The controversial practice of fracking may provide plentiful sources of natural gas, but it has come at a price. While there are advocates on both sides of the table, many have seen and felt the effects of fracking on drinking water.
How Fracking Works
To understand how fracking affects drinking water, it’s important to understand how the fracking process works.
Fracking is a process that extracts shale gas, a type of natural gas, that is trapped in shale formations. Shale is type of sedimentary rock.
Shale gas consists mostly of methane, but also includes other natural gas liquids, like butane, ethane, propane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
The practice of fracturing, or fracking, creates fractures in shale formations to release the trapped gas. Fluid is pumped at high pressure into the drilling pipe to make the fracture wider and create new ones. The fracking fluid consists mainly of water, but also contains several other chemicals and quartz.
The process starts by creating horizontal “veins,” and those veins are pumped full of water at ultra-high pressure. The high pressure creates fissures that branch off and release the gas as well as water and oil. Oil and gas are forced into these newly-formed horizontal wells and then move back up to storage tanks along with the water.
The fracking process uses two to eight million gallons of water for each well. Some wells use significantly more water.
Wells can be fracked more than once, and the chances of chemicals leaking into local water sources and soil increase significantly.
Effects of Fracking on Groundwater
A report from Scientific American pointed to research from EPA scientist Dominic DiGiulio, which proves that fracking has contaminated groundwater in Wyoming.
When residents complained of their drinking water having an odd taste and smell, the EPA launched an inquiry. The results indicated that the groundwater was contaminated with toxic chemicals.
In 2013, the EPA moved the investigation to state regulators and never published a final report – until now. DiGiulio published the peer-reviewed study in Environmental Science and Technology last year. The study showed that the local water wells were contaminated with fracking wastes; wastes that are usually stored in unlined pits deep in the ground.
The study suggests that Wind River Basin’s groundwater is contaminated with chemicals that are linked to fracking.
Encana Corporation, the company that operated in the Pavilion basin, maintains that there is no evidence that the water quality in local wells has changed because of fracking.
Aquifers typically sit much deeper than conventional fracking depths, but contamination and dewatering are still serious concerns. Environmental groups proport that shallower aquifers in some parts of the country have been tainted by fracking.
The EPA, of course, states that contamination is not likely and if there is contamination, it is typically because of faulty well construction. But their admission that fracking can affect drinking water is very different from their 2015 report that stated hydraulic fracking had no “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water resources.
But reports support DiGiulio’s findings, which show that at least ten fracking-related compounds have made their way into Wyoming’s groundwater.
A study from Duke University also found that methane levels in drinking water wells near fracking operations was 17 times higher.
The EPA’s 2016 Final Report
The EPA’s final report in 2016 concluded that fracking affects drinking water resources at every stage in the water cycle.
The agency reported that there were 457 fracking-related spills in 11 states from 2006 and 2012. In 324 cases, the EPA stated that the spills reached surface water, soil or ground water.
It also found cases in which wells were not properly sealed, which allowed fracking fluid to leak into the ground. Cases of improperly treated wastewater were also found.
EPA Deputy Administrator Tom Burke cautioned that gaps and uncertainties in the data prevents the study from making a conclusion on fracking’s impact on drinking water. He had admitted that the practice has caused issues in local communities, particularly in areas with poor well construction and water withdrawals from regions that have limited water resources.
Environmental activists say that the EPA’s final report confirms what they had known all along: that fracking threatens the quality of drinking water in local communities. Those against fracking are hoping to use the EPA’s report as a means to launch opposition against the practice.
Wastewater Effects on the Local Ecosystem
Along with drinking water, fracking wastewater can contaminate the local ecosystem.
The chemicals used in the fracking process requires that the water be treated before it can be reused. As much as 60% of the water injected during drilling is discharged back out of the well as flowback wastewater.
The wastewater should be captured and either recycled or disposed of. Some companies use surface ponds to store these fluids, but this method was outlawed by the state of Pennsylvania.
Fracking wastewater contains high levels of toxic chemicals that can damage local ecosystems.
Proper storage of this wastewater can be costly. With shrinking profit margins and plunging shale oil prices, producers have found alternative uses for their wastewater. One use is for the de-icing of roads, as wastewater has high levels of salt. But there are concerns that runoff will not only harm the local ecosystem, but find its way into the local drinking supply.
Unfortunately, this type of waste is exempt from state and federal regulation.
One study from Cornwell University found that the death of more than 100 cattle may be linked to exposure to fracking fluid.
A report from Akron Beacon Journal found one million pounds of chemicals used at one well site. The industry argues that these chemicals are only 1% of the solution, but that equates to 50,000-70,000 gallons of chemicals. To make matters worse, drillers are not required to disclose all of the chemicals in the products.
Water Usage Concerns
Fracking uses millions of gallons of water, and studies have shown that the practice has increased water usage significantly.
Fracking is so controversial that the state of New York has banned the practice due to concerns of water pollution and impacts on the climate.
It is true that the amount of water used in fracking is small in comparison to the water needed for power plants and farming. But areas that have limited water supplies as is are seeing serious strains on their water supplies.
In the fracking industry’s defense, many drillers recycle some of the water they use. But the majority of the water is disposed in deep underground wells that will never be used again.
The biggest issue is that drillers often produce shale gas in arid regions that are already hard-pressed for water. Many of the regions have been devastated by drought for several years.
So, if fracking threatens the quality of drinking water, the health of local ecosystems and the amount of fresh water available, why are we still engaging in the practice?
While controversial, natural gas – which is obtained through fracking – is still viewed as a more environmentally-friendly fuel than coal because it emits fewer greenhouse gases when it’s burned.
The political climate in the United States may also favor further deregulation of fracking.
About two-thirds of the natural gas stores in the U.S. comes from fracked wells.
We hope that you have found this article interesting. If you are concerned about the effect of fracking on your drinking water, then one step you can take to ensure you are drinking safe water is to use a water filter. However, if you are concerned about your water quality due to fracking we do recommend that you contact your local water authority.
We have a number of water filter options available here at softer H2O. Click here if you would like to see our whole house water filter guide.