NATURAL GAS DRILLING: PUBLIC HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS
The United States has as much natural gas as Saudi Arabia has oil. According to Penn State, the Marcellus Shale, which runs from central New York State to West Virginia, may be the second largest natural gas field in the world.
We have enormous reserves that can help America meet its energy needs and do so in a way that produces far less pollution than coal, helps the United States on its path to energy independence, and improves national security.
High volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is now being used to extract natural gas from shale formations in thousands of new wells. In Pennsylvania more than 2,700 Marcellus wells were drilled from 2006 to March 10th of this year.
A study last year estimated that Marcellus drilling would create or support more than 100,000 jobs in 2011, plus billions of dollars in economic value for the state.
The natural gas industry is booming, but that may soon end. Against the backdrop of natural gas’s promise,
- New York has imposed a moratorium on fracking operations.
- New Jersey is considering a ban on the practice.
- The City of Pittsburgh has enacted a ban on fracking operations within the city limits.
- Tiny Mountain Lake Park, Maryland adopted an ordinance making the drilling of natural gas illegal within the town limits.
What’s going on? In the face of its extraordinary promise, why is natural gas faltering?
The answer is simple. The industry has failed to meet minimally acceptable performance levels for protecting human health and the environment. That is both an industry failure and a failure of the regulatory agencies.
I am a strong supporter of domestic natural gas production. But my support only comes when human health and the environment are protected.
Potential human health and environmental impacts:
The natural gas industry argues that there has never been a documented case of drinking water contamination from fracking.
Viewed in isolation, fracking occurs far below drinking water aquifers. But fracking doesn’t mysteriously just happen. It involves drilling, wells, water, compressors, and all the associated equipment that goes into a modern well-drilling operation.
The record is replete with cases of contamination from improper cement jobs, cracked drill casings, drill pad spills, and seismic disturbances releasing natural gas in higher geological formations. For example, Pennsylvania DEP brought an enforcement action against Cabot Oil for poor cementing after the drinking water wells of 19 families in Dimock, PA were polluted.
In June, 2010 the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association identified a total of 1614 violations accrued by 45 Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale drillers, dating to January 2008, including:
- 91 violations of Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law
- 162 cases of Improper Construction of Waste Water Impoundments
- 50 cases of Improper Well-Casing Construction, and
- 4 cases of inadequate Blowout Prevention. Last June a well blowout in Clearfield County shot 35,000 gallons of gas and water 75 ft into the air over a 16 hour period.
Pro Publica, the investigative news site, has found over 1,000 reports of water contamination near drilling sites.
Up to 5 million gallons of water combined with thousands of gallons of special chemicals can be used in a single fracking operation, much of this returning to the surface.
This flowback fluid contains not only the chemicals used in the fracking process, but can also include salts, metals, and naturally occurring radioactive substances.
Municipal wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to handle these contaminants. In Pennsylvania, more than a dozen publically owned treatment works facilities accepting natural gas wastewater have failed to treat it in accordance with permit requirements. Radioactive isotopes, heavy salts, and other chemicals were discharged into surface waters – all in apparent violation of the Clean Water Act.
Even specialized facilities can have problems.
Studies of the effluent from a commercial facility in Pennsylvania that collects water only from gas operations show half a dozen pollutants in excess of their approved limits as determined by an agency at the Centers for Disease Control.
The contaminants include:
o Chloride, which has been found at levels that are hundreds of times higher than accepted health levels.
o Benzene, a known carcinogen, has been detected at levels thousands of times above health limits.
o Bromide reacts with other chemicals to form potentially carcinogenic compounds. It is present at levels tens of thousands of times higher than the levels of concern.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA would typically be allowed to regulate all underground injections of fluids, including the chemicals used in fracking, cement jobs, casings, and disposal of flowback water. However, a loophole exempts fracking from regulation, except where diesel fuel is used.
Even with this huge loophole, federal violations have occurred. Since 2005, companies have injected over 32 million gallons of diesel fuel or fracking fluids containing diesel fuel in wells in 19 states. None of these operations obtained a permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act, meaning that all are in violation. To date, EPA has failed to take any enforcement action.
Similar restrictions on the Clean Water Act allow drilling companies to operate outside its scope.
State regulators, facing their own massive budget cuts, have tried to fill the void. In the Marcellus Shale area, Pennsylvania’s response has been characterized as playing continual regulatory catch-up, as regulations have routinely failed to address issues.
As today’s hearing will make clear, the exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act aren’t working.
We need to put the environmental cop back on the beat, take aggressive action against the bad actors in the industry and earn back the public’s confidence.
The promise of natural gas will be a promise unfulfilled if the human health and environmental impacts are not properly safe-guarded. It’s long past time that they were.
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