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Fracking Debate Continues as EPA Issues Progress Report on Water Contamination

Jan 09, 2013

A hydraulic fracturing operation in Pennsylvania like this one led to the contamination of drinking water in one part of the state.

Hydraulic fracturing, or as it's more commonly known, fracking, might be the hottest environmental debate brewing right now.

Just in the last few weeks, major media outlets like CBS News and Esquire magazine have taken in-depth looks at fracking, and it seems like every day brings new developments as more and more states embrace drilling for oil vertically and horizontally, and allowing major oil companies like Chesapeake Energy to drill into the land.

Hollywood has taken notice as well; the new Matt Damon movie, "Promised Land" takes a look at fracking, and has already been criticized by energy companies for being too biased against them.

There are 36,000 fracking wells currently active in the U.S., with thousands more opening each year, as more and more companies seek to take advantage of new opportunities for cheap, easily available natural gas.

One of the biggest arguments about fracking involves the safety of the drinking water in areas around fracking wells. There have been numerous cases, both anecdotally and in environmental group investigations, of water near fracking areas having been contaminated.

The Environmental Protection Agency began in 2011 to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing in drinking water, and after nearly two years released in late December a "progress report" on its investigation.

The 278-page document makes very clear that the organization has yet to reach any conclusions about how damaging fracking is on drinking water in the areas where the wells are, saying it still trying to "identify the driving factors that may affect the severity and frequency of such impacts. Scientists are focusing primarily on hydraulic fracturing of shale formations to extract natural gas, with some study of other oil- and gas-producing formations, including tight sands, and coalbeds."

But is it the fracking procedure itself causing water contamination, or is it poor execution and precautions by the oil companies that made the water unsafe? It's an open debate, one that several experts I talked to have differing opinions on.

One such water contamination case was in Pennsylvania in 2011, when the state's Department of Environmental Protection fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for contaminating the water supply in Bradford, Pa., water that is near the enormous Marcellus shale formation in the southwest part of the state.

Residents there complained for months about their water making them sick, and the DEP said the water contamination in Bradford County, which occurred in 2010, was caused by failures in the casing and cement that surround gas wells, allowing methane to leak into water wells from shallow gas formations.

Chesapeake issued a statement at that time saying the company agreed to pay for water treatment for the affected families. The company also said it has enhanced its casing and cementing designs.

Now here's where it gets a little tricky: Fracking itself was not why the DEP decided to fine Chesapeake; as Kevin Sunday, the deputy press secretary of the DEP explained to me, it was strictly because the casing and cement failed, allowing methane to get into the wells.

"We've never seen an instance where hydraulic fracturing itself has caused a drinking water contamination," Sunday said.

But Amy Mull, a senior policy analyst with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said that it's not that simple.

"Let's just say a gas well is being fracked, and during the operation there's some failure with the cement that holds the well itself, and the cement gets into the aquifer, like what happened in that Pennsylvania case," Mull said. "Now someone might say, the problem was with the cement, not the fracking. But the cement wouldn't be there (to release contamination) if you weren't fracking in the first place!

"So it's not something where you can detach fracking from the water contamination, because it's all connected," Mull said.

Mark Brownstein, the chief counsel of the Energy Program for the California-based Environmental Defense Fund, said a lot of the confusion and debate as to whether fracking causes water contamination is due to the incorrect use of the term.

"Some people mean 'fracking' as the actual process of fracturing shale, to liberate oil or gas," Brownstein said. "If you use fracking in that context, then yes, there is no scientific evidence that that act of fracturing the shale, that that process leads to water contamination.

"However," Brownstein continued, "other people use the term to mean the entire process of producing natural gas, which includes fracking, but is also the process of drilling the well, natural gas drilling, etc., that have led to water contamination problems. So it gets confusing for people."

Brownstein and Mull said that the contamination problems with fracking often come from poor well construction, where cement is not installed properly, and a lack of consistency in the field.

"It's not like good practices are not known to the (oil and gas companies), of course they are," Brownstein said. "It's more about whether good practices are being followed, and if regulations are being enforced."

Brownstein's last point struck me as interesting, so in talking to the DEP's Sunday, I asked him to take me through the regulatory process in his state; Pennsylvania, after all, is considered "Ground Zero" in the fracking debate, since it's a source of abundant natural gas.

Sunday first gave me a few facts about regulation in his state: With well construction increasing by leaps and bounds, the DEP increased the number of inspectors from 83 to 202 in 2010. He also explained that "baseline testing," a procedure in which gas companies are required to test the contamination level of local water before drilling, and then after to see if there have been any changes, is not legally required in Pa. (Most environmental groups I talked to believe it should be legally required.)

Sunday did say that the state has a "presumption of liability" law, wherein if water is found to be contaminated within 12 months, or 2,500 feet, of a new well, the gas company is responsible for installing a treatment system, or paying for a treatment system, to clean up the water and return it to its previous, uncontaminated state.

"There have been a handful of other cases of water contamination (since the Chesapeake case in 2011), but we're seeing fewer violations by gas companies and a more careful approach to hydraulic fracturing," Sunday said. "I truly believe that Pennsylvania has led the way on how to safely, responsibly regulate hydraulic fracturing, and we believe that states, not the federal government, are the best regulators on this."

It's not surprising that a state government official would say that, but the EPA certainly has cause to try to make water safer around fracking locations. In their report, the EPA said it has designed the scope of the research around five stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle, including water acquisition, chemical mixing,  well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal.

The EPA report is scheduled to be completed in 2014; until then, expect much more to be discussed and debated by those whose lives, and drinking water, are affected by fracking.