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Fracking Outpaces
Science on Its Impact

© Balazs Justin
Just a decade ago, only the smallest sliver of the U.S. population had even heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Today, it’s one of the most incendiary environmental topics going. In recent years, wells built for this form of natural gas extraction have spread by the thousands through various parts of the country, an expansion many argue outpaces the science done to understand its potential impacts. Whether fracking can continue spreading without major harm to the environment or public health, and whether it promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are questions researchers are still working to answer.
Fracking is a process for extracting natural gas from shale layers typically thousands of feet deep. These targeted shales aren’t especially permeable, meaning most of the gas is trapped. So drillers blast the rock layers with highly pressurized water containing chemicals that reduce friction between water and rock. The chemicals make up only a small fraction of the fluid. A few, such as ethylene glycol, are toxic, and some constituents of fluid mixes are protected as trade secrets. Sand in the mix helps to prop open the cracks that will release the natural gas. 
Fracking has dramatically increased the amount of natural gas accessible to drillers in the United States. Indeed, after natural gas imports peaked in 2007, the country has seen a boom in domestic production and in construction of natural gas power plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that by 2035 electricity production using natural gas will roughly double to meet about half the country’s electricity needs.
Key natural gas sources, like the Marcellus-Utica shale beds beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, are typically situated beneath rural regions. Some people living in such areas and benefiting from jobs or sales of drilling rights welcome the expansion. But many other residents have grown increasingly fearful that natural gas extraction using fracking might unintentionally foul their water supplies and other environmental resources.
As fracking and associated issues have gained increasing attention, interest in the topic has spread far beyond those living in the shale regions. “People have widely varying opinions,” says James Saiers, professor of hydrology at F&ES. “But my experience suggests that these opinions are often not very informed.” He and others at Yale are taking part in a panel discussion on September 18 on a topic that is literally reshaping many parts of the country.
In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.
— EPA administrator Lisa Jackson
Perhaps the greatest fear tied to fracking is that the process and associated activities will contaminate drinking water sources. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a natural-gas industry representative, maintained in a recent press release that there have been “… no proven cases of hydraulic fracturing impacting groundwater.” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has similarly, though more equivocally, said, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” But there are several routes by which fracking could at least potentially cause problems.
Despite the high pressures involved with fracking, researchers such as Saiers say it’s unlikely that the fracking itself, which might occur a mile or more below the surface, could actually blast a path to drinking water sources, which are typically just a few hundred feet down. “That’s a reasonable assumption,” says Saiers, based on definitive microseismic studies conducted during fracking operations. “A lot of qualified hydrologists would believe that.”

Supporting Research and Affected Communities

Philip JohnsonWhen Phil Johnson first left Yale to become a senior officer with The Heinz Endowments’ environment program, hydraulic fracturing was the last thing he thought he’d be working on. Though he grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., situated above part of the Marcellus-Utica Shale, he, like most people at that time in 2009, barely knew what fracking was.
But the topic was beginning to raise concerns in Pennsylvania, where the organization focuses its work. So Heinz asked Johnson, who has both public health and environmental science master’s degrees from Yale and will receive his FES Ph.D. shortly, to explore how the organization could best support fracking research and community activities. “New extraction activity was emerging before our eyes,” says Johnson. “We wanted to get up to speed quickly to determine what, if any, kind of grant-making we could do to address it.”
As Johnson and program director Caren Glotfelty dug into the topic, one of the first priorities they identified was establishing baseline health and environmental data to better discern potential problems. The realization of this need came, in part, after studying the experiences of people in areas such as Wyoming, where such baseline information was severely lacking. This was, for instance, making it very difficult for families and communities to tie air- and water-quality issues to fracking and related activities they felt were to blame.
“If you don’t have baseline knowledge, it’s hard to do decision-making,” says Johnson. “It’s hard to understand what the future scenarios might be and respond to them.”

With Heinz support, research groups around Pennsylvania have been able to develop monitoring techniques and datasets. Johnson points out that such work is just a start, as comprehensive monitoring would ultimately require support from a number of other sources—support that researchers are now better equipped to seek.
Heinz has made a concerted effort to support community groups gathering health and other information in the region and training others to do so. They have also supported the establishment of key information sources for residents, such as the website fracktracker.org. “The idea is that the more groups there are engaging in a coordinated fashion across a large geography, the more we’ll be able to collectively understand whether or not there are impacts—positive or negative—and at what scale.”
A related hypothesis is that cracks resulting from fracking make connections with existing cracks, allowing fluids and gases to migrate higher up than expected. Some modeling suggests it’s possible. Seismic tests can reveal where cracks run, but typically not to a degree that can determine whether there are continuous paths. Saiers says that systematic tests haven’t been done to fully prove this issue, leading to assumptions on both sides of the debate.
But there are other points of concern. If wells aren’t properly installed, specifically if there are problems with the concrete used to seal the space between the main well pipe and the surrounding earth, then fracking fluid or methane could find its way toward the surface via the improperly sealed space. Over time well pipes themselves can also corrode and leak, creating other pathways.
A related issue is that in some fracking regions, oil and natural gas drilling has been going on for decades or even a century, leaving a legacy of over 150,000 abandoned wells scattered about Pennsylvania alone. The old pipes or deteriorated concrete casings could be conduits between the upper and lower reaches. Initial investigation of a recent geyser of methane and water near fracking operations in Union Township, Penn., suggested that a 70-year-old abandoned and unmapped well might have been the methane pathway that caused the problem.
And, of course, while most attention focuses on the fracking itself, that process is only one component of an overall drilling operation. Various stages of fracking that have to do with handling fluids, for instance, offer at least the potential for spills or leaks that could affect water sources.
There have been some high-profile cases in Pavilion, Wyo., and Dimock, Penn, where government or other analyses have found elevated levels of volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and methane, in wells close to natural gas operations but without making definitive connections. And the documentary Gasland drew attention to cases of families plagued by well-water contamination issues they believe came about only after drilling began in their areas.

Natural gas companies have settled some legal claims with such homeowners, but without admission of guilt. Some researchers have raised questions about the accuracy of some of the material in Gasland, but Saiers says one thing about the film not in question is how it depicts the angst of families struggling with major water problems. “When it shows how people feel about it, that’s legitimate,” says Saiers. “And it’s important.”

In most cases, fracking operations are in less affluent rural areas where citizens often rely on private wells and have fewer resources to address water supply problems or to fight against companies they feel may be responsible. But Saiers says socioeconomic disparities don’t seem to be a key driver in where drilling spreads. The richest shale just tends to be in rural areas, and urban areas with far fewer open spaces are harder to tap anyway. “My impression is that these companies follow the gas,” he says.

Probing Insurance Industry’s Concern Over Fracking

Matthew JokajtysAfter completing a joint law and environmental management degree at F&ES and Pace in 2011, Matthew Jokajtys went to work for a global insurance company and was struck by a growing concern within the industry about fracking. As an extracurricular project, he dug into the topic, and the results of his inquiry will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Bar Association’s journal, Natural Resources and Environment Magazine.
In July Nationwide, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, announced it wouldn’t cover any personal or commercial claims for damages, such as drinking water contamination, potentially tied to fracking. Their argument is that this is not a new policy but simply a clarification of existing policy. And though Nationwide’s position has yet to be challenged in court, it’s a good indicator of fear and uncertainty in the industry.
“Based on what I’ve seen, it seems like the controversy surrounding insurance policies doesn’t necessarily stem directly from the act of fracking,” says Jokajtys, who now works at a boutique environmental law firm in Manhattan. “It stems partially from the controversy surrounding it.” In particular, the fierce stances some citizens are taking on fracking have insurance companies wary of what’s to come.
But with so much fracking activity, it’s clear that businesses will need the insurance issues settled, perhaps through companies offering new insurance products that directly cover fracking hazards claims.
Alternatively, some fear fracking could become uninsurable. Jokajtys says that would mean costs for related injuries, property damage or environmental declines would fall to individual companies, taxpayers or even the victims of any problems that might arise. Another option, he says, would be for states to set up funds to cover damages as they have for problems with leaking underground storage tanks.
“Insurance is all about pricing risk, and if the insurance industry doesn’t have enough information to accurately price that risk,” says Jokajtys, “they’re not going to want to develop and sell the products.”
There are, however, rich shales in the watershed that supplies New York City. That rural watershed remains untapped because the state of New York has a temporary moratorium on fracking as debate continues over the best permanent policy.
Flammable taps resulting from excessive methane are a dramatic display of problems potentially tied to fracking. Methane can make its way into drinking water through a variety of paths apart from fracking, such as from abandoned wells, because it exists throughout various subsurface layers. Saiers says peer-reviewed studies have found methane in drinking water aquifers prior to shale gas development.
A Duke University study of water wells in New York and Pennsylvania released last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that methane levels were significantly higher in wells closer to fracking operations. As important, the researchers found that, at least in some cases, this methane had a chemical signature closer to that of methane from the deep shale than from shallower subsurface layers.
“Not surprisingly the industry wasn’t overjoyed with our conclusions about methane,” says lead author Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke. But some environmentalists were upset too, he says, because the study also concluded there were no signs of fracking fluids in the wells, and some detractors felt they hadn’t done enough to test for this possibility. Then there were the people that called him up in tears because they were so thankful that someone was even looking closely at the issue.
Some also criticized Jackson’s team for not comparing their methane measurements against baseline measurements taken before fracking began, but that’s because the data simply don’t exist. For a variety of reasons, baseline water-quality measurements and studies have been sparse, though newer regulations in Pennsylvania do require water quality testing prior to new drilling.
Jackson believes the simplest explanation for his group’s findings is that the methane is coming up through or around abandoned oil or natural gas wells or new wells that were inadequately cased. He says that some of the water wells his group has tested were so saturated with methane that the water bubbled like champagne. So while it’s true that methane can contaminate wells without any help from fracking, he says even without baseline data, if a person begins seeing such an obvious sign of contamination as bubbling after fracking begins, it can be a reliable indicator or a connection. Too much methane in water can cause an explosion, but Jackson says it’s not clear what, if any, health threats that low concentrations of methane pose.
Technological advances have enabled companies to drill horizontally and reach shale miles away from the well head. This reduces the surface footprint of operations, but the thousands upon thousands of these rigs still arrive with consequences.

In Pennsylvania, access roads for fracked wells must often be cut through some of the region’s most pristine remaining forests. Roadways also typically have to cross streams and, depending on how they are constructed, can block water flow needed by plants and animals downstream. But a more widespread concern is the ecological effects of companies tapping waterways to get the millions of gallons needed for fracking wells.

Studying Fracking’s Demand on Water

Tara MobergOne key environmental concern associated with fracking is how much water the process consumes. Fracking a single well can take millions of gallons—a third of that amount makes its way back up the well as “flowback,” and has to be collected and processed or recycled.
Since completing her master’s in environmental science at F&ES in 2008, Tara Moberg has spent much of her time thinking about the ecological implications of removing billions of gallons of water from waterways in the Marcellus-Utica shale region, whether for fracking or other industrial uses.
As a freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy, she’s helping to complete a study commissioned by Pennsylvania state agencies analyzing the minimum flow needs for waterways in the region, with the goal of informing policy decisions on water removal. 
The long-term study first focused on the massive Susquehanna, whose basin runs from New York through Pennsylvania to Maryland and includes everything from small tributaries to the deep, wide waters of the main river farther south.
Moberg and her colleagues begin a basin study by first examining the different types of ecosystems found there. They identify the species found in each, and the processes, such as stream velocity, that affect them. Then they set up workshops with regional experts and review available data on key species to figure out how their water needs change throughout the year.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission used The Nature Conservancy’s Susquehanna report as the basis for a new draft policy on water withdrawals and minimum waterway levels. Thousands of comments on the policy, particularly from industry, have poured in, and the final policy hasn’t yet been announced.
One potential positive for natural gas is that it burns relatively cleanly. In simplest terms, burning natural gas produces substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil. Based on this, some have pointed to a potential role for expanded natural gas use—made possible thanks to fracking—as a transition to renewable energy. Natural gas also burns much cleaner than coal without releasing pollutants such as mercury and sulfur dioxide.
But reality rarely plays out in simplest terms. At each step along the natural-gas production line—from drilling, to transport, to use—there are opportunities for leakage. A key phase comes when drilling and fracking operations are completed and operators must connect the new well to a production pipeline. Methane coming from the new well can be lost during this switchover and either burned off or flared, converting it to carbon dioxide, or vented straight to the atmosphere.
Because methane, which is the main constituent of natural gas, is a much more efficient heat trapper than carbon dioxide, venting and flaring it can eliminate some of the benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions provided by natural gas. These losses, along with other leakage, could be pumping a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere, but just how much isn’t clear.
“The bottom line is, there have to be more measurements in many more places to really constrain these leakage rates,” says Saiers. And transporting huge amounts of water used in fracking, and the resulting waste, can also lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Regardless, at least some of the losses might be controlled. Earlier this year the EPA put in place new regulations to improve poor air quality associated with drilling. Companies will now be required to use equipment that prevents the leakage of methane and other gases during drilling—techniques known as “green completions”—though flaring methane into the atmosphere will still be legal during a transition phase that ends in 2015.
Without a policy—and the United States isn’t good with energy policy—there’s a real possibility that natural gas would delay development of renewables.
— James Saiers, F&ES hydrology professor
There’s also a less obvious concern about natural gas’ potential role in climate change. The issue is price. For now, sustainable power sources, such as wind and solar, remain much more expensive per unit of energy than fossil fuels. As oil prices have risen in recent years, oil has become nearly as expensive as renewables, making pursuit of sustainable options more economically feasible.

But the United States’ massive shale natural gas reserves and frenzied expansion of drilling have pushed natural gas prices down. It’s now so cheap that many power companies have shifted toward greatly expanded natural gas use. With such a cheap, domestic energy source dominating the U.S. energy landscape, it could dramatically slow any movement toward more expensive renewables.
Besides green completions rules, there have been other recent regulatory changes to address some fracking concerns. Pennsylvania beefed up rules for concrete casings for wells and now requires baseline water sampling around new drilling sites, for instance.
But many still wonder how safely fracking can be done on a larger scale. Researchers say that too many open questions remain. “As big as the issue is, there is not a tremendous amount of new science on the environmental impacts of fracking,” says Saiers.
The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’
— Robert Jackson, Duke University environmental scientist
Duke’s Jackson says that even with the uncertainties, the current debate is far more divisive than it needs to be. “The hydraulic fracturing debate is like our political debate—it’s just unnecessarily polarized. There are many people out there, I believe, who just want there to be a problem,” he says. “On the other hand, my frustration with industry is their unwillingness to acknowledge any problems whatsoever.” That unwillingness, he suggests, complicates research efforts by preventing the release of some data and makes it look like industry is hiding something.
There have been problems, but Jackson says it’s also important to remember that numerous wells have been drilled and used without causing any known problems. “The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’.”