A new wave of more intense gas drilling has arrived in the Great Lakes region, known as hydrofracking. Hydrofracking is a complex procedure used by oil and gas companies to extract natural gas found in deep shale formations several thousands of feet below ground. The drilling technique uses over 250 chemicals and millions of gallons of water to extract the gas. It’s time we started paying attention to some possible environmental damages that could occur, and assess whether we have the right laws in place to protect our resources or if this is even the right practice for our region.
Here are the basics:
Gas, termed “shale gas,” is tightly contained in shale formations, which are situated considerably deeper underground than traditional natural gas reserves. With hydrofracking, a well is horizontally drilled deep into the ground and its walls are sealed with cement. Fracture fluids, a proprietary combination of water, chemicals, and sand, are then forced down the well at a very high pressure, to force open seams, cracks, or “fractures” in the shale formation. The fractures allow the gas to escape where it is captured and stored for eventual commercial use. Each hydrofracking job requires approximately three to eight million gallons of water and most wells undergo hydrofracking many times. A portion of the fracture fluids, which pick up chlorides and other naturally occurring constituents, such as radioactive materials from the formation, remain below the surface. The rest of the wastewater flows back up the well, and is managed in a variety of ways, based on state regulations.
Most of the concern is about hydrofracking’s potential impact on aquatic resources, drinking water supply, and human health. Concerns range from direct impacts, such as contamination of drinking water and aquifer depletion, to more indirect threats, such as the possibility that use of the procedure could trigger earthquakes in some regions. A number of public interest organizations have attempted to identify the chemicals used in the hydrofracking process. According to Earthworks, hydrofracking fluids may include hazardous chemicals such as biocides, diesel fuel, acids, metals, ethylene glycol, corrosion inhibitors, and other chemicals. Well known Great Lakes scientist and advocate Theo Colburn, currently head of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, collaborated with the Environmental Working Group, to analyze samples of hydrofracking fluids. The analysis showed that of the more than 300 suspected hydraulic fracturing chemicals used in Colorado, at least 65 are federally listed hazardous substances and little is known about the rest.
Grenetta Thomassey, Program Director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council says her biggest concern with hydrofracking is the chemical additives they put in the water used to frack the wells. She says “These chemicals are not disclosed to the public and are only made available to regulators in the case of an emergency. We worry about this because citizens cannot do adequate baseline testing of their water if they don’t know what they are testing for. Second, the chemically-polluted water used to frack the wells does not all return to the surface. Our research indicates that depending on the region, anywhere from 30-70 percent of that water may remain in the ground.” There are also concerns that contamination of deep aquifers from a fracture(s) could occur which could contaminate drinking water supplies, either through the hole produced when drilling an oil or gas well or from cross contamination by hydrofracking fluids that spread up and out into adjacent aquifers.
The oil and gas industry, producers of hydrofracking fluids, and regulators deny that hydrofracking can cause groundwater contamination. However, in August 2009, EPA officials admitted that underground drinking water contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming might be due to hydrofracking chemicals. Also, an 18-month study of the practice by ProPublica, an investigative public interest organization, found more than 1,000 cases of water supply contamination from the management of hydrofracking fluids.
Allegedly, a recent well drilled within one-quarter mile of Lake Erie resulted in thousands of gallons of “flowback” (drilling fluids) running off over land and discharging into a nearby stream. When faced with these unsettling facts people want to know what they can do about the issue.
First step is to get informed using reliable information, and the second step is to get involved. There are several groups working on the issue in Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, including:
Clean Water Action, www.cleanwateraction.org/mi
Don’t Frack Michigan, www.dontfrackmichigan.org
Michigan League of Conservation Voters, www.lwvmi.org
Sierra Club, www.michigan.sierraclub.org
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, www.watershedcouncil.org
West Michigan Environmental Action Council, www.wmeac.org
Ohio Environment Council, www.theoec.org
Save Our Streams PA, www.saveourstreamspa.com