Flaming tap water comes from bad wells, and not the drinking-water kind. Folks who live closest to natural gas wells in Pennsylvania suffer ill health. And the uptick in earthquakes in parts of Colorado and New Mexico is entirely human-induced. All of these problems are associated with fracking, yet none of them have anything to do with either the horizontal drilling or cracking rock with high-pressure water that fall under that rubric.
Instead, all of these bad outcomes are the simple results of an oil and gas addiction—and the need to get the next fix out of the ground fast—just like subsidence and toxic ash floods result from our addiction to coal. The fossil-fuel addiction is, of course, primarily responsible for climate change as well, but that's another story.
As more and more research focuses on fracking, the outcome becomes clearer and clearer. It is bad industry practices—poorly finished wells, leaking compressor stations or overdumping of copious wastewater—that lead to trouble. The solution is to either slow industry down or increase its regulation, especially the staff to oversee such operations.
Let's take it case by recent case: A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences established that the natural gas contaminating water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas emanated from deep deposits—those that are being fracked—rather than methane created closer to the surface by deep-dwelling microbes or other natural processes. And the high levels of noble gases in the contaminated wells suggest that the gas is getting there quickly, either by escaping directly into the hole that surrounds the well (known as the annulus) from the bottom or via cracks in the cement that is meant to seal the sides of the well (known as the casing). A third possibility, yet to be disproved, is that old, abandoned, unknown wells are responsible for the gas migration, although that is "unlikely, based on the lack of legacy wells in the research area," the researchers wrote.
To distinguish where the gas is coming from exactly, the researchers looked at the composition of the natural gas itself. By measuring concentrations of helium and neon in the contaminated water, the researchers could determine that the pollution originated in deep deposits. The close analysis also revealed the problem was likely bad well casings because the natural gas did not have the characteristics of gas from the Marcellus shale at the bottom but that of gas from intermediate zones the companies drilled through. Mystery solved: the culprit is bad cement jobs, perhaps due to high pressure.
The good news is that means the fix is easy: ensure good casing. The fix is economical too, since the contamination is essentially lost salable product. The bad news is that the dash for gas (and limited government funding for monitoring and enforcement) suggest that bad casing will be an ongoing problem.
That's true for the human-made earthquakes, too—and the reason is the billions of liters of wastewater the oil and gas industry produces along with the oil and gas. There's no good use for that water (although some is recycled and it could be treated) so the vast majority is simply dumped back down specially drilled disposal wells. Unfortunately, all that water then increases the pressure underground (or lubricates existing faults) and the result is earthquakes. Every day in the U.S. some 7.6 billion liters of fluid disappears down more than 170,000 such disposal wells.
Such wastewater injection has been linked to earthquakes from Ohio to Oklahoma, and now Colorado and New Mexico, too. An analysis of small temblors in the Raton Basin shared by those states shows that the 10-fold increase in small earthquakes in the region since August 2001 can be linked directly to injecting millions of cubic meters worth of wastewater underground. It's just more proof that injecting fluids underground is a great way to make an earthquake. Or, in other words, the biggest problem faced by the fracking industry may prove to be what to do with all that wastewater.
Finally, communities in the midst of fracking booms have long complained of health effects, whether from suspect drinking water or contaminated air. And a new survey of residents in Washington County, Pa., suggests those complaints will continue (pdf). Those folks living within one kilometer of a natural gas well had more skin and breathing complaints than those living two or more kilometers from a natural gas well. The cause of those complaints could be air or water pollution, but also potentially simply the stress or anxiety from living near such wells.
That stress is not insignificant. The stressors range from bright light and noise at night during the period when the well is drilled to strange smells and a lack of control once the well is operational. There are also fears that contamination in this largely rural area could ruin a family farm by making it impossible to sell its produce or dairy.
The answer is simple: more enforcement to ensure the oil and gas industry does a decent job of handling its human health responsibilities as well as the simple mechanics of cementing wells and dealing with wastewater. But better enforcement is a challenge, given limited budgets. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted in a June report, even the federal Environmental Protection Agency has problems appropriately monitoring the industry's voluminous wastewater injection, including failure to conduct mandated annual on-site evaluations. Why? "Because, according to some EPA officials, the agency does not have the resources to do so," the GAO wrote.
With natural gas playing a big role in U.S. plans to combat climate change, the time to get fracking right is now. And the science is in—fracking can be done well and often is, but the same can't be said for everything else involved in producing oil and gas. From earthquakes to contaminated water wells, the fossil fuel industry is its own worst enemy.