by Duane Craig
New York is putting a hold on the practice of drilling for natural gas by injecting chemicals into the ground. The technique is called hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and it has an alleged record of contaminating drinking water in Wyoming and Texas. The New York Assembly recently imposed a moratorium on fracking making the state the first to take such action. The moratorium lasts until May 15, 2011 so the state can do a review of the process. Colorado changed its regulations in 2008.
The EPA found benzene and other petroleum compounds in water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, that are thought to have come from fracking. Seventeen of 19 wells were contaminated in the town of 166 people. The EPA distanced itself somewhat from drawing the conclusion that the contamination originated with fracking operations, saying, "EPA has not made any conclusions about the sources of chemical compounds found in drinking water wells."
EnCana is the primary gas producer in that area of Wyoming and the company is well acquainted with environmental fines, having paid $1.5 million over a recent four-year period. None of those fines were associated with contaminating wells, according to the company, but at least one was related to contaminated surface water. In Colorado the company paid $371,000 in fines for benzene contamination of the West Divide Creek. In 2008 EnCana reported it had 47,000 wells in North America and was drilling 3,000 to 5,000 wells per year.
Meanwhile Ohio and Pennsylvania are going full bore with fracking while landowners and environmentalists attack the practice saying it is endangering water supplies. Drillers in Ohio claim the fracturing occurs 5,000 feet down in the formation known as the Clinton Sandstone. The gas is trapped in the sandstone so fracking cracks the stone while injecting sand to keep the cracks open. Chemicals are used in the process to help the materials flow and keep the sandstone open. Besides benzene there are chemicals used such as toluene, xylene, napthalene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol and formaldehyde, just to name a few.
Those in the industry admit that bad well construction and carelessness when operating wells leads to problems. So who oversees the work to make sure things are done properly? One answer to that question comes from Ohio where there are 21 state agents to oversee 34,000 natural gas wells. There is also the problem of disposing of all the briny solution used in the process that is brought back to the surface. It either has to be stored in open pits and later sent to treatment facilities, or dumped into injection wells. Meanwhile, some of those containment pits leak pollutants into the ground and contaminate water.
There is the additional problem that as much as 40 percent of the fracking solution never returns topside and either remains trapped below or, as some suspect, migrates upward where it poses a threat to water supplies.
It may be that New York has the right idea but perhaps it didn’t go far enough. After all, what is an acceptable level of benzene or formaldehyde in a drink of water? When did we begin to accept that ingredients other than naturally occurring substances were okay to drink? Watch this one closely. If New York lifts the embargo in May 2011, it won’t be because it found out fracking is acceptably safe. It will be because of our addiction to oil and gas, an unwillingness to make the tough choices, and the desire for short-term profits.