A noted environmental expert says state leaders should be proactive in regulating hydrofracturing, or fracking, in North Carolina.
Professor Robert Jackson is Nicholas Chair of Global Environmental Change at Duke. He published a study recently that showed very high levels of methane gas in groundwater near fracking operations in Pennsylvania, though he didn’t find chemicals used in the process in drinking water aquifers.
What is fracking?
Fracking is one step in the process of getting natural gas out of shale formations. A company might drill down a mile, then turn the drill ninety degrees and drill another mile or two horizontally.
Then millions of gallons of water, mixed with chemicals and sand, is injected into the well to crack open the shale and release the natural gas trapped in the porous rock. Companies are not currently required to disclose the chemicals they’re using. The contaminated wastewater is often disposed of in “deep injection” wells, though some companies recycle it.
Pros and cons
The process allows energy companies to extract natural gas they otherwise could not. And it means money for property owners in the area. The company has to buy mineral rights for all the land above its horizontal mineshafts.
But some environmentalists have warned the fracking process could contaminate groundwater with chemicals and gases. People who live near drills on the Marcellus Shale Formation in PA and NY have posted videos online showing them setting fire to their tap water.
Some have even blamed fracking for a cluster of more than 30 small earthquakes near deep injection wells in Arkansas earlier this year, though the energy companies that own the wells deny any connection.
“We don’t know”
Jackson tested wells of homeowners near Marcellus drills in Pennsylvania. His results were published recently by the National Academy of Sciences.
The study didn’t find fracking fluid in the well water of those homes, nor in deep water aquifers in the area, but it found that homes within about a kilometer of a well head were much more likely to have high – sometimes dangerously high - levels of methane and ethane gases in their well water.
Jackson’s critics said the methane more likely came from natural sources closer to the surface. But Jackson said detailed chemical analysis of the methane matched samples taken from the wells by state regulators, and did not match natural methane.
“How does deep methane end up in a shallow aquifer? We don’t know,” Jackson said. “We don’t have access to the gas wells to look at that.”
Jackson thinks the gas is most likely escaping through leaks in the well casings, although he said it’s possible that gas could be migrating up through fractures in the rocks, perhaps opened up by the fracking process.
However, he pointed out, not all wells have problems. Those that have occurred, he said, “occur when companies get in a hurry. There’s tremendous pressure to move that equipment on to the next well.” While the industry has excellent best practice standards, “Corners get cut and mistakes get made.”
He said the debate is emotionally charged. “People care about their water...it’s difficult when you have to worry about your water, even if there’s nothing wrong with your water.”
When asked why he hasn’t called for a ban on fracking, Jackson said there’s a lot science doesn’t yet know about its effects. He says there are economic and geopolitical pressures to be considered, too. The country has to get fuel somewhere, he said, and natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel available. “Gas looks pretty good compared to mountaintop mining.”
Jackson said states have led efforts to push the industry for more disclosure of the chemicals it uses and the results of its water testing in adjacent homes. He said states like North Carolina, where lawmakers are debating whether to allow fracking, should have safeguards in place before moving forward.
Those safeguards, he says, should include good data collection before, during, and after drilling operations, and aggressive setback laws to keep wells away from homes and schools.
Jackson also says lawmakers should require companies to disclose their fracking fluid “recipe,” and figure out in advance how their operations will get and dispose of the millions of gallons of water needed for the process. He also recommended strong regulations for well casings and the sharing of sampling data.