At nine out of ten natural gas wells in the United States, gas is released from deep underground pockets by fracturing rocks with a high-pressure water, chemical, and sand solution. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is not regulated by the federal government and, in fact, is exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, in spite of suspicions in six states that the process is responsible for groundwater contamination.
Fracking Often Used But Rarely Regulated
The natural gas industry uses hydraulic fracturing injection wells, also known as “fracking,” in 31 U.S. states, but only ten regulate the process. Injection fluid uses millions of gallons of water, often from water-stressed areas, that end up in waste-water pools contaminated with oil, drilling mud, and chemicals, including benzene and other carcinogens. Two oil field companies recently acknowledged that they are using diesel fuel in their injection fluids, prompting a U.S. House of Representatives investigation into the matter.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption prevents them from adequately investigating claims by state officials that the industry is responsible for groundwater contamination or gas leaks and exploding drinking-water wells in nearby towns.
You may have even seen this illustrative clip from the documentary, Gasland:
EPA Finally Looking Into Groundwater Contamination from Natural Gas Injection Wells
Last week, EPA announced that it would undertake an analysis “to answer questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment” with “a transparent, peer-reviewed process” and “significant stakeholder input.” While clean water advocates generally viewed the announcement as good news, battles in New York state and out West over drilling projects that residents fear will contaminate their well water and worse are unlikely to wait for it.
Industry Defends Secret Chemical Formulas and Exemption from Environmental Laws
The industry defended their right to secret chemical solutions and unregulated drilling before Congressional panels last summer. To support their case, they trotted out studies by the Department of Energy that are under fire for bias and were conducted by researchers also on the payroll of petroleum and gas companies.
In response to the EPA’s announcement about plans to study the process, Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry-backed group Energy in Depth told a Greenwire reporter: “Assuming the study’s methodology is technically sound, its evaluations are science-based, and its conclusions are peer-reviewed, there’s really only one credible outcome this project can produce… and – spoiler alert – it’s not the one that opponents of responsible shale gas exploration are clamoring for.” (Anybody else think the industry will try to focus the debate on the peer review process rather than the facts?)
Learn More about Natural Gas Injection Well Drilling
Pro-publica, an independent, non-profit news organization, has a fantastic series of investigative reports on hydraulic fracturing. You can see illustrations of injection wells and learn more than you ever thought you needed to know. Environment America and the Environmental Working Group recently issued reports on the issue.
Take Action for Clean Water
Congresswoman Diane DeGette (D-CO) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) are spearheading an effort in Congress to repeal the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption and require companies to disclose the chemicals used (H.R. 2766 and S. 1215 respectively). Another bill, the Clean Water Protection Act, would strengthen EPA’s and in dealing with all mining waste in drinking water, including injection fluid contamination. You can sign the Care2 petition in support of the CWPA here.
So Just How Green is “Clean Energy” … Really? discusses how the natural gas industry is trying to get classified as clean, right along with solar and wind energy.
Natural gas injection well rig for hydraulic fracturing in the Powder River Basin between Buffalo and Gillette, WY. Source: U.S. Department of Energy