By Dave Stancliff/For the Times-Standard
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a proven technology that has been around since the 1940s, but has recently come under close scrutiny for safety reasons.
A federal report released on Nov. 10, said the shale gas industry should take “urgent action to improve drilling practices” or regulators and the energy industry risk a public backlash that could slow development.
In a time when jobs are desperately needed, unlocking massive supplies of oil and clean-burning natural gas from dense deposits of shale is a financial boon. Fracking has been used in more than one million U.S. wells, and has produced more than seven billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. To learn more about the process go to: http://www.energyfromshale.org/shale-extraction-process.
There’s no doubt that fracking has helped local economies and made a large contribution to our energy needs in America. Unfortunately, the process involved in fracking has produced toxic side effects. Rather than get into why these side effects weren’t discovered decades sooner, I will address the known facts that are available today.
In June 2005, Susan Wallace-Babb walked outside her house and almost immediately passed out. She was unaware of a problem with a pair of fuel storage tanks at a natural gas well less than a half-mile away. One of them had overflowed into the other causing fumes to drift to her location.
As weeks passed, whenever she went outdoors, her symptoms worsened. Wallace-Babb's doctor began to suspect she had been poisoned. Neither states nor the federal government have systematically tracked reports from people like Wallace-Babb, or comprehensively investigated how drilling affects human health.
ProPublica, a web magazine dedicated to “Journalism in the Public Interest,” recently examined government environmental reports and private lawsuits and interviewed scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states—Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania—that are drilling hot spots.
Their research showed that cases like Wallace-Babb's go back a decade in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, where drilling has taken place for years. They are just beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale drilling boom began in 2008.
Concern about such health complaints go back to 2007 when Wallace-Babb testified before Congress.
A pair of environmental monitoring water wells drilled deep into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo., contain high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, according to new test results released on Nov. 9 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Pavillion area has been drilled extensively for natural gas for 20 years and is home to hundreds of gas wells. For a decade, residents have claimed that hydraulic fracturing in particular - has caused their water to turn black and smell like gasoline. Some residents say they suffer neurological impairment, loss of smell, and nerve pain they associate with exposure to pollutants.
Meanwhile, the gas industry - led by the Canadian company EnCana, which owns the wells in Pavillion - has denied that its activities are responsible for the contamination. Despite their denial, EnCana has supplied drinking water to the residents.
The wells also contained benzene at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols - another dangerous human carcinogen - acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.
The EPA said the water samples were saturated with methane gas that matched the deep layers of natural gas being drilled for energy. The research in Wyoming is separate from the agency's ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing's effect on water supplies, and is being funded through the Superfund cleanup program.
Another troubling aspect of the fracking process is the compounds used; the industry has steadfastly refused to divulge everything they contain. That alone has rung alarm bells that are now heard nationally. Now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand and let partisan politics take over. No one wants a battle of energy corporations versus people’s health.
Health and contamination problems from fracking have to be taken seriously and addressed sooner, rather than later. If the industry wants to show it can be a good neighbor, now is the time to cooperate with researchers and solve these issues to everyone‘s satisfaction.
As It Stands, I’m hopeful the fracking process can be improved for both the people living near the active wells, and for the sake of this country’s energy supply.