Pervasive Natural Gas Extraction Technique Raises Concerns

Imagine waking up one day to find the well-water you'd been drinking for years smells like sulfur. You take a shower and your skin becomes irritated and itches terribly. And later some of your farm animals die. That's exactly what happened in 2007 to three families living in Grandview near Fort Worth. The families blamed the contaminated water on nearby gas wells that were being drilled using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracing for short. Sharon Wilson is from the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability project.

"The families did their own private testing and they did hire a lawyer and the evidence points to, that the fracing was responsible. But of course the producer and the fracing company both denied any responsibility at all."

Since then—and in light of similar instances—hydraulic fracturing has been at the center of a heated environmental debate, especially among environmentalists and people living near fracing sites. The method has been around for decades is widely used as a cost effective way to increase natural gas production, but critics fear that the chemicals used in the process will leak into ground water. Alejandro Savransky is from Environment Texas.

"That's been a huge huge boom recently in North Texas, in Pennsylvania, in New York, and is very controversial as well because of the potential environmental impacts that this type of drilling has."

Today, more than ninety percent of natural gas wells in the U.S. use hydraulic fracturing. The process goes like this: To unlock natural gas trapped in shale rock, millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals then powerfully injected a mile or two into the shale to create cracks or fractures. The gas is then released and can flow to the surface. The main issue with this method is the mixture, known as fracturing fluid. Savransky says the chemicals in the fluid are dangerous—even if they are only one percent of the entire mixture.

"You know we're talking about really bad stuff like benzene, methanol, carcinogens that actually affect reproductive health."

To combat the possibility of water contamination, Amy Mall from the National Resource Defense Council says there needs to be more regulation, research and oversight. But fracing regulations are few and far between.

"In 2005, congress passed a law called the Energy Policy Act and it's a very big law. But one of things it did was create this loophole and said the EPA, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, should not regulate hydraulic fracturing."

But that could soon change. The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness Act, dubbed the FRAC Act has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The legislation basically says that hydraulic fracturing should be federally regulated by the EPA. It would also require the energy industry to disclose the ingredients used in the fracturing fluid.

The oil and gas industry oppose the FRAC Act and feel more regulation is unnecessary. Lee Fuller from the Independent Petroleum Association for America maintains that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that there is no evidence linking fracing to water contamination. He says fracing operations take many precautions, like protective steel casing for example, to prevent any chemicals from seeping into ground water.

"What that does is it keeps anything that's coming up the well bore from getting into the ground water, whether that's the gas, or the produced water or the fracturing fluids."

The FRAC Act will be voted on sometime in the new year.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Wendy Siegle.

hydraullic fracturing natural gas
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