Tag Archives: fracking

A new tool can show if your water is polluted by fracking

Exposing drinking water to hydraulic fracturing fluid increases the risk of many adverse health outcomes. Unfortunately, knowing the risks posed by a particular well is very difficult due to the wide range of chemical ingredients used across sites. Now, researchers have created an app that changes this radically.

Credit Flickr Matt Brown

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to release the oil or gas held within naturally occurring pockets of shale or other dense rock deep within the earth. While it’s not a new technique, it saw a major increase in use since the early 2000s. Following this growth, reports started linking fracking with an increase in seismic activity.

But that’s not the only issue. Close proximity to hydraulic fracturing sites has been linked with increased hospitalization rates, increased risk of preterm birth, increases in congenital heart defects, and possibly neural tube defects among the public. These adverse health outcomes are likely due to the chemicals used in the fracking process, which affect processes involving development and reproduction.

Penn Medicine researchers have created an interactive tool, called WellExplorer, that allows community members and scientists to find out which toxins may be lurking in their drinking water as a result of fracking. You just have to type your ZIP code in the website or the app and look at the fracking sites near you, with information on the chemicals used at each of them.

In a recent study, the researchers behind the interactive tool found worrying data on some of the wells. For example, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania use a high number of ingredients targeting testosterone pathways. Meanwhile, Alabama uses a disproportionately high number of ingredients targeting estrogen pathways.

“The chemical mixtures used in fracking are known to regulate hormonal pathways, including testosterone and estrogen, and can therefore affect human development and reproduction,” Mary Regina Boland, one of the researchers behind the project, said in a statement. “Knowing about these chemicals is important, not only for researchers but also for individuals.”

The US already has a central registry for fracking chemical disclosures called FracFocus but the researchers believed it’s not user-friendly for the general public. It also doesn’t have information about the biological action of the fracking chemicals that it lists. That’s why they developed WellExplorer, starting by cleaning and shortening the data from FracFocus to use it in their own interactive tool.

The researchers integrated data from the Toxin and Toxin Target Database (T3DB) in order to obtain the toxic and biological properties of the ingredients found at the well sites. They also extracted toxicity rankings of the top 275 most toxic ingredients from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, as well as a list of ingredients that were food additives.

Boland explained that the use of chemicals at a fracking site may not necessarily mean that those chemicals would be present in the water supply, which would be dependent on other factors, such as the depth of the hydraulic fracturing. Nevertheless, she said WellExplorer was a very good starting point for residents that may be dealing with symptoms and want to have their water tested.

Pregnant women living near oil and gas wells are 40% more likely to birth low-weight babies

Pregnant women have a higher risk of having low birth weight babies if they live close to active oil and gas wells, especially in rural areas, according to a new study in California. The findings add to previous studies that had already warned over the impacts of living near fossil fuel extraction sites.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, looked at the medical records of nearly three million births by moms living within 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015. The researchers targeted births in both rural and urban areas, as well as pregnant women living near both active and inactive oil and gas sites.

According to the findings, pregnant women who lived in rural areas within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to birth underweight babies and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age, compared to people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only.

Even among term births, babies were 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller, on average, than those of their counterparts. Newborns are considered to have low birth weight when their weight is less than 5lb and 8oz (2.4 kilos). Having a low weight can cause a wide array of short-term development issues.

“Being born of low birth weight or small for gestational age can affect the development of newborns and increase their risk of health problems in early childhood and even into adulthood,” said in a statement Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior author of the paper.

Morello-Frosch and her team also found a link between living in close proximity to oil and gas wells and small babies born in urban areas. Nevertheless, it was much less significant than in rural communities – something they explain by differences in air quality, maternal occupation, and housing conditions.

Growing risks

The findings add to a growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil and gas wells to a variety of adverse birth outcomes such as premature birth, heart defects, and low birth weight. Oil and gas production has been on the rise in the US in recent years due to the expansion of non-conventional techniques like fracking.

Fracking is a method of extracting oil and gas trapped in shale and other rock formations. It involves pumping large amounts of water down a well at high pressure, along with sand and chemicals that make up a tiny fraction of the volume. The technique transformed the US energy landscape, although California hasn’t seen as much changes as other states.

In California, where the study was carried out, oil production has declined over the past three decades. Last year, Governor Gavin Newson issued stricter rules for companies to obtain fracking permits. There are now 282 fracking permits waiting for review in the state.

“This study is the first to characterize the implications for perinatal health of active oil and gas production in the state, and I think the results can inform decision-making in regulatory enforcement and permitting activities,” Morello-Frosch said. “Results from health studies such as ours support recent efforts to increase buffers between active well activities and where people live, go to school and play.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives

Dumping coal-fired in favor of gas-fired plants would save the U.S. a lot of water — switching to renewables, a whole lot more

Less coal use translates to dramatic reductions in water usage, reports a team from Duke University.

Image via Pixabay.

The gradual transition from coal to natural gas and renewable energy in the U.S. is dramatically reducing the use of water in the energy industry. Furthermore, these overall savings in both water consumption and water withdrawal have been seen during a period where fracking and shale gas production have intensified their use of water.

Water, less

“While most attention has been focused on the climate and air quality benefits of switching from coal, this new study shows that the transition to natural gas — and even more so, to renewable energy sources — has resulted in saving billions of gallons of water,” said Avner Vengosh, Professor of Geochemistry and Water Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The team estimates that for every megawatt of electricity produced from natural gas instead of coal, the energy industry withdraws 10,500 fewer gallons of water from the environment (rivers and groundwater). That is equivalent to a 100-day water supply for a typical American household, according to the team. At the same time, water consumption (which is water used by a power plant but not returned to the environment) drops by 260 gallons per megawatt.

If these figures remain steady, and in the context of coal being slowly phased-out by fuels such as shale gas over the next decade, the team estimates that the energy industry will save up to 483 billion cubic meters of water per year by 2030. If all of today’s coal-fired plants switch to natural gas, yearly savings will reach 12,250 billion gallons. That’s over two-and-a-half times the quantity of water that the United States industry uses annually.

So whence doth the savings come? Coal mining and fracking use roughly the same quantities of water, the team explains, but natural gas power plants use much less of it than coal plants. The difference mostly comes from their cooling systems. Since around 40% of all water use in the U.S. today goes to cooling thermoelectric plants, individual reductions stack up to huge overall savings, Vengosh explains.

“The amount of water used for cooling thermoelectric plants eclipses all its other uses in the electricity sector, including for coal mining, coal washing, ore and gas transportation, drilling and fracking,” he said.

However, compared to gas and coal, solar and wind use virtually no water. The study showed that the water intensity (i.e. overall water use throughout their lifecycle) of these renewable sources is only 1% to 2% of that of coal or gas (as measured by water use per kilowatt of generated energy). In other words, a substantial shift to solar and wind would eliminate “much” of the water withdrawal and consumption for energy generation in the U.S.

Natural gas overtook coal as the primary fossil fuel for electricity generation in the United States in 2015, mainly due to the rise of unconventional shale gas exploration (fracking). It made up 35.1% of U.S. electricity in 2018, while wind and solar accounted for 6.5% and 2.3%, respectively. Coal-fired plants generated 27.4% of U.S. electricity in 2018.

The paper “Quantification of the water-use reduction associated with the transition from coal to natural gas in the U.S. electricity sector” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Fracking causes massive surge in methane emissions

Among greenhouse gasses, methane is now the second most important one causing climate change. Its expansion in the last few years can be linked to the larger development of shale gas and shale oil, according to a new study based on chemical fingerprints.

Credit: Flickr

The research, published in the journal Biogeosciences, reports that methane released from the exploitation of shale gas and oil a different carbon-13/carbon-12 ratio than conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels such as coal, which serves as a chemical signature of sorts.

This carbon-13 signature means that since the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) shale gas has greatly contributed to the global release of methane into the atmosphere, according to the paper’s author, Robert Howarth.

The level of methane in the atmosphere had previously risen during the last two decades of the 20th century but tapered in the first decade of the 21st century. Then, they increased dramatically from 2008–14 due to global human-caused methane emissions in the last 11 years.

“This recent increase in methane is massive,” Howarth said. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen, and shale gas is a major player.”

While it increased in the atmosphere, the carbon composition of the methane has also changed. Methane from biological sources such as cows and wetlands have low carbon-13 content — compared to methane from most fossil fuels. Previous studies erroneously concluded that biological sources are the cause of the rising methane, Howarth said.

About two-thirds of all new gas production over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the United States and Canada. Global shale-gas production has exploded 14-fold, from 31 billion cubic meters per year in 2005 to 435 billion cubic meters per year in 2015.

Unlike carbon dioxide, the climate system responds quickly to changes in methane emissions and reducing methane emissions could provide an opportunity to immediately slow the rate of global warming and meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC.

“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,” Howarth said. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

Signs of fracking water found in freshwater mussels

In Pennsylvania, the release of fracking water has been banned in 2011, but traces from before the ban are still visible in aquatic environments.

Frack the environment

Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is a process through which oil companies can retrieve otherwise inaccessible reserves of shale gas. As the name suggests, it involves using a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals (called fracking fluid) to create a system of fractures which would allow the gas to escape towards the surface, where it can be captured.

Illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities. Image credits: US Environmental Protection Agency.

Fracking is controversial for several reasons. It uses massive quantities of water, it appears to cause increased seismicity, and, of course, the leaks. Creating a system of fissures a few kilometers beneath ground is challenging, but ensuring that the system is tight and doesn’t allow leaks is massively more difficult. Naturally, many people are concerned that the fracking fluid or the gas itself can leak towards the surface, seeping into the soil and water reserves — which has observed to be the case at some wells in the past.

But the release of used fracking water is also a major issue with long-lasting consequences.

“Freshwater pollution is a major concern for both ecological and human health,” said David Gillikin, professor of geology at Union College and co-author of a new study. “Developing ways to retroactively document this pollution is important to shed light on what’s happening in our streams.”

In their new paper, Gillikin and colleagues report finding high concentrations of strontium, an element associated with oil and gas wastewaters, in the shells of freshwater mussels downstream from fracking wastewater disposal sites.

A smoking gun

Image credits: Engbretson Eric, USFWS.

In a way, freshwater mussels are a bit like trees — they can offer a lot of information about the environmental quality of the water they live in, much like tree rings offer information about past climate events. Because they feed by filtering water, mussels hold a record of past water quality, which can be studied.

“Freshwater mussels filter water and when they grow a hard shell, the shell material records some of the water quality with time,” said Nathaniel Warner, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Penn State. “Like tree rings, you can count back the seasons and the years in their shell and get a good idea of the quality and chemical composition of the water during specific periods of time.”

After usage, fracking fluid is treated and cleaned — but this process is not perfect. In 2011, biologists noticed that despite this treatment, water and sediment downstream from fracking wastewater disposal sites still contained worrying amounts of fracking chemicals. The water was contaminated and in turn, affected aquatic life, causing widespread damage. After this was revealed, Pennsylvania banned all fracking wastewater treatment facilities from releasing the water back into the ecosystem. But the effect of the released water before the ban is still unclear.

To shed some light on it, researchers collected freshwater mussels from the Alleghany River, both upstream and downstream of a wastewater disposal facility in Warren, Pennsylvania. They also collected mussels from two other rivers — the Juniata and Delaware — that had no reported history of oil and gas discharge, for comparison.

They particularly looked at strontium isotopes, which in this context can be a smoking gun for fracking wastewater. They also analyzed the oxygen isotope, to identify the year and season. Not surprisingly, they found elevated concentrations of strontium in the shells of the freshwater mussels collected downstream of the facility, whereas all others showed no significant elevation. But not everything came as expected.

Despite the 2011 ban, strontium levels didn’t immediately drop sharply. Instead, it took a while before the decrease was visible, and the decrease was quite slow. This suggests that even years in which fracking water has not been released back into the ecosystem, the effects are still visible.

“We know that Marcellus development has impacted sediments downstream for tens of kilometers,” said Warner. “And it appears it still could be impacted for a long period of time. The short timeframe that we permitted the discharge of these wastes might leave a long legacy.”

Considering the large scale of modern fracking, this is particularly concerning. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, up to 95% of new wells drilled today are hydraulically fractured.

“The wells are getting bigger, and they’re using more water, and they’re producing more wastewater, and that water has got to go somewhere,” said Warner. “Making the proper choices about how to manage that water is going to be pretty vital.”

This study goes on to show that even a few years of the process could have long-lasting, damaging consequences. It also suggests that freshwater mussels can be used to study potential seepages at oil sites, since conventional oil drilling can also cause a similar type of pollution.

Journal Reference: Thomas J. Geeza, David P. Gillikin, Bonnie McDevitt, Katherine Van Sice, Nathaniel R. Warner. Accumulation of Marcellus Formation Oil and Gas Wastewater Metals in Freshwater Mussel Shells. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018; 52 (18): 10883 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02727

The Economics of Fracking: Is Fracking Worth the Health and Environmental Risks?

Note: This article is part 1 of a two-part series on fracking. You can read part 1, The Environmental Concerns of Fracking, here.

Since 1947, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has been used at natural gas wells to increase oil and gas production. Fracking operations have increased drastically in recent years as new drilling techniques provide access to oil and gas deposits previously thought unreachable.

Fracking landscape. Image credits: Simon Fraser University.

How Fracking Works

Hydraulic fracturing comes into play after workers drill a well. Casing and cement are put in place during the drilling process to create a barrier between groundwater and inside the well. This barrier prevents contamination and aids the flowback of fluids from well treatments. Once the barrier is in place and the drill rig has been moved off the pad, the fracking crew set up their equipment at the well site.

A fracking crew uses eight to 16 pump trucks to pump fracturing fluid — a mixture of water, sand and chemicals — into the well. A pump truck with an industrial diesel engine, transmission and pump that is capable of producing thousands of horsepower pump the fracking fluid under great pressure to create fissures in the rock. Those fissures are propped open with sand to allow oil or gas to flow freely to the surface.

The effort to fracture a well requires lots of personnel as well as support services. For example, a fracking site requires services such as such as catering, water transfer, outhouses and mobile lighting systems. 

Hydraulic Fracturing Has Led to Job Creation and Greater Energy Independence

There are economic benefits to fracking. According to the publication Energy from Shale, for example, the oil and gas industry supported 2.1 million jobs in 2012 and could support 3.9 million jobs by 2025.

In addition, fracking has decreased our dependence on other forms of energy. During the past 60 years, more than 1.1 million fracturing operations have helped deliver more than 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The American Petroleum Institute estimates the energy surge made possible by fracking led to a household savings of $1,200 in 2012.

Fracking Processes Put Worker Health, Public Safety and the Environment at Risk

The increase in hydraulic fracturing operations has also heightened concerns about health, safety and the environment. Of particular concern are:

  1. Groundwater contamination through the disposal of wastewater in injection wells
  2. Chemical spills on the surface
  3. Earthquakes caused by injection wells near faults

Hydraulic fracking is also notorious for the immense quantities of water it requires.

Health Risks to Workers 

Workers’ safety on fracking sites is a major concern. For example, silica dust from sand used in the fracturing process can cause serious lung damage (silicosis). Although the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) regulates sand dust, OSHA has no onsite enforcement role.

OSHA has released a hazard alert to notify employees that “respirable crystalline silica” can lead to silicosis, “a lung disease where lung tissue around trapped silica particles reacts, causing inflammation and scarring and reduced ability to take in oxygen.” OSHA says studies show that 47% of air samples from well sites are greater than the calculated OSHA permissible exposure limit.

Some chemicals used in the fracking process are also known to be toxic and carcinogenic. 

Public Safety Risks Caused by Fracking

The public is directly affected by hydraulic fracturing operations, even if there were no environmental pollutants. For example, many roads are not designed to carry thousands of tractor-trailers that carry the enormous amount of fracking equipment. Each tractor-trailer weighs more than 100,000 pounds and they quickly damage these roads, which then must be repaired using local and state funds.

In small towns, for instance, roads are not designed to support these tractor-trailers. A typical country road will last approximately 20 years. It is estimated that it takes approximately 1,760 to 1,904 truck trips hauling equipment, materials and water to build, drill and frack a single well. The New York State Department of Transportation estimates the cost to repair roads due to oil field activity is roughly $378 million.

Finally, there is the problem of methane gas emissions. The oil and gas industry is responsible for 30% of methane emissions in the United States. Older pipelines leak and outdated technology vents the gas into the atmosphere.

Environmental Risks of Fracking

Many people are concerned about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing. These concerns include:

  • Chemical Spills
  • Air pollution
  • Degradation of infrastructure
  • Noise
  • Groundwater contamination
  • Increased seismic activity
  • Increased greenhouse gas releases

Injection wells have recently become a hot topic among environmentalists because these wells are used to dispose of wastewater that comes from the oil and gas drilling. The concern is that the wells might cause more seismic activities and earthquakes that can lead to groundwater contamination.

Oil and Gas Companies Must Act Responsibly to Ensure Public Health and Safety

Many of the processes used in hydraulic fracturing are dangerous and can lead to health, safety, and environmental problems. The oil and gas service providers must act responsibly when producing oil.

Although most companies act responsibly, other companies may only be interested in their short-term gains. Therefore, it is important for the federal government to create regulations that will establish safety guidelines and provide penalties to encourage companies to follow these safety guidelines.

This is a guest contribution by Jonathan Coulter, Master of Science in Computer Engineering Alumnus, Oklahoma Christian University and Colin Doyle, Ph.D., Program Director of Electrical Engineering, School of STEM, American Public University. This article represents the position of the authors and not that of ZME Science. Read more of our articles on hydraulic fracking here.

About the Authors

Jonathan Coulter is a drivetrain controls engineer at John Deere. He holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and a master of science in computer engineering from Oklahoma Christian University.

Dr. Colin Doyle is an associate professor and Program Director of Electrical Engineering in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at American Public University. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University, a master of science in electrical engineering from the University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University. 

Baby hand.

Fracking linked to low-weight, less healthy babies

Infants born close to fracking wells are 25% more likely to have low birth weights, according to a new study, raising concerns about its long-term health implications.

Baby hand.

Image via Pixabay.

The merits of fracking — a process which relies on hydraulic fracturing to reach deposits of natural gas trapped in deep-lying rocks, generally shales — is nothing if not a hotly debated topic. Europe has, by-and-large, said no to fracking. It’s big business in the US, however, with some hailing it as an “energy revolution”. A term you could use, I reckon, if you’d consider slapping a band-aid on a broken leg instead of a cast as ‘revolutionary’ treatment.

Regardless of how fracking fits in the contexts of the global economy and climate change efforts, new evidence suggests that it also comes with unforeseen health implications. A new study, led by health economist Janet Currie at Princeton University, found that infants born in close proximity to a fracking well are more likely to have lower birth weights and score lower on a standard index of infant health.

Low birth weight is associated with a slew of health concerns, which can afflict an infant with life-long complications.

Fracked from birth

Fracking has enjoyed an extraordinary rise in the U.S. over the past 15 years. Concerns over its effects on public health, however, aren’t new. Previous research has linked living near oil and gas developments to a wide range of complications, from a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, higher rates of asthma, migraines, cancer and neurological disorders, all the way to lower birth-weights of infants. These findings were often dismissed due to the low sample sizes they drew on, or the fact that they couldn’t prove the health effects got worse closer to drilling sites, as would be expected if fracking was to blame.

Some states, like Maryland and New York, have nevertheless opted for a “better safe than sorry” approach, banning fracking altogether. Other states, by contrast, have chosen to embrace it. Either way, like so many topics over the last few years, fracking stands poised to divide the country, at least until its risks and rewards are fully understood.

Heavy fracking.

“In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands.”
Image and caption credits to Simon Fraser University / Flickr.

To that end, the team at Princeton looked at the birth certificates of 1.1 million infants born in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013. This is one of the most intensely fracked states, and most of its over 10,000 wells were drilled during the period covered by the study. These certificates include addresses and vital statistics for each infant, such as birth weights, total months of gestation, birth defects, and other abnormal conditions. The team took this data and spread it (via address) on maps showing where wells were dug throughout the state. Finally, they plotted circles around each drilling site with radiuses of 1, 2, and 3 kilometers (0.62, 1.24, 1.86 miles).

The team reports that infants born within the tightest circle (1 km / 0.62-mile radius) around any well were 25% more likely to have low birth weights (under 2500 grams, or 5.5 pounds) compared to infants born outside any of the circles. They also scored significantly lower on a standard index of infant health. Infants born in the outer circles — between 1 and 3 kilometers from a well — showed lower average birth weights and scored lower on the health index than those outside the circles, but they were overall in better shape than the infants born in the tightest radius.

To make sure they weren’t picking up on other effects that could lead to poor infant health and health outcomes — for example race and socioeconomic background — the team factored out babies born in areas such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which have higher rates of infants births with low weight. Further, they drew on a sample of 594 infants born inside the influence range of a well and their unexposed siblings (families who either lived somewhere else and then moved near the well, or who had a child before the well was drilled). Although the sample base was small, such comparisons showed that exposed infants were smaller and less healthy at birth than their unexposed brothers and sisters in the same families.

Run for the hills — or 2 miles away

One piece of good news, the authors say, is that these detrimental effects don’t extend far beyond the fracking sites. The team didn’t find any evidence of weight or health effects past 3 kilometers / 1.86 miles.

Hydraulic Fracturing Marcellus Shale.

Hydraulic fracturing operation at a Marcellus Shale well.
Image credits US Geological Survey.

However, the findings are far from painting a complete picture. The team still doesn’t know what aspect of fracking causes the observed effects. Currie, who specializes in the interplay between air pollution and health, says it likely comes down to airborne chemicals or the increased truck traffic and industrialization associated with fracking. Water pollution is an unlikely culprit, she believes, as many people in the study got their water from municipal sources, which aren’t close to fracking sites.

Oil and gas companies are having none of it, however. In an email to The Verge, Pittsburgh’s Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright said that the study falls far from definitively proving anything. Her main criticism is that it doesn’t do anything to address “crucial issues linked to low birth weights like smoking as well as alcohol and drug use” and that “given these deep methodological flaws, it’s dangerously misleading and inflammatory to suggest that natural gas development has done anything but improve public health” (it’s not). Then again, it’s not a very surprising claim coming from a company that’s trying to sell natural gas produced via hydraulic fracking. Neither is opposing tighter environmental regulation in regards to drilling nor backing a “citizen” initiative to take atomic energy (a direct competitor) off the market. All going towards the common public good, for sure.

I’d ask why people living within a 1-kilometer radius of a well smoke and drink more than people living 2 kilometers away. And why do both puff and chug more than those living between 2 and 3 kilometers away? It’s a striking coincidence. I’d probably be left unanswered.

Mrs. Wright is right on one point, however — there isn’t any smoking gun here, no God-given burning script in the sky linking fracking to poor infant health. Then again, gravity is just a theory as well. Nobody has ever ‘seen’ a chunk of gravity — we know it exists because we’ve gathered enough evidence (inconclusive on its own, very convincing in its sheer bulk) that gravity exists.

The present study isn’t alone. Others before it have reached similar results, even some beyond those found by Currie’s team, including evidence linking fracking activity to preterm births. How much ‘inconclusive’, ‘misleading’ and ‘inflammatory’ evidence must one gather for it to become ‘conclusive’? That’s a question each and every one living next to a well will have to grapple with for themselves.

On a final note, Currie adds that infants essentially acted as the “canaries” near the fracking mines, but they’re probably not the only victims. If they are affected, then the elderly and other vulnerable people living near wells are likely also at risk.

“We really should move beyond the discussion of whether there is a health effect or not to figuring out how we can help people who live close to fracking,” she concludes.

The paper “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Birth Outcomes in Pennsylvania, USA” has been published in the journal Epidemiology.

Hydraulic Fracking leaks much more often than we thought

The controversial practice of hydraulic fracking is much more damaging than we actually thought. These oil and gas wells spill pretty often to the surface, a new study found.

This is a screengrab from the study’s interactive map shows a decade’s worth of spills of more than 5,000 gallons of pollutants from pipeline leaks at North Dakota hydraulic fracturing sites.
Credit: Source: Science for Nature and People Partnership

As any geology student worth his salt will tell you, oil reservoirs are complex things. First, you need a source rock under just the right temperature and pressure — to generate the oil. Then, you need a porous rock to hold the oil, and a seal to prevent it from migrating towards the surface and spilling (because oil is much lighter than surrounding rocks). The fact that oil reservoirs exist in the first place is pretty neat in the first place.

But sometimes, you need to give Mother Nature a hand to be able to get that sweet oil. Specifically, you have to generate a system of fissures through which the oil and gas can get closer to the surface, so you can extract it. This is done by injecting a so-called fracking fluid at extreme pressures with the purpose of splintering the rocks and creating a system of fissures. There are several major environmental problems associated with this practice.

Illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities. Image via EPA.

For starters, we don’t really know what the fracking fluid is — it’s considered to be a corporate secret — but we do know that it contains a slurry of chemicals, many of which can be dangerous to humans and the environment. Secondly, this takes up gargantuan quantities of water (millions of gallons per well) which can exert a massive stress on local aquifers. Some of the water can be reused from well to well, but much of it is lost. Also, there have been studies linking fracking to increased seismicity and water contamination, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike previous studies, which analyzed what happens beneath the ground, this one focused on the surface.

Researchers studied 31,481 hydraulic fracture wells, finding that between 2004 and 2015 there have been 6,648 spills, as defined by each of the four state’s reporting requirements. These spills to the surface can have a huge negative impact on the environment and drinking water.

“There’s been so much focus on the ground water contamination and the casing incidences,” says Hannah Wiseman, the Attorneys’ Title Professor at Florida State University College of Law and an author on both studies. “We wanted to sort of shift the attention a bit to the surface.”

It’s not the first time a study like this was carried out. A similar study conducted by the EPA found only 457 leaks between 2006 and 2012 — but that’s because they only looked at spills caused by the fracking itself. This is more of a lifecycle analysis, showing that for the entire duration of the project, fracking wells can, and often do, leak to the surface.

“We think it’s important to study the whole life of the well,” said Wiseman, “because the process of hydraulic fracturing has enabled the drilling of so many more wells.”

In total, they found that 2 to 16 percent of fracking wells spill hydrocarbons, chemical-laden water, hydraulic fracturing fluids and other substances into the environment. That’s a total of 6,648 spills reported across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania in the 10 years.

Researchers have even developed an interactive map where everyone can check the oil spills at both national and state level and find out more about them. Who knows, there might be one near you.

Of course, the timing of this study is extremely important. With the newly-elected Trump administration vowing to bring back America’s fossil fuel industry, there are more and more concerns regarding our objective of limiting climate change. By now, it should be clear that fracking is not the answer to the world’s rising energy demands and the negative effects clearly outweigh the positives. But in the meantime, as the technology is still ongoing in many parts of the US, it’s important to quantify what its effects are in order to delimitate and mitigate the risks to water supplies and human health

Journal Reference: L. Patterson, K. Konschnik, H. Wiseman, et. al. Unconventional Oil and Gas Spills: Risks, Mitigation Priorities and States Reporting Requirements. Environmental Science & Technology, 2017 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.05749

Europeans don’t believe climate change deniers and want governments to take action, huge poll reveals

Europeans say that the effects of shifting climate can already be felt and show strong support in favor of economic policy measures to cope with and mitigate climate change, a major polling study reveals.

Image credits David Mark.

A big part of ‘doubt-mongering‘ is to push the narrative that a particular subject is still open for debate: “the science isn’t in yet”, “people don’t agree,” or “it’s a matter of personal choice”. We’ve seen it with tobacco, the food industry, and most recently the energy industry — with politicians and paid scientific papers perpetuating bogus data to polarize public opinion towards internal arguments rather than action.

But there isn’t as much of a debate as some would like you to believe, at least not in Europe, a new poll study has found. Citizens of four major cities don’t view climate change as a future problem, saying that its effects can already be felt in severe floods or storms. There’s also huge support for action against climate change, such as subsidizing clean energy and imposing financial penalties on nations that refuse to honor the Paris climate deal signed in 2015 — and the US might be on that list.

The poll is the first in-depth measurement of the perception of climate change in countries throughout the EU, and involved more than 1,000 people each in UK, Germany, France, and Norway, with the results weighted to be nationally representative.

Most people agreed on one point: that climate change is caused at least in part by human activity, particularly through the burning of fossil fuels. Some 60% of respondents further consider that its effects can already be felt. Two-thirds of respondents supported their country’s commitment to the Paris deal and a similar percentage said that countries who did not honor the agreement should be penalized, for example through the border carbon taxes some French officials have suggested.

Old world, new energy

Windmills at Denmark’s Bønnerup Strand helped the country run exclusively on wind power on several occasions.
Image credits Dirk Goldhahn.

 

Renewables also enjoyed a lot of support and were viewed very positively by the public, with 70% of people expressing support for using public money to subsidize clean industries the UK and Germany, 75% in France, and 87% in Norway. Fracking and nuclear power didn’t enjoy the same popularity, with just 20% of people expressing a positive view of fracking in the UK, 15% in Germany, and 9% in France, while nuclear power was only seen with favorable eyes by 23% of Frenchmen — although it supplies the lion’s share of the country’s electrical energy.

“It is encouraging to see that most people in this very large study recognise that climate change is happening, and that support for the need to tackle it remains high amongst the people we surveyed,” said Prof Nick Pidgeon at Cardiff University, who led the international project.

This solid public backing could be monumental in light of political uncertainties throughout the world, with some leaders, such as the US president Donald Trump, openly opposing climate action.

“With the recently shifting political mood in some countries, climate policy is now entering a critical phase. It is therefore even more important that the public’s clear support for the Paris agreement is carried through by policymakers across Europe and worldwide.”

“People see that if there are free riders, that is not a very good thing,” he added.

Still, there remain some differences of opinion between the countries. A proposal to increase taxes levied on fossil fuels saw support in Norway, an even split in the UK, and a two-to-one opposition in France and Germany. Another was in the public’s trust in the EU, national, and local governments to shift energy systems towards cleaner sources. Germans were generally positive, while people in the UK were loath to trust in any of the institutions.

One worrying find is that while people have formed something of a consensus on these issues, the effect of doubt-mongering is very visible — while climate change is for all intents and purposes a scientific consensus by now, people believe that only about a third of scientists agree it’s happening.

The polling took place in June 2016, before the Brexit referendum. The full report is available online here.

 

Fracking-only bacteria discovered in two separate wells hundreds of miles apart

Fracking may produce more than shale hydrocarbons, say researchers analyzing the genomes of microorganisms living in these wells. Evidence suggests underground sustainable ecosystems are forming due to this practice, populated in part by a never-before-seen bacteria dubbed “Frackibacter”.

Samples of “produced water fluids” collected at the surface of wells in Macellus and Utica shale formations after fracturing. The fluids are orange because they contain large amounts of iron that oxidizes when brought to the surface. By analyzing the genomes of microbes in the water, the researchers are piecing together the existence of microbial communities inside the wells. Image credits Rebecca Daly / Ohio State University.

Ohio State University researchers report finding the new genus along with 30 microbial members in two separate fracturing wells. Even though they are drilled hundreds of miles apart and into different kinds of shale formations, the microbial communities found inside them were nearly identical, they say. And astonishingly, these little bugs seem to create their own self-sustaining ecosystems inside the wells.

By sampling fluids taken from the two wells over a period of 328 days, the researchers reconstructed the genomes of bacteria and archaea (single-celled organisms) living in the shale. Incredibly, both wells showed nearly identical microbial communities. They’re geologically different (one drilled in Utica shale and the other drilled in Marcellus shale,) they’re formed millions of years apart, are worked by two different companies using their own techniques and fluid mixes, and each formation contains different forms of hydrocarbons. Yet one bacterium, Halanaerobium, emerged to dominate communities in both wells.

“We thought we might get some of the same types of bacteria, but the level of similarity was so high it was striking. That suggests that whatever’s happening in these ecosystems is more influenced by the fracturing than the inherent differences in the shale,” said Kelly Wrighton, assistant professor of microbiology and biophysics at Ohio State.

Most of the microbes identified in the wells are familiar. The team suspects they most likely come from the surface ponds that hold the liquid needed to fill the wells, but they’re not 100 percent sure. One new species was identified only in these two points and may very well be unique to hydraulic fracturing sites — Candidatus Frackibacter. In biological nomenclature, “Candidatus” is affixed to an organism whose genome is being studied for the first time without being isolated in a lab culture. “Frackibacter” is short for hydraulic fracturing bacteria, because even biologists need a giggle sometimes.

Frackibacter seems to prosper alongside the microbes we’ve introduced from the surface, forming communities in both of these wells which have been stable for nearly a year now.

“We think that the microbes in each well may form a self-sustaining ecosystem where they provide their own food sources,” Wrighton said.

“Drilling the well and pumping in fracturing fluid creates the ecosystem, but the microbes adapt to their new environment in a way to sustain the system over long periods.”

Produced water fluid being filtered. Image credits Rebecca Daily / Ohio State University.

Where the bugs come from is still unclear — while some are almost guaranteed to come from the ponds, other bacteria and archaea could have been living in the rock before drilling began. Candidatus Frackibacter among them.

Energy companies usually mix their own proprietary recipes for the fluid they use in fracking, but basically they all start with water and add other chemicals in various proportions. Once the fluid reaches the shale, it leaches salt from the rocks becoming briny. The microorganisms that live inside shale deposits naturally endure high temperatures, pressure, and salinity. But this salinity is likely the most dangerous stressor acting on the bugs because the huge osmotic pressure it generates wants to suck the water right out of them. So, they synthesize organic compounds called osmoprotectants to keep themselves from bursting.

When they die, the osmoprotectants are released into the water and other microbes feed on or use them to protect themselves. In that way, salinity forced the microbes to generate a sustainable food source.

Epifluorescence microscope image of Halanaerobium bacteria cells. Image credits Michael Wilkins / Ohio State University.

They also have to contend with viruses. The researchers found evidence that some bacteria were falling pray to viruses and releasing their osmoprotectants into the water when they died. By examining the genomes of the different microbes, the researchers found that the osmoprotectants were being consumed by Halanaerobium and Candidatus Frackibacter. In turn, these bacteria provided food for other microbes called methanogens, which ultimately produced methane.

To check their findings, the researchers grew these microbes in a lab under similar conditions. They also produced osmoprotectants that were converted to methane, confirming the team’s theory. One implication of the study is that methane produced by microbes living in shale wells could possibly supplement the wells’ energy output. Wrighton and Daly described the amount of methane produced by the microbes as likely minuscule compared to the amount of oil and gas harvested from the shale even a year after initial fracturing. But there is a precedent in the related industry of coal-bed methane of using microbes to increase yield.

“In coal-bed systems they’ve shown that they can facilitate microbial life and increase methane yields,” Wrighton said.

“As the system shifts over time to being less productive, the contribution of biogenic methane could become significantly higher in shale wells. We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but it’s a possibility.”

Co-author Michael Wilkins, assistant professor of earth sciences and microbiology, has used genomics information to grow Candidatus Frackibacter in the lab and is further testing its ability to handle high pressure and salinity.

The full paper “Microbial metabolisms in a 2.5-km-deep ecosystem created by hydraulic fracturing in shales, Nature Microbiology” has been published online in the journal Nature Microbiology.

fracking fire

Scientists examine over 1,000 chemicals from fracking fluids: many linked to reproductive or development toxicity

The indispensable chemical mixture that allows the industry to fracture rock and release the gas trapped inside is basically a black box. More than 1,000 chemicals are used in the fracking fluid, but a paper published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology found toxicity information was lacking for 76% of them. In other words, these could be harmless or dangerous. there’s no way to know at this point. Concerning the rest — about 240 substances — the researchers found evidence that  suggests reproductive toxicity for 103 (43%), developmental toxicity for 95 (40%), and both for 41 (17%).

fracking fire

Image: YouTube

Substances mentioned in the study include arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine, and mercury. Of the 240 analyzed substances, 67 were particularly worrisome since these had an existing federal health-based standard or guideline. Like all hazardous chemicals, it’s the dose that matters. In the right concentration, a usually toxic chemical can be harmless. The researchers from Yale University say data on whether levels of chemicals exceeded the guidelines were too limited to assess.

“This evaluation is a first step to prioritize the vast array of potential environmental contaminants from hydraulic fracturing for future exposure and health studies,” said Nicole Deziel, senior author and assistant professor of public health. “Quantification of the potential exposure to these chemicals, such as by monitoring drinking water in people’s homes, is vital for understanding the public health impact of hydraulic fracturing.”

“We focused on reproductive and developmental toxicity because these effects may be early indicators of environmental hazards. Gaps in our knowledge highlight the need to improve our understanding of the potential adverse effects associated with these compounds,” said Elise Elliott, a public health doctoral student and the paper’s first author.

fracking-oil

Image: FracFocus

Fracking chemicals: a black box. Most drillers are not mandated to disclose the chemical makeup of fracking fluid, being treated as trade secrets.

According to Preserve the Beartooth Front, these findings from Yale echo previous research that found associations between proximity to hydraulic fracturing sites and reproductive and developmental problems. These include:

  • A 2013 Colorado study showed that exposure to frac water “could raise the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological and other diseases, especially in children who are exposed to EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals].”
  • A 2014 Pennsylvania study looked at birth records to assess the health of infants born withina 2.5-kilometer radius of fracking sites. They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half.
  • A 2014 Colorado study examined the connection between how close a mother is to natural gas drilling and birth outcomes in a study of 124,842 births in rural Colorado between 1996 and 2009. The study shows an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and an increase of as much as 30% in the prevalence of congenital heart defects.

Earlier this year, the  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report in which it analyzed more than 39,000 FracFocus disclosures in the last two years.  The report found that the median number of chemical additives per fracking job was 14. Hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydrotreated light petroleum distillates were the most common additives, being reported in 65 percent of all disclosures. Even in low doses, these are known to cause skin irritation, chemical burns, headaches and blurred vision.

In the past ten years, America has lived through what experts herald as the “shale boom” – a massive development of hydraulic fracturing wells to the point that today the U.S. has become the #1 crude oil and natural gas producer in the world. Nine out of ten wells in the U.S. are now fracking wells.

fracking

Essentially, hydraulic fracking wells pump a mixture of chemicals, sand and water some 2 miles deep into the ground. The pressure breaks down rock and releases the hydrocarbons previously trapped for millions of years.

While fracking gave the U.S. a huge leverage, both economical and tactical, critics have voiced a number of valid concerns. These include air pollution, huge amounts of wastewater, bedrock fracturing that leads to earthquakes, and — maybe most worrisome — the potential for groundwater and aquifer contamination with hazardous chemicals. There are many other concerns, as well.

Researchers at University of Texas at Arlington conducted tests on more than 100 water wells in Texas and found 30% of these contained ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic, enough to be considered carcinogenic and seriously threatening human health. These contaminated wells were found in the vicinity of known fracking sites and prior to drilling these were found to be free of arsenic or at least far from the concentrations we’re seeing now.

Today, however, there is no evidence that might directly link fracking to contaminated water, even though many people can now light their tap water on fire after fracking wells were developed in their vicinity. When Stanford researchers traced back methane leaks from contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania and Texas to shale gas wells, they did not find a link between the contamination and the technique used to drill for shale gas itself. Instead, the researchers concluded that well integrity is the main driver for the contamination.

With good and bad, we need more long-term research on the matter to establish whether or not fracking is worth it. Frack now, ask questions later is not a wise course of action.

Update: corrected sub-heading citing fracking chemical as undisclosed and protected by patent laws.

A video made by a man from North Dakota shows him cautiously holding a lighter up against the stream of water coming out of his tap, prompting large flames to rise up into the faucet. Various homes around the United States have raised flags along the years to authorities showing how their groundwater got contaminated by nearby fracking sites.

Texas family sues fracking company after water well exploded from leached methane

In the latest in a long string of lawsuits filled against fracking operations, a Texas family is claiming damages after the water well on their property exploded. The family’s ranch is located just 1000 yards away from two fracking drills, which likely leaked methane to the groundwater according to the lawyer representing the family. The explosion left Cody Murray, the 38-year-old husband of the family of four, with severe burns on his arms, upper back, neck, forehead and nose along with “significant neurological damage.” He is now permanently disfigured, disabled and cannot work. He is now asking the court for restitution.

A video made by a man from North Dakota shows him cautiously holding a lighter up against the stream of water coming out of his tap, prompting large flames to rise up into the faucet. Various homes around the United States have raised flags along the years to authorities showing how their groundwater got contaminated by nearby fracking sites.

A video made by a man from North Dakota shows him cautiously holding a lighter up against the stream of water coming out of his tap, prompting large flames to rise up into the faucet. Various homes around the United States have raised flags along the years to authorities showing how their groundwater got contaminated by nearby fracking sites.

The event happened almost a year ago, on August 2, 2014, when Cody and his father rushed to the water well on their ranch in Perrin, Texas, alarmed by pressurized water spraying inside.

“At the flip of the switch, Cody heard a ‘whooshing’ sound, which he instantly recognized from his work in the oil and gas industry, and instinctively picked his father up and physically threw him back and away from the entryway to the pump house,” the complaint states.

“In that instant, a giant fireball erupted from the pump house, burning Cody and Jim, who were at the entrance to the pump house, as well as [Cody’s wife] Ashley and [daughter] A.M., who were approximately 20 feet away.”

“Cody spent a week in Parkland Hospital’s intensive care unit and burn unit. Even after he was discharged home, Cody’s burns remained for an additional ten weeks,” the complaint states. “In addition, Cody suffered significant neurological damage in the fire, as the sensory nerves that run throughout the skin were destroyed by the burns. These neurological deficits remain today. Cody suffers from paresthesias and extreme weakness in his hands and arms. Cody cannot drive, as he cannot grip the steering wheel with his hands.”

According to the lawyer representing the Murrays, isotope analysis revealed that the methane leaked into the well was not naturally occurring and is sourced from the nearby drilling activities. Previously, another Texas family sued after flammable water came out of their kitchen tap. In another instance, yet again a family from Texas, was awarded $3 million in damages after fracking operations near their 40-acre ranch left them suffering severe health side-effects. Elsewhere, in Canada, Bruce Jack’s water well at Spirit River was contaminated with dangerous levels of methane and ethane after nearby drilling and hydraulic fracturing. For three years Jack had be trying to get regulators to come to his property and investigate the matter. Ironically, in 2006,  Bruce Jack and two industry gas-in-water testers, were seriously injured and hospitalized when the contaminated water well exploded.

The shale boom has been credited with revitalizing the oil and gas industry in the States. However, the downside is that it’s all being done in a hurry. For instance, in Wisconsin, 40% of drillers don’t adhere to the environmental rules. Pressed by time and lower profit margins, drillers often make a sloppy job. This can lead to cases such as these with methane leaking in the groundwater, and in some cases arsenic. Nevermind the earthquakes, and the largely unknown long-term environmental impact of fracking. Before shale runs out, more families will undoubtedly pay the ultimate price for corporate negligence.

 

Protesters in New York rallied against fracking. Image: worlding.org

Fracking banned in New York state over possible threats to public health

New York state officials have chosen to ban fracking also known as hydraulic fracturing after a two-year period of review where numerous ‘red flags’ were raised concerning public health. The decision was made recently  at a cabinet meeting in Albany.

No fracking in New York

Protesters in New York rallied against fracking. Image: worlding.org

Protesters in New York rallied against fracking. Image: worlding.org

For the past five years, the state had fracking under  moratorium, while 120 towns had already banned the controversial practice that involves drilling and injecting a high pressure mixture of water and chemicals, some radioactive, other of unknown toxicity. While there’s yet to be a paper that directly links under a causal relationship fracking with water or residential air poisoning, accounts tend to suggest this is the case. Fracking is also likely to cause micro earthquakes.

“The takeaway that I get from the data is that there are serious questions about public health,” the governor, Andrew Cuomo, said.

At the conference announcing the decision, Cuomo lamented the emotional charged nature of the debate surrounding fracking. The governor tried to the address the issue by leaving this sort of decision to the experts, which to me sounds right about what any politician should do in situations like these. ”

Let’s bring the emotion down and let’s ask the qualified experts,” said Cuomo, who quickly turned the press conference over to state health and environmental officials.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will issue a legally binding, supplemental environmental impact statement next year outlining its findings on the issue. Today’s decision was based on a series of studies ran over the past two years which assessed the long-term safety of hydraulic fracturing.

In effect, the decision is the biggest obstacle to date to an industry that has had rapid growth across a number of other states. In 2012, Vermont became the first US state to ban fracking, which wasn’t that much of a big deal considering there were no exploration or exploitation wells in operation at the time. New York state is a whole different matter, since it holds one of the last great areas of untapped potential in the Marcellus Shale.

“I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” Howard Zucker, the health commissioner, said. “There are many red flags.”

When asked why other states aren’t banning fracking or aren’t the taking the same investigative measures, Zucker said it’s because  “many of those states didn’t bring their health teams to the table.” To which the governor agreed.

 “I think it’s our responsibility to develop an alternative … for safe, clean economic development,” the governor said.

In fact, Cumo just became my favorite governor ever. Not because he’s banned fracking, but the way he decided to handle this extremely delicate issue – letting the experts settle the issue and not allowing himself bullied by either public opinion or the oil industry. When asked a question about fracking in October, the governor quickly dodged it. “I am not a scientist,” he said. “Let the scientists decide.”

Fracking is also banned in France and Germany.

Coal fired power plant in Germany. US policymakers are considering substituting coal for natural gas by 2030 to tackle the warming of the planet. A new study concludes this won't be the case. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Natural gas does little to curb emissions and mitigate climate change

Coal fired power plant in Germany. US policymakers are considering substituting coal for natural gas by 2030 to tackle the warming of the planet. A new study concludes this won't be the case. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Coal fired power plant in Germany. US policymakers are considering substituting coal for natural gas by 2030 to tackle the warming of the planet. A new study concludes this won’t be the case. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Given the shale boom, the United States has now become the world’s leading natural gas producer. Because it only releases 50% as much emissions for the same equivalent amount of energy produced by oil or coal, many have herald it as a cleaner source of fossil energy, whose widespread introduction might help mitigate global warming. A new study found that in the long run, natural gas does little to curb emissions since it would boost consumption (high supply means it will be cheaper) and displace renewable energy.

Natural gas: a poor strategy for mitigating global warming

natural_Gas curb

Photo: Near Zero

Researchers at the UC Irvine, Stanford Univ. and the nonprofit organization Near Zero estimated the natural gas supply curves for the next 40 years, then modeled the the effect of varying natural gas supplies on the U.S. electricity mix, as well as the resulting greenhouse gas emissions under four scenarios: no policy, a moderate carbon tax, a stringent cap on emissions, and a requirement of 50% renewable electricity by 2050.

[ALSO READ] Shale gas isn’t a ‘clean bridge fuel’, study finds

Most of the energy in the US comes coal-fired plants and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed a plan to substitute coal with natural gas to lower carbon emissions by 2030.

“In our results, abundant natural gas does not significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is true even if no methane leaks during production and shipping,” says lead author Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science at UC Irvine.

The study also took into account that 1.5 percent of the gas would be lost during production and transport of the fuel, yet even if there were no methane leaks, as opposed to reality, the overall climate benefits of gas are likely to be small since it would discourage renewable energy projects. The only scenario examined in the study, which favored renewable energy under all conditions, was the 50 percent renewable energy mandate by 2050.

natural_gas_curbe

Image: Christine Shearer, UC Irvine

All in all, the researchers who described their findings in the journal Environmental Research Letters state that relying on natural gas is a poor strategy for cleaning the environment with risks of backfiring.

“Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies. It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether,” Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, said.

 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

US drinking water contaminated with gas because of faulty wells, but not fracking

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Stanford researchers traced back methane leaks from contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania and Texas to shale gas wells. However, they note that they did not find a link between the contamination and the technique used to drill for shale gas itself, called hydraulic fracturing or more commonly known as fracking. Instead, the researchers concluded that well integrity is the main driver for the contamination.

Fire water

For the past couple of years there have been numerous reports of households whose water supplies had been contaminated with unusually high concentrations of methane. You might have already seen some famous footage on the internet (less on TV) of various people who would open the tap, light a flame and set the water on fire. It’s not joke – these stories are actually for real! Since these incidents never happened before the shale gas boom, naturally everyone was extremely suspicious that the contamination came from fracking wells. Oddly enough, the Environmental Protection Agency was very slow at conducting tests and investigations. In some cases, the agency – a highly important government agency tasked with protecting the United States’ people, fauna and nature – was actually ‘bullied’ by oil and gas companies. That shouldn’t have stopped the EPA from conducting tests of its own, however, instead of relying on reports produced by oil and gas companies, which were obviously biased.

“I don’t understand why they would let the company that was accused of doing the wrongdoing conduct the tests,” resident Shelly Purdue, a Texas resident whose household’s water supply was contaminated told Bloomberg News. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Indeed, tests ran independently by Duke University researchers found 54.7 milligrams per liter of methane in a random sample of drinking water in December 2012. Curiously, the Range Resources study conducted just a month earlier found a mere 20 milligrams and 4.2 milligrams in mid-2012. Water in the vicinity of  operations in the gas-rich Barnett Shale contained 83 milligrams per liter, according to a  University of Texas-Arlington. The federal limit is ten milligrams per liter.

Blame it on the (gas) well…

The Stanford team analyzed the gas content of 130 water wells in Texas and Pennsylvania, and used noble gases to trace the path of methane as these inert chemicals are not affected by microbial activity or oxidation. By measuring the ratios of noble gases to methane gas they could accurately determine the likely source of the methane leak. Of the 133 water wells (113 wells in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and 20 in the Barnett shale in Texas), the researchers identified eight clusters with problems.

“The mechanism of contamination looks to be well integrity,” said one of the authors, Prof Robert Jackson from Stanford University.

“In about half the cases we believe the contamination came from poor cementing and in the other half it came from well casings that leaked.”

Although in one case the methane leak was linked to a failed underground drilling well, the researchers couldn’t identify a causal link between the actual technique employed – fracking – the methane contamination.

“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Prof Avner Vengosh, from Duke University.

The researchers suggest that while there are strict regulations that should prevent these sort of faulty wells, these are ill enforced since often times contractors are under pressure to finish their work fast so they can move on to the next  well – remember, we’re in a full shale boom! Also, since gas prices have steadily went down, companies are making lower margins and have become negligent.

“You need strong rules and regulations on well integrity,” said Prof Jackson.

“You need generous setbacks that protect homes and schools and water sources from drilling, sometimes farther than the drillers would want. You need enough inspectors on the ground to keep people honest and you need separation between the industry and the inspectors and you don’t always have that in the US.”

A lot of voices are saying, especially following these findings, that fracking is safe – if strict design and maintenance regulations are followed. Unfortunately, water contamination isn’t the only problem linked to fracking. There’s arsenic poisoning, copious amounts of methane leaked into the atmosphere, fracking chemicals of unknown toxicity, fracking-caused earthquakes and long term risks to the biosphere.

peak_oi

High level of arsenic contamination found in groundwater near fracking sites

peak_oi

Photo: Peak Oil

Researchers at University of Texas at Arlington conducted tests on more than 100 water wells in Texas and found 30% of these contained ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic, enough to be considered carcinogenic and seriously threatening human health. These contaminated wells were found in the vicinity of known fracking sites and prior to drilling these were found to be free of arsenic or at least far from the concentrations we’re seeing now. There is an ongoing debate whether or not fracking can contaminate potable water sources and this latest research suggests that indeed this can happen, albeit the evidence is indirect. The findings appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology [cite]10.1021/es4011724[/cite].

Drinking water arsenic poisoning linked to fracking

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a now a popular drilling method which involves injecting a liquid mixture of sand, water and other chemicals (some of which are carcinogenic, while others are classified – we know very little about their toxicity other than what drilling companies tell us: that they’re totally safe) at very high pressure with the aim of cracking or ‘fracturing’ the rock deposits miles under the surface to make it easier to extract natural gas or oil.

[ALSO SEE] Pro-fracking newspaper ad banned

The team comprised of 11 biochemists found twenty-nine groundwater wells within 1.8 miles of active natural gas drilling whose water contained unusually high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic which past a certain concentration can be extremely dangerous. Indeed, the water from the wells contained arsenic well past the the limit considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

[RELATED] Frack now, ask questions later: bio impact of fracking still largely unknown

University of Texas researchers compared their results with previous water tests conducted before the fracking boom which started some 10 years ago and concluded that ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals have leached in the groundwater.

“This is indirect evidence that drilling does affect the water,” researcher Zacariah Hildenbrand said.

The researchers are careful not to suggest that drilling companies use arsenic into their fracking liquid mix or there’s a direct injection of the heavy metal in water wells. One theory of how the water might have become contaminated is that fracking-induced vibrations shook the rusty water pipes. Rust can contain arsenic, the researchers said.

This hypothesis, however, sounds implausible to industry leaders.

“If they’re talking about drills shaking [rust] free, that’s a little farfetched,” said Alex Mills, president of Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. “I’ve never heard or even came close to hearing that hydraulic fracturing is so vicious, so earth-shattering to shake loose rust from water wells.”

This statement is ludicrous by itself. Someone should tell Mr. Mills that hydraulic fracturing can indeed induce massive vibrations. Heck, it’s been linked (not yet strictly proven) with hundreds of man-made earthquakes already, most notably in places like Oklahoma where prior to the massive introduction of fracking has rarely seen earthquakes, historically.

 

Basic fracking life cycle scheme. Image: Wikipedia Commons

One third of fracking chemicals are of unknown toxicity

Pump jacks dot oil fields between the California towns of Taft and Maricopa. The very deep petroleum would be hard to reach. Methods such as fracking would bring environmental concerns and no guarantees. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Pump jacks dot oil fields between the California towns of Taft and Maricopa. The very deep petroleum would be hard to reach. Methods such as fracking would bring environmental concerns and no guarantees. Photo: Los Angeles Times

A while ago I wrote about the disheartening status quo of energy today: frack now, ask questions later. In the article, I argue that there’s a disproportion between the amount of hydraulic fracturing (9 out of 10 wells in the US are fracking wells) and the number of research articles that discuss the bio impact of the practice in the long term. A new study presented by William Stringfellow of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society seems to echo these notes. Stringfellow warns that one third of the fracking chemicals he found (remember there are many chemicals that makeup fracking fluid that are undisclosed and are kept this way under government protection – yes, trade secrets) are of unknown toxicity. In other words, oil and gas companies are dumping chemicals in the ground and they have no idea what might happen.

Toxicity unknown for a third of fracking chemicals

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it’s commonly referred to involves releasing shale gas trapped beneath rocks. The rocks are broken using a high-pressure liquid mix of water, sand and other chemicals, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances. Water makes up most of the liquid, with 85% of the mass, followed by sand which acts to keep the fracture open. The most dangerous compounds are so called biocides which are included in the mix to kill bacteria that more often than not form and congregate on the pipe walls, clogging the well.

Basic fracking life cycle scheme. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Basic fracking life cycle scheme. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Like gourmet chefs, each company has its own recipe for the mix and like to keep it secret, as if once it’s known it stops being magic! States like Texas and Wyoming, however, mandate companies to publicly disclose the make-up of their fracking fluids. But not all of them – companies make us of loopholes and keep some compounds secret by claiming they’re trade secrets.

“The industrial side was saying, ‘We’re just using food additives, basically making ice cream here,'” Stringfellow says. “On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?'”

Stringfellow decided to investigate and chose to focus on 81 fracking chemicals commonly used in the U.S he found listed in government databases. Again, he looked at those chemicals that are actually disclosed. Most of these were found to be harmless, either non-toxic or of very low-toxicity; like any pharmacologist will tell you, it’s the dosage that makes a poison.  However, one-third of them have hardly any public information about their toxicity or their physical and chemical properties, and eight are downright toxic to mammals.

The EPA has yet to discover any evidence that suggests fracking contaminates groundwater, despite independent studies that say otherwise. Nevertheless, experts agree that fracking fluids are most dangerous when their outside, not inside the ground. After a fracking well is done and spent, the contaminated wastewater is most commonly dispensed into depleted oil wells. Although this is the safest method, it’s been found also to cause micro earthquakes. Another alternative is to recycle the waster, which involves  removing chemicals and rock fragments from fracking wastewater and reusing it to frack more wells.

Next, Stringfellow  and his team plan on assessing  the risk and concentration of the chemicals when mixed into fracturing fluid. While alone some chemicals in a certain concentration might be deemed toxic, when mixed and injected these compounds might break down.

“There’s a national need to get a complete picture of the chemicals that are used everyday,” Stringfellow says. “It should be a priority to try to close that data gap.”

 

 

A typical fracking well. Image: Frontiers of Ecology

Frack now, ask questions later: bio impact of fracking still largely unknown

Since 2007, shale gas has boomed by 700% in the US and is projected to rise for the next 30 years. While there are states where well fields span across hundreds of hectares, you’d think that the effects of exploitation of this caliber are well researched and documented. In reality, the bio impact of fracking remains largely unknown. Of course, this doesn’t stop oil companies from going on with their business and even claiming everything’s safe without anything solid to actually backup their claims.

Fracking in the dark

A typical fracking well. Image: Frontiers of Ecology

A typical fracking well. Image: Frontiers of Ecology

A study made by eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions found large knowledge gaps when it comes to the direct and quantifiable effects fracking has on the biosphere and environment in general. This has led them to conclude that exhaustively determining the risks fracking possess on the environment must be a top priority for policymakers.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it’s commonly referred to involves releasing shale gas trapped beneath rocks. The rocks are broken using a high-pressure liquid mix of water, sand and other chemicals, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances. Public fears are growing about contamination of drinking-water supplies from the chemicals used in fracking and from the methane gas itself. Field tests show that those worries are not unfounded. A Duke University study published in May found that methane levels in dozens of drinking-water wells within a kilometer (3,280 feet) of new fracking sites were 17 times higher than in wells farther away. Then there’s earthquakes. 

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Even so, there are many things about fracking does to the environment that we don’t know, according to the team of researchers. Which begs the question: why are we chasing shale gas so furiously, when we have so little knowledge what the consequences may be 10, 15 or 20 years from now?

“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said co-author Morgan Tingley, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

While fracking has become fairly common today, the technology isn’t exactly novel – it’s been around since the 1970’s, so why don’t we know more about it? Much to blame for this gaps in knowledge are the oil companies themselves, which refuse to divulge important and sensitive information to public health, under the protection of law – something that to me is totally backwards from what a civilized country should look like. Of the 24 American states with active shale-gas reservoirs, only five — Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas — maintain public records of spills and accidents, the researchers report. And get this – oil companies aren’t obliged to report oil spills, being the government’s task. In other words, oil companies can get away with spills if nobody see them and there’s not even a fine.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the best sources of publicly available information on shale-gas spills and accidents in the nation. Even so, gas companies failed to report more than one-third of spills in the last year,” said first author Sara Souther, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections?” Souther asked. “We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals.”

Wyoming’s Jonah Field, a major site of shale development. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

Wyoming’s Jonah Field, a major site of shale development. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

The study identified several threats to biodiversity as a result of rapid and widespread shale development, which has disproportionately affected rural and natural areas. A single gas well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres (1.5 to 3.1 hectares) of vegetation, and there are sites where hundreds are dispersed. Besides clearing, the wells cause noise, air and light pollution that interfere with habitats and migration patterns.

“If you look down on a heavily ‘fracked’ landscape, you see a web of well pads, access roads and pipelines that create islands out of what was, in some cases, contiguous habitat,” Souther said. “What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?”

One other issue, besides lack of leaks and spills reports, that hinders a thorough qualitative analysis has to do with the chemicals being used in fracking wells. There are many types of wells, each using a different set of chemicals to break rocks, some of which are undisclosed and protect by patent laws.

“Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” said senior author Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”

Souther, Sara, Morgan W. Tingley, Viorel D. Popescu, David T.S. Hyman, Maureen E. Ryan, Tabitha A. Graves, Brett Hartl, Kimberly Terrell. 2014. Biotic impacts of energy development from shale: research priorities and knowledge gaps. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Article published online Aug. 1, 2014. DOI: 10.1890/130324.