New Claims of Danger Related to Hydraulic Fracturing

Over the past few years hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas,”[1] has become an increasingly controversial subject. Several states, such as Pennsylvania and Arkansas have been allowing companies to use hydraulic fracturing for several years.  However, as more states contemplate allowing the use of fracking, the process has come under greater scrutiny, and many citizens have voiced concerns about the potential consequences of allowing the use of this drilling technique.   This backlash has resulted for several reasons, including the fact that claims have been made in states where fracking is legal about issues with water contamination, and claims by citizens in those state that they have suffered health related issues due to natural gas seeping into the water supplies.   These claims were given nationwide exposure with the release of Gasland, a documentary film that showed faucets spewing flames and water samples with high levels of contaminants used in the fracking process.[2]

The situation has been further exacerbated by the poor economic climate, pitting neighbor against neighbor.[3] Those citizens who want to lease there property and allow companies to frack for gas are guaranteed to make money, and in some instances become instant millionaires.[4] Those citizens who do not want to lease their land due to safety concerns have been fighting on a national, state, and local level to prevent companies from being able to frack.[5] Others claim that landowners are not provided with enough information to truly understand the risks and costs associated with leasing their land for fracking.[6] Many people are also concerned about the secrecy that has surrounded the fracking process, including the fact that companies are exempt from regulation under The Safe Water Drinking Act.[7] Until recently, companies had refused to release the ingredients they used in the fracking process, which has now been reported to include over 750 different chemicals.[8] Although companies eventually disclosed this information, their initial secrecy and resistance to doing so has raised concerns and made many people wary of the process. In New York, for example, localities are attempting to ban the process by zoning hydraulic fracturing out of their specific municipality, even if the State decides to approve the fracking process. [9]

Over the past few months two important developments have taken place.  The first was a major news story when the EPA recognized the possibility that chemicals used for fracking in central Wyoming were the likely cause of contaminated local water supplies.[10] This was the first admission by a government agency that hydraulic fracturing is potentially a source for water contamination. Another independent study conducted in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York by scientist Robert Jackson of Duke University stated that “methane concentrations in drinking water were much higher if the homeowner was near an active gas well.”[11] This study, along with the EPA’s finding in Wyoming, present opponents of fracking with strong support for their contention that citizens should be skeptical regarding the safety guarantees given by the natural gas industry.

The second major development in recent months has been reports that hydraulic fracturing may be connected to the increase of earthquakes occurring in Ohio,[12] Oklahoma,[13] and Arkansas.[14] Despite the fact that many scientists say the likelihood of that link is extremely remote, that thousands of fracking and disposal wells operate nationwide without causing earthquakes, and that the relatively shallow depths of these wells mean that any earthquakes that are triggered would be minor,[15] the mere news of this type of activity has stirred strong public reaction.

It is possible that these worries have been heightened by the recent events related to the nuclear reactor in Fukushima and the Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf.  Many citizens seem wary of the potential impacts that a natural disaster or that human error could have on the health of the environment and nearby citizens if hydraulic fracturing is allowed to continue.  This news may also have triggered Colorado to pass the most stringent fracking rules in the United States just this past week.[16] It seems that the next few years will see increasing amounts of controversy between industry and citizens, states and municipalities, and landowners with their neighbors, over whether to allow hydraulic fracturing to take place in their states, cities, and backyards.

 

 

 

 


[1] Definition of Hydraulic Fracturing, Oxford Online Dictionary, http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hydraulic+fracturing (last visited Dec. 16, 2011).

[2] Gasland (HBO Documentary Films 2010).

[3] Katherine Seelye, Gas Boom Aids Pennsylvania But Some Worry Over the Risk Divides Pennsylvania, N.Y. Times,  Oct. 14, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/us/hydraulic-fracturing-brings-money-and-problems-to-pennsylvania.html?pagewanted=all.

[4] Steve Hargreaves, Gas Boom Mints Instant Millionaire, CNN.com, Nov. 2, 2010, http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/06/news/economy/penn_community/index.htm.

[5] Brian Thompson, Hundreds Protest Fracking in NY and NJ, NBC New York, Nov. 21, 2011, available at http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Fracking-Controversy-Comes-to-NY-and-NJ-134268068.html.

[6] Neela Banerjee, Landowners Left Out of the Loop on Fracking Risks, L.A. Times, Dec. 12, 2011, available at http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/12/nation/la-na-fracking-land-20111212.

[7] Anne Mulkern, Industry Campaign Targets ‘Hydraulic Fracturing’ Bill, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2009, available at http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/05/07/07greenwire-industry-campaign-targets-hydraulic-fracturing-10572.html;  see also 42 U.S.C § 300 (2006).

[8]Nicholas Kuznetz, Fracking Chemicals Cited in Congressional Report Stay Underground, Propublica, Apr. 18, 2011, http://www.propublica.org/article/fracking-chemicals-cited-in-congressional-report-stay-underground/single;  see also Russell Gold & Stephen Simon, State Forces Disclosure of Fracking Chemicals, Wall St. J., Dec. 14, 2011, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204336104577096800431092304.html?mod=googlenews_wsj.

[9] David Chanatry, New York Town Takes Up Fracking Issue, NPR, Nov. 3 2011, available at http://www.npr.org/2011/11/03/141968999/new-york-town-takes-up-fracking-issue.

[10] Kirk Johnson, E.P.A Links Tainted Water in Wyoming to Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas, N.Y. Times, Dec. 8, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/us/epa-says-hydraulic-fracturing-likely-marred-wyoming-water.html.

[11]David Biello, Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas Pollutes Water Wells, Scientific America, May 9, 2011, available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fracking-for-natural-gas-pollutes-water-wells.

[12] Henry Fountain, Add Quakes to Rumblings Over Gas Rush, N.Y. Times, Dec. 12, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/science/some-blame-hydraulic-fracturing-for-earthquake-epidemic.html?ref=science;  see also Mark Niquette, Fracking Has Formerly Stable Ohio City Aquiver Over Quakes, Business Week, Dec. 16, 2011, available at http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-12-16/fracking-has-formerly-stable-ohio-city-aquiver-over-quakes.html.

[13] Austin Holland, Examination of Possibly Induce Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma (2011), available at http://www.eenews.net/assets/2011/11/02/document_pm_01.pdf.

[14] Alec Liu & Jeremy Kaplan, Earthquakes in Arkansas May Be Man-Made, Experts Warn, Fox News (Mar. 1, 2011), http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/03/01/fracking-earthquakes-arkansas-man-experts-warn/.

[15] Fountain, supra note 12.

[16] Solomon Banda, Colorado Tightens Fracking Rules, Times Union, Dec. 13, 2011, available at http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Colorado-tightens-fracking-rules-2401144.php.

 

 

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