Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a natural gas extraction process which injects large amounts of sand, water and chemicals into deep underground wells built into rock formations. While exploiting new natural gas sources helps reduce dependency on foreign energy, environmental groups worry that fracking contaminates water supplies and releases harmful gases like methane into the air, putting nearby residents at risk. As regulators struggle to balance environmental concerns with fiscal realities, two new publications have weighed in on either side of the argument.
The first is a controversial study published by the newly minted Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. The study reports that regulators in Pennsylvania, where fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale have exploded, have successfully reduced the number of environmentally damaging incidents through careful regulation. The study also suggests that, of the 2988 environmental violations that occurred at Pennsylvania wells between January 2008 and August 2011, only 845 caused any measurable amount of pollution and, of those polluting incidents, only 25 majorly impacted air, water and/or land resources. The study uses this evidence to support their conclusion that fracking operations should be allowed to proceed in New York, because the state's existing regulations would arguably have prevented the 25 damaging incidents reported in Pennsylvania.
These are the types of conclusions industry representatives love to hear, and it's no surprise: since the study was published in late May of 2012, it has become clear that the natural gas industry provided much of the funding for its research. In the wake of this revelation, further criticism of the study's findings have emerged, including accusations that the study authors reused previously published materials without proper attribution. SUNY Buffalo has made attempts to distance itself from the study, and many faculty members have expressed outrage over its biased findings: "Our mission as a public institution is to protect the public interest," SUNY Buffalo law professor Martha McClusky said. "We should make sure that our research efforts don't look like industry public relations efforts."
Another recent publication by the International Energy Agency takes an entirely different approach to the issue. Their new book, "Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas," acknowledges fracking as being necessary in the current economic and political climate, but makes it evident that industry officials and lawmakers will have to be far more aggressive in regulating the practice in order to prevent environmental damage. The book demands regulations that would require:
- The construction of leak-proof wells which could not pollute water sources
- The safe recycling and/or storage of contaminated waste water
- The prevention of methane leaks from pipes or wellheads
The book estimates that improving vigilance in these areas would likely increase individual well costs by a mere seven percent, or about $600,000 out of a typical $8 million well budget. The authors conclude that it would be a price worth paying for near-zero environmental impact fracking operations, a message certainly not tied to industry interests.
As these two competing views on fracking emerge, federal and state lawmakers are struggling to find the best way to regulate operations. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency has instituted rules requiring drillers to reduce ground-level air pollutants, capturing methane in storage trucks for later resale. The Interior Department has also proposed stricter standards for storage of wastewater. New York governor Andrew Cuomo is reportedly in the final stages of enacting legislation that would restrict in-state fracking to the deepest areas of the Marcellus Shale formation at the border with Pennsylvania, and only in towns that agree to allow the operations to take place. The legislation would also ban any fracking in Catskill Park.
As Texas based property contamination attorneys, we at Arnold & Itkin have seen the environmental and health hazards created by large-scale fracking operations such as those currently being conducted in the Eagle Ford shale. We urge lawmakers and industry operators to take every possible precaution to protect citizen health and environmental resources, without being swayed by the desire to reduce energy dependence and/or operating costs or increase profit margins.