How Does Fracking Impact Drinking Water?RSS
Analies Dyjak | Policy Nerd
**Updated 8/6/2021 to include latest information
There’s no denying that fracking has changed the course of energy production in the U.S., but not without some serious environmental impacts. Fracking severely threatens groundwater aquifers that millions of Americans depend on for drinking water. The viral videos of people lighting their tap water on fire are real, and the risk to human health is significant. Here’s an answer to the question "does fracking pollute groundwater?"
How Does Fracking Pollute Drinking Water?
Fracking is a method to extract oil and gas from rocks underground by injecting liquid at high pressure into the rocks. Fracking liquids can easily migrate to surrounding groundwater aquifers, either in the well injection stage or after they're transported offsite. A 2015 report by the California Office of Emergency Services concluded that 18% of fracking spills impact waterways. To give that statistic some real-world context, in North Dakota, 2,963,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing liquid ended up polluting groundwater as a result of just 18 spills in 2015. 43 million people draw their drinking water from private wells, and are the most susceptible to pollution from fracking.
Fracking is an extremely water-intensive process. The amount of water required ranges anywhere from 1.5 to 16 million gallons per injection well. Natural gas producers then have to decide what to do with such high volumes of polluted water. Once the “produced liquid” has been used for extraction, it’s either injected into a Class II well, reused in other hydraulic fracturing projects, or transported to a waste site.
What Is The Halliburton Loophole?
In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which exempted fracking from the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. This soon became known as the “Halliburton Loophole” for the extensive lobbying done by Halliburton Oilfield Service. Through this loophole, natural gas companies are not required to disclose extraction chemicals or other important water-related information. Natural gas companies are also not required to obtain National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. This eliminates pollution permits for natural gas exploration, production, processing, treatment, transmission, and related activities.
Contaminants Found in Fracking Liquids
Fracking liquids are proprietary, meaning companies create their own unique chemical cocktails. Because fracking is exempt from the Clean Water Act, natural gas companies are not required to disclose what exactly they’re pumping into the earth. EPA identified 1,084 different hydraulic fracturing chemicals between 2005 and 2013. EPA concluded that 65% of the wells tested had methanol, hydrotreated light petroleum distillates and hydrochloric acid. Other popular fracking chemicals include arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine, and mercury-- a dangerous medley of both toxic and carcinogenic compounds.
PFAS in Fracking Liquids
Earlier this year, Physicians for Social Responsibility obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that revealed that in 2011, EPA approved the use of chemicals for fracking that may break down into PFAS compounds. The scientists at EPA indicated that they were concerned that the chemicals could “degrade in the environment” producing substances similar to PFOA, a type of PFAS, and could “persist in the environment” and “be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” The scientists recommended additional testing, but it was not mandatory, and there is no indication that this was ever completed. In spite of the scientists’ stated concerns, the approval for the use of these chemicals in fracking was granted and has been in use ever since.
Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a category of harmful compounds that can be found in drinking water sources across the country. PFAS can take hundreds of years to degrade in the environment which is why they are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals.’ PFAS are not currently regulated at the federal level, but some states have created regulations or monitoring criteria. They are known to increase the risk of cancer, increase cholesterol, increase the risk of miscarriage by 80-120%, and several other negative health outcomes.
Common health effects of Hydrochloric Acid, one of the prominent fracking chemicals, include inflammation and ulceration of the respiratory tract, pulmonary edema, lesions of the upper respiratory tract, and corrosion of mucous membranes of the esophagus and stomach. Fetuses and young children are the most susceptible to the adverse health effects associated with fracking chemicals. A 2017 study concluded that in Pennsylvania, babies of moms who live within one kilometer (3280 feet) of a fracking site have a 25% greater chance of being born underweight, than expecting mothers that live 3 kilometers (9842 feet) away.
Setback Distances (Case Study: Colorado)
Some states recognized the serious and immediate threat that fracking has on drinking water. In Colorado, Proposition 112 on the 2018 ballot attempted to address this issue. State regulations required natural gas wells to be 500 feet from a home and 1000 feet from a “highly occupied structure” (school or apartment complex). Prop 112 would have increased the setback distance to 2500 feet, or approximately a half mile. While Prop 112 was voted down, later that year the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted unanimously to adopt a rule to measure the 1,000-foot drilling setback from property lines rather than buildings, effectively increasing the setback requirements from schools and childcare facilities, and was set to take effect at the end of January 2019. Health organizations argue that the setback distances in Colorado still don’t go far enough, but are a step in the right direction.
While fracking provides American-produced energy, it also seriously threatens drinking water. In spite of these concerns, fracking isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Natural gas production is predicted to grow 40% in the next 20 years. This means that there will continue to be injection wells pollution. It will be up to industries and consumers to weigh the benefits against the costs of fracking.
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