Taking a Deeper Look at the Facts about Fracking

A Marcellus Shale gas drilling site near Latrobe, Pa. (Laurence Kesterson / Inquirer Staff Photographer)

The struggle between private interests and the public’s health is not a new one. As David Michaels describes in Doubt Is Their Product, powerful industries have always invested substantial resources to hide the health risks associated with their products. It seems that the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” industry may be joining the likes of tobacco and soda companies in their efforts to obscure science, mince words, and bend facts to their liking.

While doing research for our post on fracking chemical disclosure laws a few weeks back, we, like others, found some interesting inconsistencies between the facts about hydrofracking as presented on industry websites and those provided by other reputable sources.

Using Energy In Depth’s website as a point of reference for the industry’s perspective, this post takes a deeper look at some of the facts about fracking.

The Hydraulic Fracturing Industry Says: Hydraulic fracturing is not a form of drilling.

The Public’s Health Finds: This argument is purely semantic. For hydraulic fracturing to extract gas from the earth, a wellbore needs to be created. Creating a wellbore requires a hole to be drilled deep in the ground—even the industry folks at the Marcellus Shale Coalition acknowledge this on their own website (check out the drill bit 29 seconds into the video).

It seems that the fracking industry likes to delineate between the wellbore process and the hydraulic fracturing process and pretend that the two events are completely independent of one another—as if somebody just happened to drill a well, and the hydraulic fracturing folks just happened to be nearby with their water, sand, chemicals, and pumps. While the industry is correct that hydraulic fracturing is not a form a drilling, drilling must take place for hydraulic fracturing to occur. The holes wouldn’t get drilled if the fracking wasn’t going to take place.

It’s also worth noting that wells are sometimes drilled at depths exceeding 8,000 feet; and injecting fluids into the earth at such depths might cause tremors—such as those in Oklahoma, the U.K., and the 4.0 magnitude event that shook up Youngstown, Ohio on New Year’s Day.

The Hydraulic Fracturing Industry Says: Hydraulic fracturing has never been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and was therefore not given an exemption from it through the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (i.e., the “Halliburton loophole.”)

The Public’s Health Finds: It is true that, for the bulk of its existence, the SDWA said nothing about hydraulic fracturing. That all changed in 2005 when the Energy Policy Act went out of its way to amend the SDWA and make sure that hydraulic fracturing activities would be excluded (see Sec. 322 of the legislation).

You see, the SDWA has always regulated the injection of fluids into the ground. Recognizing that the practice fracking would be classified as such, it’s likely that the SDWA was amended as a preemptive maneuver to make sure that the practice skirted any potential federal regulations. Riddle me this: if there was no prospect of the SDWA regulating hydraulic fracturing, why would some congressmen go out of their way to explicitly make sure that it didn’t?

The Hydraulic Fracturing Industry Says: Fracking companies disclose the chemicals they use.

The Public’s Health Finds: As we noted in our post, this is in fact the case in Pennsylvania. States possess the legislative authority to regulate fracking practices—and more and more states are choosing to require chemical disclosure, as Texas and Colorado recently did. But, as was the topic of our post, the hydraulic fracturing industry is exempt from Federal regulation to do so under the SDWA (as a result of the Halliburton Loophole). If a state is OK with letting the fracking industry run wild, its residents are not entitled to know the chemicals that are being used in, and under, their backyards.

The Hydraulic Fracturing Industry Says: The vast majority, around 99%, of hydraulic fracturing fluid is just water and sand. Most of the chemicals in the remaining 1% are found in many household products.

The Public’s Health Finds: This is true but, from a public health perspective, it misses the point. If the volume of the 100% is big enough, and the 1% of chemicals is toxic enough, exposure to this mere 1% can have deleterious impacts on human health.

Take this example: pretend there is a 100 gallon barrel of hydraulic fracturing fluid in your kitchen (as a point of comparison, a well blowout in Clearfield County, Pa., involved 35,000 gallons of fluid). The barrel busts open. While the most apparent damage is a wet, sandy mess, there is also 1 gallon of chemicals sloshing around in your kitchen. Let’s say half of those chemicals are innocuous, but the other half are extremely toxic compounds like benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzen. You’re not going to be cooking for a while.

One many of the many charges of the public health community is to combat misinformation through public education and the promotion of policy decisions grounded in science. We are concerned that, as the fracking saga unfolds, important discussions about the ecological impacts of fracking will be drowned out by debates about potential short-term economic gains and quality of existing research on the issue—which, as a top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist recently emphasized, we need more of. We urge our elected officials to protect the public's health in this process. We also encourage all of you to be discerning consumers of information regarding fracking, read the fine print, think about who is presenting the information, and what they have at stake in presenting it.

A few good places to start that process are the Inquirer’s series on fracking, N.P.R.’s StateImpact Pennsylvania website, and the fracking information provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.


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