Fracking’s Impact On Water Quality

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Originally Published in the ECOreport

All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue
All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue

Dr Allan Hoffman recently compared the fracking boom to the market for illegal drugs. Regardless of the problems, there is simply too much money to be made, and he expects the boom to continue for several decades. Together with Professor EM Gustav Olsson, of Lund University, and Andreas Lindström, of Stockholm International Water Institute, Hoffman has just written a report entitled, “Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue.” As the title suggests, the focus is fracking’s impact on water quality.

Shale gas is so abundant, and production costs so cheap compared to other fuel sources, that the authors predict the boom is just beginning.

All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue
All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue

Living in a province (BC) whose Premier sees natural gas exploitation as a trillion-dollar opportunity, I found much to reinforce my concerns.

Hoffman et al. claim the number of incidents is relatively small. Their report is not the spin you sometimes find in industry publications. To the contrary, they cataloged the problems, and that gives them credibility in my eyes.

In the executive summary, the authors state (p 5):

Water quality is also under threat from fracking as well as the quantity available. Many chemicals used in the fracking fluid (the composition of which is often protected for commercial confidentiality reasons) have increasingly been found to be harmful both to the environment and to human health, yet poor regulations and legislation governing fracking often allow accidents which contaminate surrounding water sources.”

Some drought stricken Californians can attest to the report’s comment (p 14) about energy generation being given a priority for water “in mature economies such as the EU and the US.”

Among the questions yet to be answered, there are (p 7)“the climate impacts of methane leaks during fracking operations and of CO2 released when methane is combusted… as well as the risks of contamination and depletion of water resources”

All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue
All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue

(p 20) “ … There have been several mishaps with hydraulic fracturing affecting groundwater aquifiers. Often the regulations have been far from strict and not strongly enforced by the regulators (Gruver, 2011). As long as there is not a transparent and strongly regulated operation in is difficult to minimize or remove all the risks…”

There is a section about micro-quakes. One of the examples cited (p 21) is the six earthquakes, ranging from 2.6 to 3.8 in intensity, that hit Oklahoma during a two day period in April 2014.

“ … According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, ‘ … not even four months into 2014 the state has already experienced more earthquakes (252) than it did in the entirety of 2013 – itself a record breaking year with 222 quakes recorded.”

The authors believe most of the excesses can be eliminated. The key is (p 5) “ … developing codes of conduct and regulatory systems governing fracking so as to protect water resources and the environment. It should be adopted by all nations currently exploiting or liable to exploit shale resources as part of their energy supply.”

Have the governments of the US, or Canada, or any of their states/provinces shown themselves willing, or capable, of making the welfare of their people a priority in this issue?

Anyone who has looked into situations like this can probably cite individual politicians whose dedication to their people is obvious, but collectively, the picture is not as encouraging.

So far, there has been little to suggest the current Canadian government is composed of anything more than industry stooges.

In the US, (p 21) the shale gas industry is exempt from regulations under the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the industry does not have to disclose what chemicals it is pumping into the ground.

However, four American states have taken a lead to bring this situation under control:

(p 21) “ … As a result of this increased seismic activity in the mid US, and despite denials of a possible linkage between fracking and earthquakes by the American Petroleum Association (‘Shale Energy: 10 Points Everyone Should Know’ API October 2013) state officials from Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas and Kansas have recently initiated efforts to co-ordinate and strengthen regulations and permitting standards for fracking operations.”

All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue
All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue

The authors of this report conclude (p 29):

“… The financial and other benefits of fracking are too great to stop it, despite the risks, and we will have to deal with fracking for many decades ahead. Investments in fracking are also likely to delay needed global investments in clean energy (efficiency and renewables). Careful understanding of the full spectrum of risks, and strict regulation of fracking at national, regional and local levels will be required. Given the costs involved in ameliorating risks we can expect some attempted shortcuts by extraction companies (especially smaller companies with limited financial resources) and occasion accidents. However this is true of other energy sources as well and is an inevitable part of supplying energy needs. It will be society’s job to create disincentives for these shortcuts, and to educate the public about the risks and tradeoffs, and to keep the pressure on the extraction companies and government officials to adhere to and enforce regulations.”

I would have to agree that vested interests like the natural gas industry are not easily defeated. This does not mean that it cannot be done, but it will not happen quickly and there are sacrifices involved.

This may not be as true in BC, where most natural gas is found on lands effected by aboriginal title, but that remains to be seen.

It is in the industry’s interest to ensure that whatever regulations are needed come into effect.

I would recommend “Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue” to anyone who wishes to know more about the impact fracking has on local communities. It is published by the Swedish International Water Institute and an online copy can be accessed through their website

The Print version is expected shorty.

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Roy L Hales

is the President of Cortes Community Radio , CKTZ 89.5 FM, where he has hosted a half hour program since 2014, and editor of the Cortes Currents (formerly the ECOreport), a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of British Columbia. He is a research junkie who has written over 2,000 articles since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.

Roy L Hales has 441 posts and counting. See all posts by Roy L Hales