A New Report on Fracking Can Change the Debate On US Energy Practices

A new report out of Great Britain is sure to add more fuel to the hydrofracking debate.

The report by the United Kingdom's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concludes that hydrofracking of Great Britain's domestic natural gas reserves can be safely done if "operational best practices are implemented and enforced." 

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, involves injecting under high pressure a mix of water, sand and chemicals into rock deep underground to free trapped deposits of natural gas and crude oil. Though the process has been around for decades, its usage has increased dramatically in the United States in the past decade, leading to what some are calling a "golden age of hydrocarbons" in the U.S., helping to spur domestic oil production to new heights and drive natural gas prices to the lowest levels in more than a decade. A second report by North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources reached similar conclusions to the Royal Society report.

While hydrofracking has been a boon for petroleum companies, it has been a nightmare for environmentalists who charge that hydrofracking is a dangerous process that has led to groundwater contamination and mysterious illnesses in sites around the country. Some of the anecdotal reports from fracking sites ranging from Texas to Pennsylvania, along with dramatic visual evidence – like tap water that could be ignited due to high levels of methane gas – were collected in the movie Gasland. But as I discussed in this earlier post, many of the stories of contamination in Gasland can be traced back to poor operational practices, like the improper disposal of hydrofracking wastewater and well castings – the concrete conduit that carries hydrofracking fluids down to the frack site and oil/gas back up to the surface – that were improperly installed and/or maintained. The Royal Society report cites well construction as the "key factor in preventing groundwater contamination" and goes on to say that if a "single well is … designed, constructed and abandoned according to best practice," the risk of contamination is "very low."

The hydrofracking argument is gaining new urgency in the northeastern United States as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mulls at least the partial lifting of a ban on hydrofracking in his state.  Environmentalists and citizens groups have staunchly opposed the lifting of the ban since some of the Marcellus Shale (the target of hydrofracking operations) lies under the aquifer that supplies drinking water to New York City. Key to the anti-hydrofracking argument is the assumption that contaminants can migrate upwards from a fracking site deep underground and into the water table, which is also below ground, but typically much closer to the surface.

The Environmental Protection Agency has only one documented case of migration of contaminants from a frack site into a water table at a site in Pavilion, Wyoming, where the frack site and water table were separated by only a few hundred vertical feet, not the several thousand typically found in the Marcellus Shale. The Royal Society report argues against the likelihood of such migrating contamination to be very low because of the typical large distance between frack sites and water tables.

But there is an important caveat to the Royal Society report that was noted in the Durham Herald-Sun's article about the North Carolina DENR's own report – Great Britain has much stricter safety standards for their fracking operations than does the United States: including bans on open-pit wastewater storage sites and requirements that all chemicals used in fracking operations be disclosed. In short, Great Britain's best practices are much better than those in the United States. It is an important distinction since as Prof. Rob Jackson of Duke University's Biology Dept., who has conducted some oft-cited pieces of research on hydrofracking, states in the Herald-Sun article: "the question isn't can [fracking] be done safely, it's will it be done safely."

Hydrofracking is providing the United States with much-needed inexpensive energy. While Gasland may have failed to make the case that hydrofracking itself is inherently dangerous, it exposed many instances of the petroleum industry not showing enough due diligence to protect the environment and the communities where they work. Studies have shown that the risks of fracking can be very low, it is time that the industry either adopt better practices or for the government to better regulate the industry.