What’s the real story behind fracking? The question is a viable one when it comes to the process of hydraulic fracturing, or extracting oil and gas from shale rock deposits deep below the Earth’s surface. Fracking in the United States currently stands in the crosshairs of a scientific, environmental and political debate that has raised more questions than answers.
In this instance, there are more than two sides to the coin. Each side has its opinion, each side has its research and each side has its motivations—which means we as a nation do not have a consensus. Does fracking contaminate the drinking supply? Is it a long-term option to help reduce energy costs? Does it cause earthquakes? Is it no more toxic than household chemicals?
The one thing all sides do agree on is the need for answers, to these questions and many more. The pathway to answers is simple—more research. According to PSE Healthy Energy, an organization that collects peer-reviewed papers on fracking, of the approximately 550 papers in their repository now, 75 percent of them have been authored in the last year and a half.
“That tells you there is a rapid increase in the amount of scientific investigation going on,” PSE founder and president Anthony Ingraffea told Laboratory Equipment. Ingraffea, a retired professor of engineering at Cornell University, is considered an expert on hydraulic fracturing, even consulting on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent report.
Given this increasing amount of research, it can be difficult to get a handle on all subsequent information and data. This article examines recent news concerning the most talked-about applications surrounding fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing is not new; the process has been around for decades. What is new is what the technology drills into—shale rock. There are hundreds of miles of shale rock in the U.S. that, until recent years, were largely untapped natural gas reserves. For example, the well-known Marcellus Shale Region runs 600 miles at 900 feet deep along the Appalachian Basis in the Eastern U.S., touching New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
In the 80s and 90s, traditional gas and oil wells targeted specific underground pools where the resources collected. If you drilled into the pool, you got lucky. If you missed, you made a dry hole. Conversely, if a shale region is found to be abundant with gas, you could drill anywhere the rock formation is present.
This is where the controversy picks up. Unlike traditional methods, this unconventional fracking method calls for an abundant amount of gas wells to be placed in a single region in order to get as much as possible out of the shale formation.
“It is an issue of spatial intensity,” Ingraffea said. “There are gas well pads across from schools and swimming pools and between the runways of the airport. There are pads within a few hundred feet of private property because the gas and oil is everywhere.”
Five years in the making, the EPA released its “Hydraulic Fracturing Drinking Water Assessment” report in early June. The draft report, which was commissioned in 2010 by Congress, concluded that fracking has not had a significant impact on water supplies, but remains cautious of possible risks.
“We did not find evidence that [above and below ground] mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” the EPA report reads. “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”
Two sentences later the report says there is insufficient pre- and post-hydraulic fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources, which inhibits a determination of the frequency of impacts.
Since its release, the draft report has received flak for being nothing more than a 1,000+ page literature review on already-published information.
“There is no original data or original analysis,” Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told Laboratory Equipment. “It would have benefited from more widespread sampling, especially in waste streams and basins. Another thing it did not have was any recommended practices, which I think [EPA] should have done.”
Read the entire article on the Labratory Equipment website.