Sanders: Fracking doesn’t contaminate our drinking water

How safe is hydraulic fracturing for North Carolina? The process, which has been around since the 1940s, has an impeccable safety record. Over a million wells have used hydraulic fracturing safely since 1947.

by Jon Sanders Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation

by Jon Sanders
Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation

2004 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane wells found no incident of contamination of drinking water wells from hydraulic fracturing fluid injection. In 2009 state regulators in all member states of the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission stated that they had found no cases where hydraulic fracturing had caused drinking water to be contaminated. Numerous studies have found no link between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination.

In May 2011, EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson, testifying under oath before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, stated she was “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has been conducting a comprehensive, long-term study of hydraulic fracturing in western Pennsylvania. After a year of monitoring, researchers released preliminary findings in July 2013, announcing they had found no evidence of hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater.

The real issue is well construction

The primary, secondary, and tertiary issue for well safety is not the process of hydraulic fracturing, but well construction. Stanford University geophysicist and Obama administration energy advisor Mark Zoback, who served on the National Academy of Engineering’s investigation into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Energy Department’s study of shale energy production, put it this way: “There are three keys — and those are well construction, well construction, and well construction.”

Vikram Rao, executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium, wrote that “producing gas wells sometimes leak into freshwater aquifers” but noted that “In all cases this is because of some combination of not locating cement in the right places and of a poor cement job” (emphasis added).

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 of a growing consensus among energy companies, state regulators, academics, and environmentalists that the chief risk isn’t hydraulic fracturing, but well construction:

Mark Boling, executive vice president and general counsel of Southwestern Energy Co., a major natural-gas producer, said he has examined several incidents in Colorado and Pennsylvania where gas drilling appears to have caused gas to get into drinking water. “Every one we identified was caused by a failure of the integrity of the well, and almost always it was the cement job,” he said.

A. Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund who is working with Mr. Boling, agreed. “The groundwater pollution incidents that have come to light to date have all been caused by well construction problems,” he said….

One of the largest documented instances of water contamination occurred in Bradford County, Pa. — after wells had been drilled but before any fracking took place. Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation’s second largest natural-gas company, has conceded that poor well construction may have played a role in high levels of natural gas found in local aquifers, according to letters to state regulators. (Emphasis added.)

Uniquely positioned to adopt the best technologies and practices

Safety of hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina was confirmed by a comprehensive study conducted by the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Department of Commerce under then-Gov. Bev Perdue. Published in April 2012, the study concluded that “information available to date suggests that production of natural gas by means of hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.”

The right protections have already been developed in and tested by longtime fracking states. As Daniel Fine of the New Mexico Center for Energy Policy has argued, by being a latecomer in allowing hydraulic fracturing, North Carolina is able to adopt best regulatory practices, best technology, and best legal framework from other states’ experiences.

The Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative reached the same conclusion, stating “North Carolina is thus in a unique position among oil- and gas-producing states. Its new legislative framework can incorporate experiences from other states and include state-of-the-art technologies and best practices.”

In allowing gas and oil exploration and recovery through hydraulic fracturing, North Carolina is not rushing into an untested, unregulated new process. It is welcoming in a well-tested process, which holds the promise of new job creation, wealth creation, revenue generation, and even a new domestic industry for the state.

Jon Sanders is Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation. A native of Garner, Sanders holds a masters degree in economics with a minor in statistics and a bachelors degree in English literature and language from N.C. State.

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  • Kristie W

    The Research Triangle Energy Consortium is currently working on constructing the regulatory framework that will be used to guide any future extraction of shale gas in NC. You can check out their webpage for more details on their plan.

    The fracturing itself may not endanger aquifers, but poorly constructed wells can. Other concerns raised by fracking include seismic disturbances and the enormous amount of freshwater used to extract natural gas. After water has been forced between the layers of shale (leaving behind small plastic beads that hold the shale open so gases can flow out) the water is no longer fit for human consumption. It is expensive to treat and/or store the water. Even if groundwater isn’t endangered by hydraulic fracturing, the use of so much freshwater concerns me.

    Here are my sources:

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