Risks Rise for Fracking

Over the past few weeks, a cavalcade of fracking-related reports and scientific studies has provided mounting evidence that the drive to drill domestically for more oil and gas might be more complicated than initially predicted. Here’s a roundup of some of the most important recent developments.

• The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) warned New York regulators, who are considering if and how to lift the state’s temporary moratorium on shale gas drilling, about the potential for fracking to contaminate drinking water. They were especially concerned about drilling near the watershed and aqueducts that supply unfiltered drinking water to New York City’s more than 8 million residents. The federal geologists warned that natural faults in New York’s underground rocks, which can allow methane and toxic contamination to seep from gas wells into drinking water supplies, are poorly mapped. The bedrock over the Marcellus Shale has an especially high number of faults, they added. Because these faults can extend great distances, the agency called for a ban on fracking within five square miles of some aquifers, far larger than the 500-foot buffer zone that New York currently plans to protect.

• A soon-to-be-published study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that that airborne emissions from natural gas drilling are far higher than previously believed, causing alarm among scientists about climate change implications. When burned, natural gas is far cleaner than other fossil fuels like coal and oil. But unburned natural gas, or methane, is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. Unburned methane is a major concern because it often leaks from pipes, compressor stations and drilling sites and there has been heated debate about whether proponents of more natural gas drilling are accurately accounting for the harmful effects of these sorts of leaks. The NOAA study, which took air samples from gas fields near Denver, Colorado, focused not on pipeline leaks, but air emissions tied directly to drilling. The federal scientists found that drilling companies are releasing roughly 4% of the gas from their wells directly into the atmosphere, more than double prior official estimates. This corroborates findings by scientists from Cornell, who concluded last year that natural gas may be worse than coal when it comes to global warming.

• Even before results from the NOAA study were made public, members of Congress began calling for a closer look into air emissions from fracking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently conducting a national study on the potential harmful effects of fracking on drinking water that is likely to have a major impact on how this drilling is regulated in the future. However, Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), the Congressperson who initiated that study, says that the agency’s plans are too narrowly focused on water hazards, a point he first made last year. This month Mr. Hinchey and two of his colleagues upped the pressure on the EPA, calling for the agency to expand their focus to include air quality impacts and human health problems that stem from fracking. Their Feb. 2 letter also questioned the claimed gas supplies available from fracking, an issue that has drawn intense scrutiny recently. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently slashed its estimates for the amount of shale gas nationwide by roughly half. “This is an enormous swing and it should be a caution to those who claim these new shale gas fields are the silver bullet to our country’s energy challenge,” Mr. Hinchey and his colleagues wrote.

• Several major news venues, including The New York Review of Books and Rolling Stone, just released pieces that ask tough questions about the costs and financial and environmental risks of fracking. The New York Review piece offers a high-altitude discussion of several books just published on fracking. Rolling Stone takes a close look at Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s largest shale gas producers, highlighting the CEO’s pattern of risk-taking. The article discusses growing doubts among energy analysts about the profitability of shale gas production (find more on these issue here). Compounding Chesapeake’s problems, the company is also under fire for alleged violations of federal environmental laws. The company revealed in its SEC filings last week that it is facing a Department of Justice investigation related to possible Clean Water Act violations in at three sites in West Virginia. West Virginia officials are also investigating the company for possible violations of state environmental laws.

• On the international front, one of the most overlooked developments comes from China where drilling is turning out to be more complex than anticipated. China has twice as much shale gas below ground as the U.S., but that only matters if the gas can be tapped cheaply. Fracking in China may be especially difficult in part because the shale formations are extremely deep, which makes drilling more expensive and means that fracking requires more fresh water and produces more contaminated wastewater.