20 Jun 2011

Forum: Just How Safe Is ‘Fracking’ of Natural Gas?

New technologies for freeing natural gas from underground shale formations have led to a hydraulic fracturing boom across the U.S. that is now spreading to other countries. In a Yale Environment 360 forum, eight experts discuss whether “fracking” can be done without serious harm to water and air quality and what environmental safeguards may be needed.

Depending on your point of view, hydraulic fracturing of natural gas is either a blessing that will help provide new sources of energy for the coming century, or an environmental curse that threatens water and air quality in communities across the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Both sides in the debate agree on one thing — natural gas reserves stored in subterranean shale formations are extensive. But beyond that proponents and opponents of fracking hold widely divergent views.

Yale Environment 360 asked industry officials, scientists, and conservationists to answer the following two-part question: “Can hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil reserves in shale formations be done on a large scale without significant negative impacts on water supplies, air quality, and local communities? As fracking continues to expand rapidly, do you believe more stringent federal and state regulations are needed and, if so, what should they be?” Among the wide range of views, one theme emerged: Shale gas fracking in the U.S., which to date has been less strictly regulated than other sectors of the oil and gas industry, is almost certainly headed for a period of tougher federal and state environmental controls.

Robert Howarth
Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, and co-author of a recent study of methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing.
The development of natural gas from shale formations using high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing is a new technology, first applied in Texas only in the past 10 years or so and in Pennsylvania only in the past 3 to 4 years. Only this year have objective, scientific studies on the consequences been published, and these are alarming. The best evidence indicates widespread contamination of drinking water wells within 1 kilometer of gas wells, and the rate of venting and leakage of methane to the atmosphere is sufficient to give shale gas a larger greenhouse gas footprint than any other fossil fuel. In Texas, flow-back fluid wastes are disposed through deep injection into old abandoned wells; but such wells are not available in Pennsylvania in sufficient number, and industry in Pennsylvania has yet to find a safe method of disposal. Some of this waste continues to be “treated” in municipal sewage plants in New York and Pennsylvania, despite strong evidence of downstream water quality problems. Widespread air pollution with compounds such as the carcinogen benzene is prevalent in both Texas and Pennsylvania.

Current regulation by states is clearly not sufficient. Is federal regulation the answer? Perhaps, although it may not be possible to apply high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing without excessive pollution and risk. A national moratorium is necessary — time to step back and better study the risks to water quality, air quality, and global warming. Only once such studies are completed can society begin to analyze what sort of regulation might be sufficient.

Lee Fuller Energy in Depth
Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, an association of companies involved in hydraulic fracturing of natural gas and oil.
Over the past 60 years, more than 1.1 million wells have been enhanced thanks to the fracturing process — oil wells, gas wells, but also water wells and even geothermal wells. Some folks like to argue that harvesting natural gas from shale is different, that it requires a dramatically different and particularly risky form of fracturing to make it work. But they’re wrong: The fundamental mechanics of fracturing a well haven’t changed since the first one was stimulated in Kansas back in the 1940s. It’s true that we use more water today. But it’s also true that we need to drill a lot fewer wells, in large part thanks to advances in horizontal drilling technology.

Should the fracturing process be regulated? Again, the answer is yes. And again, the good news is that it is already ably regulated in each and every state in which it is deployed. On the federal level, laws such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act are also part of this oversight process, despite what you may have read. The upshot? An opportunity to convert the potential of shale into a safe and steady stream of jobs, revenue, and opportunity for decades to come — at a time and place when it couldn’t be needed more.

Amy Mall NRDC
Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
We know that industry already has better technologies and cleaner approaches to reduce the environmental and health impacts of large-scale oil and gas production, including hydraulic fracturing. But for the most part they are not being required. And there still remain many unknowns. We need scientific analysis and data on the full impacts to water supplies, air quality, and local communities — how they occur, and how they can be prevented or reduced. Until we have a better understanding of the risks, we can’t know with certainty if oil and gas reserves in shale formations can be accessed without significant impacts.

The oil and gas industry should be required to comply with the same environmental safeguards as any other industry. Right now, it’s not, and that’s putting people and communities at risk. The nation desperately needs stronger regulations for oil and gas production at both the federal and state levels. Since companies are not using the best available technologies everywhere they operate, these practices need to be standardized. Regulations must also have robust enforcement provisions, to ensure there are meaningful incentives for companies to follow the law. To start, there are huge loopholes in our bedrock federal environmental laws that favor only the oil and gas industry. These loopholes — including ones in the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Clean Air Act — must be closed. This industry should not receive special treatment. State regulations can and should go farther to address the needs of each individual location. The evidence clearly shows current regulations are not strong enough to prevent drinking water contamination, toxic air pollution, and other threats.

David Burnett
David Burnett, petroleum engineer and director of technology at Texas A&M University’s Global Petroleum Research Institute.
The vast majority of wells completed in the last 10 years have had no significant impact on the environment. True, a very few well operations have had problems because of errors in operations. That is why our university and others have created the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Program (EFD). Drilling programs that follow the best management practices recommended by EFD have an extremely small and temporary impact on the environment and the community. The EFD Scorecard offers a way whereby public officials and other stakeholders can tell whether or not a company is following those precepts. For example, drilling operations have been conducted in downtown Amsterdam, Netherlands in a parking lot of a hospital. The drilling rig was a new design that has essentially zero emissions.

[What we need is] not more stringent regulations, but more appropriate regulations. And these can best be set at the state level by collaboration with stakeholders and industry. The gas shale drilling industry works to design and operate cost-effective drilling programs, while minimizing the impact of its operations on the environment. With the right technology, the industry can meet both of those goals. We also want the public and regulatory officials to know how we operate, how we protect the environment, and how we abide by the regulations. (An example of this is the new Frac Focus web site,, a hydraulic fracturing chemical registry website, sponsored by two industry associations.) Appropriate regulations, based on sound science and engineering principles — developed by consensus — are welcomed.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, director of the Western Environmental Law Center’s Climate and Energy Program, as well as one of the center’s attorneys.
No. At the massive scale envisioned by shale gas proponents, our land, air, water, and communities will be further sacrificed. This is as much a consequence of our dysfunctional policymaking apparatus as it is of the innate risks and impacts associated with shale gas. Put simply, shale gas — a form of natural gas — is a fossil fuel, and fossil fuels are dirty fuels.

This is not to say that there is no role for shale gas. There is. But that role is far more limited than the hype suggests. Used, for example, to power existing, underutilized gas-fired power plants as a way to immediately supplant aging, highly destructive coal-fired power plants in the near term, shale gas makes some sense. But, given geologic, financial, environmental, and other limits — as well as the absence of any comprehensive plan to rapidly transition our country to energy efficiency and clean energy — it is quite dangerous to give shale gas anything more than a limited role.

At a bare minimum, and to better constrain shale gas within acceptable limits, I’d propose a far stronger legal framework based on three key principles. First, natural gas development must complement and speed, not undermine, our transition to energy efficiency and renewable, clean energy. Second, we must move beyond ineffective, business-as-usual “mitigation” and embrace meaningful public health and environmental safeguards that are enforceable not just by government, but by the citizens who will have to deal with natural gas development each and every day. And third, we must prohibit shale gas development in communities, key water resources, and iconic or ecologically important landscapes.

Richard Ranger
Richard Ranger, senior policy advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry association.
Can hydraulic fracturing be employed widely without causing significant harm? The evidence shows it already has. Hydraulic fracturing is a 60-year-old technology that has been used safely in more than 1 million wells. The industry and regulators are doing a good job managing its risks, and there has not been a single documented instance of groundwater contamination of subsurface formations from hydraulic fracturing.

As consideration is given to more regulation of hydraulic fracturing, we should focus on building on the existing effective system of oversight. That is already happening. States are reexamining their regulatory programs, and the industry, through API, has produced new best practices that provide operators with the most advanced guidance for safe use of hydraulic fracturing. The industry is also making it easier for company disclosure of the chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

New federal regulations are unnecessary. The states have experience regulating all aspects of drilling, including hydraulic fracturing. They have personnel with expertise in their state’s geology, groundwater resources, and oil and natural gas operations. They have every incentive to ensure state rules protect health and the environment for their citizens.

Hydraulic fracturing is essential to developing the vast shale gas reserves that will help meet the nation’s future energy demand. Increased reliance on these resources for our energy needs will reduce air pollution and carbon emissions and generate vast numbers of new jobs and large amounts of revenue for government.

Kevin Anderson Tyndall Centre
Kevin Anderson, director of the energy program at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and lead author of a recent report on hydrofracturing in the UK.
My principal concerns (and expertise) have been on the climate change implications of yet another unconventional fossil fuel. From my reading of the situation, the process of fracking within shale rock does not have the same degree of homogeneity as is typically the case in much of the production of both natural gas and oil. In this regard, it is difficult to envisage any set of simple and generic procedures or protocols that will ensure sufficient environmental (and human) protection. Consequently, and with our current understanding, each fracture site (at least beyond a few kilometers separation) needs to be considered individually on its particular merits. From a UK perspective, I would be broadly happy for our responsible body, the Environment Agency (EA), to make the decision on whether site-by-site fracking should be permitted — provided the EA comes under absolutely no external pressures to make a decision one way or another and that it has the additional income stream and personnel (both challenging issues at this time) to permit it to undertake the necessary level of detailed investigations to make a fully informed decision.

Whilst I may not be an expert on fracking, I do have a detailed understanding on climate change — and in that regard the only responsible action with regard to shale gas, or any “new” unconventional fossil fuel, is to keep it in the ground — at least until there is a meaningful global emissions cap forcing substitution. In the absence of such an emissions cap, and in our energy hungry world, shale gas will only be combusted in addition to coal — not as a substitution, as many analysts have naively suggested.

Ben Grumbles Clean Water America Alliance
Ben Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit educational organization working on issues of water sustainability.
Hydraulic fracturing can be “safe” when done in the right place, on the right scale, with the right safeguards, and as part of a “drill, maybe drill” philosophy.

The record is clear. Hydraulic fracturing has been done safely in many places over the years (and has great economic and energy potential), but the scope of review has been limited and the cumulative impact of the unprecedented “Shale Rush” on local water supplies, air quality, and watershed ecosystems should get more attention and research dollars. Local and national policymakers need an honest assessment of potential safety risks and a more complete life cycle analysis of the water quality and quantity considerations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current $12 million study of hydraulic fracturing is an important opportunity to review the growing evidence of methane migration, which seems much more related to faulty drilling practices, as well as other key issues in the debate.

With participation from federal agencies, key stakeholders, and legal scholars, state officials should develop model codes and frameworks for more effective state regulation. And Congress should revisit the 2005 Energy Policy Act’s exemption of hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The voluntary national registry for fracturing fluids is a good start and needs to grow.

Federal research should fill necessary knowledge gaps and sort out information from misinformation. Key areas should include the amounts and impacts of total dissolved solids in fracking-flowback waters and their impacts on surface waters and treatment plants. A major priority should be closed-loop systems and the development of the most effective and affordable technologies to recycle fracking fluids. How can the large water footprint of hydraulic fracturing — which can exceed 5 million gallons per well — be reduced?


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Two questions:

1) Lee Fuller says "On the federal level, laws such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act are also part of this oversight process, despite what you may have read." Then the next person - Amy Mall - says the opposite. Who's telling the truth here?? You need to call them out on this.

2) I would be interested in seeing a list of funding sources for the academic researchers listed here. A simple web search of the EFD program shows that the list of "others" who sponsor the program includes a who's who list of some of the biggest energy companies in the world. Don't you think the program director should have been more forthcoming with this info in his response and his comment about science by consensus?

Posted by Todd on 20 Jun 2011

The list of supporters of the EFD program include oil and gas industry companies because those companies are the ones with the expertise to develop the shale gas resource safely and in a responsible manner. The EFD program is also supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Nature Conservancy among others.

Posted by Dave Burnett on 20 Jun 2011

Todd asks an important question. The oil and gas industry is subject to federal environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act--but not every section of those laws. The laws are very complex with many different provisions and programs. The industry is exempt from certain provisions of our federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which governs toxic waste management). I did not mean to imply that the industry is completely exempt from entire laws.

Posted by Amy Mall on 20 Jun 2011

I'd also be interested in what constitutes the split between those who say this process is 60 years old (Ranger & Fuller) and those who say it's 10 years old (Burnett & Howarth). I.e., what has changed about the process in the last 10 years and why should (or shouldn't) that change be treated as having risk or unforeseeability different than historic practices?

Posted by Bobby on 20 Jun 2011

These are the two questions I have learned to always ask, and I have yet to get satisfactory answers.

1. If fracking has been around for 60 years and there are still substantial problems (and dont segment by saying, "oh, it is the drilling, or the casing, it just is not the fracking"; those processes are all joined at the hip - that is I am nearly certain that there is NEVER any fracking without drilling), then how long will it take to get it right, to utilize those mysterious engineering fixes?

2. And if it is a matter of better or more stringent regulations, whatever, how do those come to be and be effectively implemented? The folks who talk regulation or pass legislation for regulation seem never to be around and accountable for implementation and evaluation of the effectiveness of those regulations.

Stan Scobie, Binghamton, NY

Posted by Stan Scobie on 20 Jun 2011

Full disclosure: I am against fracking. I agree with the voices here on the "anti" side. Unfortunately these articles won't do much to convince people to fight against fracking because, as this is "opinion," all are partisan. How can I believe an expert from the industry? Why would someone undecided be drawn to one side or the other as they seem to cancel each other out? I would like to see an independent review of any studies thus far. I believe data on specific impacts on water quality, methane release, etc. will stand up to scrutiny. Until then, it's all a big experiment with very big consequences.

Posted by JC on 20 Jun 2011

When the bite of fossil-fuel depletion is felt in earnest, the efforts to extract the remaining deposits will run roughshod over any environmental concerns.

Posted by Robin Datta on 20 Jun 2011

Bobby, I'm not entirely sure, but I think Fracking in general has been around for 60 years, but only in the past 10 years has it been used for Natural Gas. The issue of methane release into the atmosphere and contamination of methane in drinking water are new concerns that come from fracking for natural gas. Also, I believe part of the concern is that because it is very profitable to frack for natural gas, especially given current prices, it is becoming much more widespread than ever before, so states that are seeing it for the first time might not be able to regulate it well, and conditions in new sights might create complications with potential environmental impacts.

Posted by Joe on 21 Jun 2011

I find it interesting that Lee Fuller cites the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act when the legislation on fracking specifically waives coverage by those laws. How can they call those laws part of their oversight when they are permitted to ignore them? There is a lot of research needed on this technology before it should be used to extract anything. Yes, I saw where he said 1.1 million wells have been done this way, including water wells. Just because something is common, does not make it right. Does anyone believe that the modern motor vehicle is environmentally friendly? Even under best conditions they produce more greenhouse gasses than ALL other contributors, and most vehicles on the road are not being operated under best conditions. We've all seen the vehicle going down the road awash in a blue cloud, and that is not to mention those who are spewing clouds of gas that are colorless and unseen that are just as damaging, if not more so. We need to reconsider how we do a great many things, and fracking is not the least of them. Once our water is destroyed, so are we.

Posted by Mark Powell on 21 Jun 2011

There is a co. in Canada-GASFRAC ENERGY SERVICES that uses LPG as the propellent instead of sand & water. Is this a reliable alternative or just hoopla?

Posted by Larry bru on 22 Jun 2011

At this point, too little is known about hydraulic fracking. True, the process has been around for a long time but not in it’s latest form that will require such an extensive use of one of our most precious resources, our water. Our country is in desperate need of jobs for the unemployed. Hydraulic fracking could provide much needed jobs. But, must these jobs depend on allowing hydraulic fracking to be done in a way that destroys our future water supply? At this point in time, we just don’t know. So, let’s find out. And, until we do have answers, let’s not grant exemptions to displacements of water to accommodate hydraulic fracking.

Posted by mba on 22 Jun 2011

Can anyone support or refute that "there has not been a single documented instance of groundwater contamination of subsurface formations from hydraulic fracturing", a statement made by Richard Ranger, senior policy advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Contamination of rivers by discharge of hydraulic fracturing byproducts has been documented (see "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers", by IAN URBINA, New York Times, Feb. 26, 2011.

Posted by James, Brooklyn, NY on 22 Jun 2011

It would seem that fracking, oil tar sands development, drilling in ever more dangerous environments is unfortunately proof that we are not running out of fossil fuels.

Like any addiction our carbon fuel based civilization seems prepared to go to any length to extract fossil fuels wherever they may be and irrespective of the damage they do to ecosystems and the global climate.

Posted by George Ennis on 22 Jun 2011

I second Amy's comment. Wells had been constructed with no major (maybe just a few) technological advancement in regards the mechanical properties of the cement sheath. Software simulation technologies had shown the well integrity due to hydraulic fracturing is at risk.

Fracturing operations imply very high pumping pressures and drastic changes in temperature and pressure that compromise the zonal isolation of the wells. Currently, a horizontal wells that undergoes a hydraulic fracturing treatment requires 7 or more pumping stages. If well cement design is not done properly, these changes in temperatures and pressure will likely lead to the creation of microannuli, and be a conduit for formation fluids to migrate to upper formations. This constitutes a risk of contamination of shallow drinking water supplies.

The industry knows very well about this. But regulations and best practices are falling short to ensure that drilling and well construction and evaluation practices are up to the necessary standards to reduce (definitely not eliminate) the risks.

We need more science and more disclosure on: drilling practices, water consumption, water disposal, effects on surface waters, on the landscape, and climate change implications.

Posted by Gabriel Mejias on 22 Jun 2011

With the possible exception of the last two, all I needed to do was read their titles to know which direction they were going to go. It's amazing that so many energy people say it's completely fine, but they incur a serious dent of doubt by simply saying "They said drilling in the Gulf was safe too." I don't trust the energy companies to keep my interests at stake. Corporations can, do, and will lie in order to add millions more to their CEOs' pockets. Since I can't trust them, I turn to other groups with interest, and 90% of them say either don't do it, or IF we promote fracking, it at very least needs a lot more oversight. A strong focus on efficiency and renewables is clearly a better and longer-term solution, but the energy companies are incapable of seeing beyond immediate profit. They should not be making the decisions.

Posted by Jeff on 23 Jun 2011

I think it's obvious that every dollar spent on fossil fuels of any genesis is a dollar not spent on investment in renewable energy. Now that fracking has become the pollution du jour for the fossil fuel industry, American citizens must unite to protect our air, water, and general environmental integrity by prohibiting such investment.

The idea that burning natural gas is a "transitional" technology no longer can pass the straight face test: please note that, Dan Esty. The fossil fuel industry's inertia propels it as irrevocably as the Voyager's track beyond our solar system. Individual conservation of energy and an investment in renewable micropower generation - not fossil fuels or radioactivity - that is equivalent to the money not allowed to be spent otherwise are the true paths to prosperity and long-term survival on this planet (war and other forms of human stupidity aside, of course). Let entrepreneurs and capitalists make their money doing good for once.

Posted by Jay Halpern on 24 Jun 2011

Australia is gearing up to follow the U.S. in fracking the place up. As usual the proponents say "there is nothing to fear" and the rest of us are confused, concerned and a little bit wary of those holding up the shale-oil genie as our opportunity to become energy self-sufficient. I personally don't believe a word of it. If there is an opportunity to environmentally degrade the planet than call your local energy representative. Yet there is hope and from an unlikely source. Here in Australia some of the loudest shock jocks own rich agricultural land on which they run their thoroughbreds. This is the same land that the coal industry and the shale-oil industry are interested in. Suddenly, the greens, the farmers and right wing commentators are in bed with each other to fight a common enemy. Stay tuned the volume can only get louder.

Posted by stuart smith on 30 Jun 2011

A couple of answers to questions I've read. 1. Yes, fracturing has been around a long time - 60
years give or take. The practice of extracting natural gas from shales using multi-stage horizontal fractures has become prevalent in the last 10 years. Yes the LPG fracs (liquefied petroleum gas) work. The reason it works is rather arcane but has to do with rock wettability etc. As you expect, the cost is pretty steep – much greater than water – and if we are worrying about the environment, how do I bring 10 million gallons of pressured gas to the well site (think of 10,000 propane tanks). Finally, the difference between early fracs and now is essentially a matter of degree. There are a LOT of wells being drilled. They use 10 times as much water. And the gas development is now in everybody’s back yard, not just way off somewhere like Odessa TX.

Posted by Dave Burnett on 02 Jul 2011

The entire fracking debate is fearmongering by liberal propagandist in an effort to raise the price of energy in America so that their 'Alternative Fuels" can compete. democrats really seem out of touch when you realize we have been fracking wells over 60 years-but Democrats just found out about it last year!
Posted by Curtis on 19 Jul 2011

I spoke to a friend who is a engineer about fracking. he is against fracking because it can cause man made earth quakes, destroy our water supplies and environment. Mother earth will try and mend itself it is natural law. It is inevitable that man will destroy man just look around and see what is going on. France is not allowing fracking I wonder why!!!

Posted by joanne on 28 Jul 2011

While I strongly encourage the scientific research on the safety of fracking, I am realistic enough to know that even if proved to be seriously polluting our water and air, federal and state governments will not stop or regulate the practice. The fossil fuel industry will continue to buy and own legislative protection.

Remember the BP well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico? There is no question that the massive oil spill caused severe environmental damage to the coast of Louisiana. After a brief moratorium, the Department of the Interior continued issuing deepwater drilling permits for wells using the same blow-out preventer used by BP despite a report finding that blow-out preventer design is flawed. They also issued permits from drilling companies submitting emergency response plans that pre-date the Deepwater Horizon spill and therefore reflect none of the lessons of that disaster. Nothing changed because there is too much money to be made - not only by the oil companies but by the legislators who allow the pollution threat to continue.

I am a Louisiana native. The number of Haynesville Shale wells visible from I-49 between Shreveport and Natchitoches seems to grow daily. Do I worry about my drinking water? Absolutely. Do I expect my government to protect me? I think not.

Posted by Martha on 19 Aug 2011



Once Unstoppable, Tar Sands Now Battered from All Sides
Canada’s tar sands industry is in crisis as oil prices plummet, pipeline projects are killed, and new governments in Alberta and Ottawa vow less reliance on this highly polluting energy source. Is this the beginning of the end for the tar sands juggernaut?

As the Fracking Boom Spreads, One Watershed Draws the Line
After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

Oklahoma’s Clear Link Between Earthquakes and Energy Boom
Oklahoma officials this week said oil and gas activity was the likely cause of the stunning increase in earthquakes in the state. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Oklahoma geologist Todd Halihan talks about what has caused this growing problem and what can be done about it.

Natural Gas Boom Brings Major Growth for U.S. Chemical Plants
The surge in U.S. production of shale gas is leading to the rapid expansion of chemical and manufacturing plants that use the gas as feedstock. But environmentalists worry these new facilities will bring further harm to industrialized regions already bearing a heavy pollution burden.

A New Frontier for Fracking: Drilling Near the Arctic Circle
Hydraulic fracturing is about to move into the Canadian Arctic, with companies exploring the region's rich shale oil deposits. But many indigenous people and conservationists have serious concerns about the impact of fracking in more fragile northern environments.


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