COMMENTARY | In 2010, filmmaker Josh Fox released his documentary Gasland at the Sundance Film Festival. Most viewers were shocked at the content and it went on to win a Special Jury Prize. The film exposed what many of us now know as “fracking.” Fracking is hydraulic fracturing of land using deep drilling to extract natural gas, a technology developed by the U.S. company Halliburton more than 60 years ago.
During the process, a well is created and injected with chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water. The high-pressure injection fractures the shale and opens gaps to release the gas from the well. The water used in the hydrofracking is contaminated with hundreds of different chemicals and must be cleansed then removed.
According to recent studies, including one performed by Cornell University, the threat exists that fracking is contaminating America’s drinking supply and creating a high amount of pollution. It is thought that about half of the water is typically recovered from a well, and, as an obvious result, the wastewater can be toxic.
Environmentalists became incensed in 2005 when the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill made natural gas drilling exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Oftentimes referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, the exemption barred the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from monitoring fracking. This made it impossible for the EPA to continue working within the parameters set up by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) passed by Congress in 1974, which helped keep drinking water free of natural and man-made contamination.
Scientists say about 1 to 8 million gallons of water may be used to frack a well, up to 8,000 feet deep, which can often be fracked around a dozen times. Unfortunately, drinking water lays beneath the earth at about 1,000 feet and there is a high potential for well leakage. During each frack, 80-300 tons of different chemicals might be used.
The natural gas industry does not have to release the information regarding the chemicals used, but scientists have noted that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene , and xylene have been found at sites where testing is underway. The VOCs evaporate and mix with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the fracking site, creating ground level ozone plumes said to travel up to 250 miles. Cornell professor Robert Howarth notes that natural gas is mostly methane, a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). Howarth adds that even small methane leaks make a big difference. An estimated 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air from a fracked well — twice the amount that escapes from producing conventional gas.
Fracking is now occurring throughout much of the United States, including Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. Environmentalists hope that the FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness to Chemical Act) House bill closes the Halliburton Loophole and requires the natural gas industry’s disclosure of which chemicals are used.
Josh Fox, “Gasland,” International Wow Company
Joanna Lara, “US Documentary Special Jury Prize,” Sundance Film Festival
Mike Soraghan, “Halliburton Announces Ecofriendly Fracking Fluid, More Disclosure,” The New York Times
Stacy Shackford, “Natural Gas from Fracking Could Be ‘Dirtier’ than Coal, Cornell Professors Find,” Cornell Chronicle
Jim VandeHei and Justin Blum , “Bush Signs Energy Bill,” Washington Post
Jonathan D. Silver, “Federal Oversight of Fracking in Dispute,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette