By Joyce Hale
The term “fracking” has graduated from oil and gas industry jargon to a colorful, popularized battle cry. It has become the label for whatever is wrong with today’s natural gas extraction. When water well contamination occurs near natural gas production, “fracking” will probably be blamed.
The industry has consistently denied that fracking is a problem by claiming it has been safely practiced since the 1940s. This is only partially true since many chemicals, higher pressures, and a greater volume of water have been added to the hydrofracking techniques of yore. Today’s evolved fracking process is dubbed with the technical name High-volume (Slick-water) Hydraulic Fracturing, but it is generically referred to by the old nickname “fracking.”
Reports of unhappy well owners in states where gas drilling is happening cite changes in well water, ponds and waterways. Water sources having no previous history of problems may suddenly degrade or, in extreme cases, catch fire. Fear of what impact this could have on individuals’ health and property values has pushed the public to demand full disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. This has required some state legislatures to take action since the fracking process is exempt from having to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Even in states now providing the most open access to chemical information, “proprietary products” can still hide their chemical contents until an injury requires medical treatment. Some states even require that the attending physician must not disclose this information even to the patient. Now that a well bore can turn from vertical to horizontal and travel in a shale layer for over a mile, drilling operations do not have to be close to one’s water well to cause concern.
The gas industry has an excellent record of deflecting damage claims. It is very difficult to claim infiltration without a pre-drilling sample that was tested to establish baseline readings. While some people in shale plays are beginning to take this expensive action in self defense, there is always the question of what you should test for when hundreds of different chemicals may be used. Most people are not prepared to fight a David vs. Goliath lawsuit and have little choice other than to go on with their lives and hope for the best. For those who continue to fight, water tests generally fail to prove a link. When damages are egregious and unquestionably tied to gas drilling, the companies quietly settle out of court. In order to receive compensation for the property damage or undeniable health impacts, individuals are required to sign nondisclosure agreements which seal the information from public access. Thus companies can claim there have been no “documented” cases of damage.
Companies may be correct, for now, in denying that today’s water problems are related to fracking. We know the greatest dangers should be assigned to drilling through the aquifer before a casing is complete, casing failures, surface chemical spills or illegal dumping, leaking tanks and pipelines, and tanker accidents. But hanging over our heads is the great unknown as to when fracking fluids will gradually find their way through fissures and faults from the horizontal laterals in shale to aquifers we all depend on. This will remain a specter to haunt all shale plays and fresh water users in the future, since you cannot clean an aquifer.