New Studies Raise Additional Concerns Regarding the Health and Environmental Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing
As hydraulic fracturing continues its march as the darling of natural gas drilling here in the Ohio Valley, so does the evidence of its potential to induce harm to humans and the environment. The uncertainties of the health risks associated with horizontal drilling, using massive amounts of water, pressure and certain hazardous chemicals to break down shale formations for natural gas extraction, has pushed countries worldwide to proactively regulate the use of this technology, such as a temporary ban in Germany in 2012 and a ban in France in 2011. While industry mouthpieces continue to reassure the public that all is well and there's nothing to be concerned about, ongoing research continues to suggest that these countries' efforts are well-founded, and two recent studies provide mounting evidence that we all need to be concerned about the knock-on effects of the Ohio Valley's natural gas boom.
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
that looked at over 41,000 wells in Pennsylvania shows that newer and unconventional wells leak far more often than older and traditional ones. The results suggest that leaks of methane could be a problem for drilling across the nation. A team of four scientists analyzed more than 75,000 state inspections of gas wells done in Pennsylvania since 2000.?Overall "traditional", or vertical, wells drilled before 2009 had a leak rate of about 1 percent, while newer traditional wells drilled after 2009 had a leak rate of about 2 percent. However, the leak rate for "unconventional" wells - those being drilled horizontally in the Ohio Valley's fracking boom - was as high as 10 percent
. Even more concerning is that the scientists don't know the size of the leaks or even their causes, but suspicion that companies are cutting corners amidst this drilling boom was strong enough to cause Pennsylvania to increase its efforts to stress proper cementing practices and make leak protection efforts on unconventional wells more stringent.
Another recent study, examining the contents of the fluids involved in the fracking process, has raised additional concerns about hydraulic fracturing. The scientists recently presented their work at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society
which revealed that out of nearly 200 commonly used frack fluid compounds, there's very little known about the potential health risks of about one-third, and eight are toxic to mammals
Although the companies that manufacture fracking fluids have strongly resisted efforts calling for transparency regarding the contents of these chemical mixtures, a team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of the Pacific scoured databases and reports to compile as comprehensive a list as possible of the substances industry is commonly using to fracture shale formations. The mix includes gelling agents to thicken the fracking fluids, biocides to keep microbes from growing, sand to prop open tiny cracks in the rocks and a number of compounds to prevent pipe corrosion.
According to the researchers "[t]here are a number of chemicals, like corrosion inhibitors and biocides in particular, that are being used in reasonably high concentrations that potentially could have adverse effects." "Biocides, for example, are designed to kill bacteria-it's not a benign material." In addition, for about one-third of the approximately 190 compounds the scientists have identified as in various fracking formulas, the scientists found very little information about the toxicity or physical and chemical properties of these. However, in looking at the environmental impact of the fracking fluids, the Berkeley team found that some have toxic effects on aquatic life.
Although research into the environmental and public health blowback from the unprecedented drilling effort continues, the results of these studies leave little doubt regarding the need for a similarly unprecedented regulatory effort. Even if you don't have a well in your back yard, fracking still affects each and every one of us and impacts the quality of life we can expect to enjoy here in the Ohio Valley. If we are going to allow this process to continue, we must make certain that every effort is made to carefully scrutinize, catalog, regulate and track the manner in which these wells are drilled, and properly dispose of every drop of the chemicals that go in and come out of these wells. West Virginia and Ohio have a lot of catching up to do in both of these areas, and I urge you to contact your local congressman and speak out for enhanced regulation of the natural gas patch.