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?