The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Energy From Shale and Hydraulic Fracturing - What We Know

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 3, 2011

Allegations that hydraulic fracturing threatens the nation's groundwater are spotty, unconvincing and contradicted by the weight of evidence, including more than 60 years of experience using the technology in more than one million wells. Multiple studies of the potential for contamination from hydraulic fracturing have failed to find significant problems. And more regulatory oversight and improved industry best practices continue to ensure that groundwater supplies used for drinking are well protected.

As outlined on our new website EnergyFromShale: "It is important to note that safe and responsible development doesn't just happen, it is the result of dedicated efforts by the oil and natural gas industry, working with regulators and local communities, to alleviate potential nuisances, reduce environmental impacts, and avoid interference with existing commercial activity."

But there are those for whom no amount of regulation, protections, or community outreach is enough. These are the folks for whom the only safe and responsible development is no development, and once again, these folks have the ear, and the voice, of the New York Times:

"For decades, oil and gas industry executives as well as regulators have maintained that a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is used for most natural gas wells has never contaminated underground drinking water...But there is in fact a documented case..."

The case in question is from 1982, as reflected in a 1987 study by the EPA. While the description of the case is clear that fracking fluids were found in a well, whether or not they ended up there as a result of "a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing" is actually a little murkier. If you make it about 1,600 words into the New York Times article you find that their research in this matter was outsourced to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), who coincidently released a report today on the 1982 incident after a year of investigation. But as far as the idea that this is clearly "a documented case" the EWG, no friend of resource development, pushed the theme, but also had to hedge with "it is possible that another stage of the drilling process caused the problem." And, "It is unclear how the 'fracking' fluids may have entered the water well..." Indeed, as the EPA study itself noted, neither the state regulator nor the operator were aware of a water well drilled to that depth in the area.

The bottom line is: we don't know what happened at this one site in 1982 and neither does the EWG or the New York Times. And we caution against concluding that hydraulic fracturing caused contamination in a West Virginia well 29 years ago, as reported in a 1987 EPA study - or interpreting any earlier API comments about that study as evidence of agreement; API conducted no independent or on-scene analysis of the incident. However, as we have previously advised both EPA and Congress, our belief is that the government's investigation was faulty, in part because it did not adequately consider whether other factors, may have caused the incident, and because EPA's contractors have failed to contact a single operator in the over 220 damage cases it reviewed.

So what do we know? We know that studies by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), an association of state regulators, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of current state regulations in protecting water resources. We know that the technologies and practices used by the industry today are light-years ahead of those used in 1982 - and improving every day. We know that impermeable rock formations lie between the oil and natural gas formations where hydraulic fracturing occurs and the groundwater, formations that have isolated the groundwater over millions of years. We know that hydraulic fracturing has been used safely for over 60 years. We know that producing energy from shale promises jobs and security. And we know that America's oil and natural gas industry are committed to working with community leaders and regulators to ensure the safe and responsible development of this energy.

These are the things we know.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.