Hydraulic Fracking or: Why is My Water On Fire??

Natural gas has lately been touted as a superior alternative to other fossil fuels.  It’s available domestically, in large amounts, and it burns cleaner.  The latest method used to recover natural gas, however, has recently come under scrutiny.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a method used to stimulate and release natural gas from shale rock formations.  A hole is drilled then water is forced into the rock, creating a fracture.  Particulates such as sand or ceramic are also forced in to keep the fracture open so the natural gas can be recovered.  Chemical additives are also used for various reasons, such as corrosion inhibitors to maintain the well, biocides to kill bacteria and acid to ease entry into the rock.

The two biggest problems with the use of fracking to recover natural gas are methane leaks into the air and water contamination.

The amount of methane leaked from fracked wells is higher than the amount of methane leaked from conventional wells; some figures put it at a third to twice as much.  And because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, it could actually do more environmental damage than coal.  According to a study conducted by Cornell University professors, “The [greenhouse gas] footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.” 

The second problem is the potential for contamination of groundwater.  A study by Duke University scientists of water wells within one kilometer of gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York found high levels of methane in the water.  High enough, in fact, to be potential explosion hazards.

In addition to methane, other potential contaminants originate from the chemicals used in the fracturing fluid.  Natural gas companies are not currently required to make available a list of ingredients used (stating that it is proprietary information) but an inquiry started by the House Energy and Commerce Committee found that over 650 of the products used in fracking are “…known or possible carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.”    Some of the chemicals found inlude benzene, formaldehyde and ethanol. 

In Dimock, PA, the residents had their aquifer contaminated after Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas, began fracking for natural gas.  Soon after drilling began, residents reported brown, corrosive water with a foul odor and taste.  Residents also began suffering from headaches, dizziness and other ailments.  In 2009 a resident’s well exploded, causing the state to begin investigating.  Cabot was banned from drilling in PA until it plugged three gas wells that were believed to have been the source of the contamination.  Despite many state penalizations and lawsuits against them, Cabot repeatedly failed to correct many of the other problems found.

In April of this year, a natural gas well in Leroy Township, PA spilled, contaminating a nearby creek with millions of gallons of fracking fluid, resulting in seven families evacuated from the area.

At least the EPA has finally announced that they will examine claims of water contamination in Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Louisiana and North Dakota.  And New Jersey has banned fracking while New York has proposed a ban on fracking near state land and watersheds. 

Natural gas is NOT the superior alternative to other fossil fuels when it is procured by these means.  Do not let frakking happen in your community, unless, of course, you want to be able to set your tap water on fire.


Resources: Natural Gas Watch  New York Times