July 1, 2022
(NEW YORK) — The practice of hydraulic fracturing — often known as fracking — has received a significant amount of public attention in the past decade or so. This attention centers around the many complex and often controversial aspects of this particular oil and natural gas exploration process.
As a whole, when analyzing the facts related to hydraulic fracturing, there are clearly some economic benefits to areas that experience an uptick in this practice. However, when looking at the ecological harms associated with this process, there are significant environmental, health, and legal downsides which outweigh any potential upsides.
Dr. R. Paul Philp, professor emeritus of environmental and petroleum geochemistry at the University of Oklahoma, has researched and lectured on the topic of fracking for many years now. Philp explains that fracking began in the mid-nineteenth century in order to fracture rock for water wells, which was known as vertical fracturing. As time progressed the process began to be utilized for oil wells, which Philp believes has had certain economic benefits but also possessed multiple environmental risks as well.
“The big difference, or advance I guess, came in what would have been the late 1980s, 1990s in the Barnett shale in the Fort Worth basin, where they were looking for gas at that time. That was where they started developing the drilling of horizontal wells,” Philp said. “The idea is to fracture the rock with the water, that’s down there at high pressures, and then force the sand into the fractures, and then that keeps the fractures open so you can produce the oil or the gas.”
Hannah Wiseman, a law professor at Penn State University who specializes in Energy and Environmental law issues, said that fracking has become controversial because of the impact it makes.
“Hydraulic fracturing involves a variety of risks — both socially and environmentally — and it also tends to attract very polarized political opinions,” Wiseman said.
Of these risks, water issues have been at the forefront of the debate over fracking over the past few decades. Due to the fact that fracking requires chemicals to be injected into the earth’s atmosphere, there has been a widespread focus on potential problems of water contamination in areas where the fracturing process occurs.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study in December 2016, which examined the effects of hydraulic fracturing on water sources throughout the United States. In the executive summary, the study notes that there are various factors that have the ability to have a major impact on water quality or safety.
These factors, according to the study, include “injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gasses or liquids to move to groundwater resources” as well as “spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources.”
Much of the opposition to fracking, on the citizen level, has come from activists on the ground. Many of these activists have been following the practice of fracking for years and view hydraulic fracturing as a significant environmental hazard.
One such activist, Sharon Wilson, is well known for her journeys across the state of Texas in order to document the environmental impacts of fracking. In 2010, she started working with Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project and has taken videos and pictures of various different fracking sites.
Wilson got involved in documenting fracking after she “moved out to the country, from Fort Worth to Wise County out by the LBJ National Grasslands.”
She said, “I didn’t know at the time that George Mitchell, the father of fracking, was experimenting and learning how to marry the two technologies — horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — so he could produce oil and gas from the shale. I got a ringside seat to that circuit. My air turned brown and my water turned black and that’s how I got involved,” she says.
Wilson has gone on to document fracking sites across the state of Texas in recent years. She used cameras with infrared technology in order to document the emissions and environmental hazards that emanate from fracking and drilling sites.
The advent of the horizontal drilling practice, which increased rapidly during the 1990s, created a situation whereby companies were able to drill for large amounts of oil and natural gas compared to the older vertical drilling technique.
This, in turn, is what has led to the expansion of fracking in recent decades. The horizontal drilling, combined with fracturing rock, with the use of water and sand, is what makes up the process of hydraulic fracturing.
In addition, Wilma Subra is an environmental scientist who is the technical director at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and serves as President of the Subra Company. She has significant experience in looking at environmental hazards related to fracking and oil and gas exploration. In the late 1980s, Subra was one of the experts that testified to Congress with regard when they were considering revising the regulatory framework on emissions.
“It went to Congress and there were two types of wastes — high toxicity low volume waste and low toxicity high volume waste,” said Subra.
Congress, in the late 1980s, decided to regulate the industry as solid waste and the “EPA came out and said ‘we’re going to set up a mechanism where we made sure state programs are adequate to protect human health and the environment. So, they put together a stakeholder group that was industry, regulators, and non-profit. I was one of the non-profit representatives from the beginning and I did that until 2020,” she said.
Additionally, Subra said, “when hydraulic fracturing came along [in the late 1990s and early 2000s], we developed hydraulic fracturing guidelines. We actually went into a number of states that we had already reviewed for all the other programs and did specific hydraulic fracturing reviews for whether or not their programs were adequate and what did they need to add to regulate hydraulic fracturing.”
She said, “At the same time, I was going out in Pennsylvania and the adjacent states and doing workshops in the communities about what hydraulic fracturing is, the formation that they’re going after, and the toxic chemicals they are using — fracking fluid — that then comes back as flow and is going to be distributed across the environment.”
Another significant source of concern that has arisen from the fracking boom is the implications for property owners in areas where this process is occurring. Since fracking took off in the United States, there has been a great deal of tension between property owners and various companies who are engaged in shale and natural gas exploration.
A prominent example of this took place in a court case called Briggs v. Southwestern Energy Production Company, which took place in Pennsylvania. This case centered around a property owner and his family who sued an energy company in a dispute over a concept known as the “rule of capture.” This concept centers around the notion of whether or not companies have “the right to extract or ‘capture’ an underground resource such as water, oil or gas, even if it flows from beneath another property owner’s land.” Briggs was arguing that this legal concept did not apply to the extraction of oil and natural gas.
A lower court initially ruled in favor of the energy company, until it was appealed and an appellate court ruled in favor of Briggs in 2018. However, in 2020, when the case went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, they decided that the aforementioned “right to extract” beneath someone else’s property also applied to oil and natural gas.
This situation, perhaps, received the most amount of public attention in the last decade or so with videos from property owners who either leased or lived nearby land where fracking of shale was taking place. Many of these videos showed tap water being lit on fire by homeowners in an area surrounding a fracking site.
Around this same time period, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), wh a scientific journal, published a peer-reviewed study that established a definitive link between these water-related incidents to traces of chemicals, which stemmed from the practice of hydraulic fracturing.
Similarly, issues of environmental injustice have been a source of concern to many in regions near fracking areas. These concerns were reinforced in a 2016 scientific journal study which demonstrated that “fracking wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region are disproportionately located in poor rural communities, which bear the brunt of associated pollution.”
Wiseman, a law professor at Penn State University, said, “This has resulted in, from time in property disputes and litigation, as well. There’s this disparate impact on property owners. When they [landowners] lease to an oil and gas company, they get money for leasing the minerals. They can also put in a bunch of conditions for testing the quality of the water, prohibiting spills, etc.”
However, she said, “I think the challenge is for the other landowners nearby who are not part of the lease. In places like Colorado, there are wells in the middle of suburban neighborhoods and near schools. Same with Fort Worth, Texas.”
“To some degree, their only remedy is to go to the courts when they feel that regulation has not adequately protected them,” says Wiseman.
Health Risks of Fracking
Health risks have been examined by doctors for years as it relates to oil and natural gas. When looking at the health consequences of hydraulic fracturing, there are numerous studies, including one released by the group Physicians for Social Responsibility in tandem with Concerned Health Professionals of NY. This analysis, released in 2020, pinpoints the potential health ramifications of hydraulic fracturing. The findings state that “Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly and without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.”
There are also regulatory frameworks in place as it relates to health and occupational concerns that are connected to fracking. Dr. Carl Werntz is a physician in Morgantown, West Virginia, who specializes in the environmental and occupational health field. He has observed various patients over the years that have either worked in the oil and gas industry or live near drilling or fracking sites. Thus, he has seen numerous health issues that have been associated with fracking, over the years.
Following his residency, Werntz said he “located here in North-Central West Virginia. Just west and north of us [in Morgantown] is one of the ‘wet gas’ regions, which is where the natural gas has more ethane and propane in it and makes it more economically viable than just plain old natural gas. That was one of the earliest areas that was developed when they worked out the whole fracking thing.”
Hydraulic fracturing began to the west of the Morgantown area around 2006. In the early years of fracking, there were numerous complications for hydraulic fracturing as opposed to areas in the southwest, such as Texas. “In West Virginia, the roads were all windy and twisty and you can’t get there with the big vehicles that were designed for this use. So they would start doing some pretty crazy things, like having people hand mix chemicals — they’d just give them a big plastic tote bin and a stick — and having them mix the chemicals in there, getting themselves very exposed to chemicals,” said Werntz.
However, as Werntz said, “Even the industry realized that was not safe and has improved on that significantly. They’ve designed trucks and approaches to doing the things they need to do that can go up the roads in Appalachia and access to rural areas that we need to do stuff here. That’s part of it — the industry is getting better,” said Werntz
Subra used to work for the analytical chemistry and environmental science program, where she said she did “all the protocols for EPA on cancer studies and all, because there weren’t any protocols and the universities didn’t have programs, and all the toxicology programs as well. We developed all the methods and we did all the testing. We were testing on rats, and mice, and monkeys, and you name it.”
She said, “As part of that, I had what was called a quick response program with the EPA,” in order to track chemicals in the air and soil.
“When the EPA did the report, they were only allowed to give the summary. Frequently, the summary said ‘no excess cancer risk,’ and I knew the data showed something totally different. So, in 1981, I left the research institute and formed my own company — Subra Company — and I set up an analytical lab and I did the environmental consulting. My aim was to reduce the exposure of all the community members being exposed to very toxic substances, from industrial facilities and their environment, as well,” said Subra.
Link to Earthquakes
There are some external ecological phenomena that have been linked to this process as well. For example, earthquakes have risen in areas where fracking has frequently occurred in recent years. In years prior to the fracking boom throughout the U.S.— particularly in the Southwestern states — earthquakes and tremors occurred every once in a while. However, in recent years, the number of earthquakes has set new records. In fact, in 2021, an analysis by the Texas Tribune showed that the state of Texas, in particular, saw a doubling of the amount of earthquakes. This was specifically linked to the injection of water into the ground from fracking.
There has been a widespread shift in the energy portfolio of many countries in recent years, as a global push toward decarbonization has taken place. In 2015, the monumental Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States entered into during the Obama administration, sought to limit carbon emissions from numerous countries around the globe. As a whole, hydraulic fracturing is clearly in conflict with these climate-related goals. In the meantime, as it relates to hydraulic fracturing, in the absence of any significant climate legislation at a federal level, it is clear many of these processes will continue for the foreseeable future.