A landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing conducted by the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh found no evidence that chemicals from a drilling site moved up to contaminate nearby drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site. The study was the first in which a drilling company let government scientists place tracers into the drilling fluid to follow the movement of the fluid and determine if it is capable of reaching shallow aquifers. The results of the study, though preliminary, showed that the chemically treated fluid used in the drilling process stayed thousands of feet below the aquifers that provide drinking water.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a process that has been developing since the 1970′s and is now a widespread way of accessing unconventional sources of oil and gas. It is used as a method for stimulating wells in order to maximize the extraction of certain natural resources. Recent technological developments with horizontal drilling and hydrofracking (a process involving the injection of large quantities of fluid into a well) have made available many shale formations that had been either physically or economically impossible to access.

This study shows that fracking can be carried out safely in certain situations; however, it likely will not ease the fears of local property owners facing the risk of contaminated water.  This is primarily due to the fact that the safety of any well is highly dependent on the construction and operation of the particular well. Poor construction, surface spills, and wastewater pose continuing risks despite the safety of the wells in the study. Additionally, there is the concern that this company, being aware of an upcoming study, took extra precautions with the operation of the well in order to demonstrate its safety, and thus did not represent a typical fracking operation.

Furthermore, opponents of fracking have complained not only against the potential for contaminations due to poorly constructed wells, but also the lack of transparency in the fracking fluid used.  While certain chemical additives are voluntarily disclosed by drilling companies on websites such as Fracfocus.org, many chemical additives are claimed as trade secrets and are not disclosed to the general public. Therefore, even if the chances of water contamination are low, the secrecy involving the chemical additives and fear of the unknown risks decrease the impact of this study.

The domestic energy revolution from the exploitation of shale gas now accessible through fracking has led to major economic benefits for certain areas of the country. Additionally, the Energy Information Administration predicts U.S. natural gas production to increase 44% by 2040. With this enormous economic upside, it will be interesting to see how state and federal regulators will respond to the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing technology, and to the use of trade secret protection to maintain the confidentiality of proprietary chemical additives used in the process.
- John Craven

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3 Responses to Focus on Fracking

  1. Emma says:

    Great post! While I agree that it’s nice to see independent studies as Mike says, I think John makes a good point that a study such as this one isn’t as convincing as it could be because of the potential for results that aren’t representative of the typical situation. I’m sure getting a study out there like this is a big win for drilling companies, and so the incentive is certainly there for taking special precautions and the like. The trade secret issue is a complicated one as well with the tension between wanting to foster innovation and competition by allowing companies to protect their methods and wanting to ensure that such methods are safe. With the potential money at stake, it seems likely that we will continue to hear a lot about efforts to resolve some of these issues in the near future.

  2. Jeff Sheehan says:

    John, you do a nice job calling attention to a few related reasons for the fear that Michael mentions. Its clear that an industry that requires the public to trust the well operators who can’t trust the public is going to have some troubles. Add to that the people who have sufficient concerns about the CO2 released by any fossil fuels that they would be happy to deliberatly overregulate to reduce carbon emissions even if there were no legitimate concerns about secret chemicals. It’s the invisible threats from fracking (in contrast to the recent visible-from-space failures in other drilling operations) that make people uneasy. I’m also glad to see research that might eventually lead to more routine monitoring.

  3. Michael Silliman says:

    Great post, John. I’m glad to see some independent studies being done on fracking. I think there is a lot of misinformation and fear mongering surrounding the technique. While regulation and oversight are obviously important for such a dangerous industry, I hope that studies like this will get the attention they deserve so we don’t regulate ourselves out of the market. Fracking is going to be a massive part of the U.S. economy, and it will be important to regulate it effectively and responsibly.