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US Water Woes Add Punch To AP Fracking Report

The Associated Press has been doing a bang-up job of covering fracking issues lately, and over the weekend they released a bombshell fracking report that set fire to the tubes. The new fracking report focuses on oil and gas fracking wells that are classified as higher pollution risks, many because they are located near vulnerable watersheds. That’s really piling on to the squeeze on US water resources resulting from drought and overuse.

New AP fracking report underscores water risks

New AP fracking report underscores water risks (image by Mohd Althani).

The New AP Fracking Report

We were tipped to the new fracking report by our friends over at Al Jazeera America. The full story is worth a read but here it is in a nutshell:

Four in 10 new oil and gas wells near national forests and fragile watersheds or otherwise identified as higher pollution risks escape federal inspection, unchecked by an agency struggling to keep pace with America’s drilling boom, according to an Associated Press review that shows wide state-by-state disparities in safety checks.

As for why there is no consistent state-to-state oversight (that would mean you, federal government), the stock answer is that oil and gas fracking won an exemption to federal clean water regulation under the Bush/Cheney administration, which is about what you’d expect when you hire two oil industry executives to run your national affairs.

The situation is further complicated in states where local decisions about fracking are trumped by permissive state regulations.

However, there are still a number of compliance issues that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management oversees on federal and Native American lands, and that is where AP has focused its attention.

To reduce the federal problem down to the bare bones, you have far too many new wells, far too few public inspection resources, and an expectation that the industry can fill in the gaps.

In terms of the inspection resources, AP points out that the starting salary for a petroleum engineer is about $90,000, while a similarly-qualified post at the Bureau of Land Management pays about $35,000. Congress would have to cough up some big bucks to bridge that gap, which is not likely to happen given the Republican-dominated squeeze on federal finances.

Note: according to AP, not all of the wells in the report are fracked, but fracked wells make up the vast majority — about 90 percent — of new well drilled on federal property.

Others AP Fracking Reports

The latest AP report didn’t just drop in out of the blue. Back in January, AP toted up the numbers for a report on fracking-related water contamination in certain states, including hotspot Pennsylvania.

In April AP also spotlighted new evidence that fracking can directly cause earthquakes. That’s a significant finding because until recently, the only evidence for fracking-related earthquakes was linked to the practice of disposing vast quantities of fracking wastewater by injecting it into unused wells.

In May AP followed up with a startling report on skyrocketing deaths linked to increased truck traffic in drilling areas, in direct opposition to an improvement in road safety nationwide over the same period.

The traffic issue also relates to water resource issues, in terms of the risk of accidental or deliberate spills from trucks hauling wastewater. One alternative to shipping wastewater by truck would be to ship it by barge, but that of course gives rise to a whole new water risk issue.

The earthquake hazard also has serious implications for water resource management related to built water infrastructure such as dams, aqueducts, and water mains.

 

As for the wastewater issue, it has been bubbling up recently because, typically, the longer an injection well is in use, the more pressure is needed to get the wastewater in there. The increased pressure is what seems to be breaking the camel’s back, so expect more to seismic activity in the future as more and more active wells keep churning out wastewater (for those of you new to the topic, modern fracking operations require vast quantities of water).

Quite A Fracking Turnaround for AP

This year’s spate of critical stories represents a big 180 for AP, which in July 2012 penned a love letter the gas fracking industry under the header “Experts: Some fracking critics use bad science.”

The article starts off here:

In the debate over natural gas drilling, the companies are often the ones accused of twisting the facts. But scientists say opponents sometimes mislead the public, too.

Critics of fracking often raise alarms about groundwater pollution, air pollution, and cancer risks, and there are still many uncertainties. But some of the claims have little — or nothing— to back them.

…and ends up here:

…data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that the shale gas boom is helping to turn many large power plants away from coal, which emits far more pollution…

For the record, new methane leakage evidence (see also here) is showing that fossil natural gas is far less “clean” than previously thought in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

AP seems to be getting the message.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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