares in total methane emissions. EPA has also just released white papers on methane from Oil & Gas. President Obama, the EPA, and the Federal Bureau of Land Management are all looking at taking action around reducing methane.

In the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, they’re flaring so much gas, it lights the place up like Manhattan at night. While drilling for oil, they’re burning millions of dollars a month in natural gas because the infrastructure hasn’t caught up.

Related stories and reports, on CleanTechnica and elsewhere:

Here’s what to expect from Obama’s big new climate rules

EDF Burned By Its Own Fracking Study, Sez Gas Experts

Closing the Power Plant Carbon Pollution Loophole: Smart Ways the Clean Air Act Can Clean Up America’s Biggest Climate Polluters [PDF]

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About the Author

Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. Which is why she's now based in Barcelona, Spain and happy to live in a city moving rapidly toward complete freedom from cars. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, urban mobility, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders.

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