Across the United States, the development of natural gas via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling currently occurs in 32 states. As the development of shale gas has increased, so has the number of community groups united in an effort to end hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in their communities. Last week, more than 5,000 people from across the U.S. came together on the west lawn of the Capitol and demanded that Congress take immediate action to stop fracking. Rally participants have three key demands. The first, full enforcement of existing laws to protect families and communities from the health and environmental impacts of fracking. The second, end the loopholes that allow oil and gas companies employing hydraulic fracturing technologies to avoid the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act. Finally, protestors want to end the process of hydraulic fracturing all together.
In my opinion, the movement’s last demand is idealistic and not likely to be achieved. As a result of the U.S.’s extensive supply of low priced shale gas, I believe that natural gas will continue to be a replacement for more carbon intensive coal and oil. That being said, I do agree with the group that hydraulic fracturing poses significant environmental and health consequences. Methane is the principal component of natural gas and is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 100 year time span, methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Beyond methane releases, natural gas production creates other air emissions that can have negative impacts on local air quality and on global climate change.
The chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing vary depending on geologic formation, but can include carcinogens such as benzene, arsenic, lead, and other toxic chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid, ethanol, diesel, and sodium hydroxide. The total amount of toxic chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing can be as high as 110,000 gallons per well and is typically around 25,000 gallons[i]. Toxic chemicals have both human and environmental health impacts and can have long-term effects due to persistence, bioaccumulation, and carcinogenicity.
It is estimated that hydraulic fracturing uses between 2 and 10 million gallons of water per well[ii]. The extraction of such large amounts of water has raised concerns about drawing down drinking water aquifers. Methane contamination of drinking water (shallow groundwater) has also been documented.[iii] While dissolved methane in drinking water is not characterized as a health hazard for ingestion, it is a fire hazard. In the U.S., a recent Environmental Protection Agency investigation in Wyoming concluded that contaminants from fracturing fluid were released into the drinking water aquifer[iv].
Given these known environmental and health consequences, it is imperative to close loopholes exempting oil and gas companies from U.S. environmental regulations. Currently, because of an exemption known as the “Halliburton loophole,” the EPA does not regulate the injection of fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Another loophole allows the oil and gas industry to emit toxic air pollutants without the same limits imposed on other industries.
Both of these loopholes are actively being protested by citizens and politicians alike. To add your voice, join the Natural Resources Defense Council’s campaign to repeal the legislation that created oil and gas loopholes.
Beth is a Senior Research Analyst with Portfolio 21 Investments. She has 10 years of environmental and social investing research experience.
[i] Sasarean, Dana, et al. of MSCI ESG Research. Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing in the US: Opportunity or Underestimated Risk. October 2011, p. 8.
[ii] Kargbo, David, et al. Natural Gas Plays in the Marcellus Shale: Challenge and Potential Opportunities. Environmental Science & Technology, 2010, volume 44, p.5681.
[iii] Osborn, S., et al. Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, May 17, 2011, volume 108, p.8172-8176.
[iv] DiGiulio, Dominic, et. Al. DRAFT Investigation of Ground Water Contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development National Risk Management Laboratory. December 2011, p.48.