Water Quality InformationWritten By Actual Experts


How Does Fracking Impact Drinking Water?

Analies Dyjak @ Friday, November 2, 2018 at 2:34 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd

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 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.

Who Creates Setback Distances?

States have primacy over determining setback distances.

Colorado: Proposition 112

Some states recognize the serious and immediate threat that fracking has on drinking water. In Colorado, a question on the 2018 ballot addresses just that. Current state regulations require 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 increase the setback distance to 2500 feet, or approximately a half mile. Health organizations argue that the proposed setback distance in Colorado still doesn’t go far enough, but is a step in the right direction.

Chemicals in Fracking Liquid

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. Between the years of 2005 and 2013, EPA was able to identify 1,084 different hydraulic fracturing chemicals. 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 great medley of both toxic carcinogenic compounds.

Health Effects

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.

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.

Bottom Line:

While fracking provides American-produced energy, it also seriously threatens drinking water. And fracking isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Natural gas production is predicted to grow 40% in the next 20 years. This means more injection wells and more pollution. It’s up to industries and consumers to weigh the benefits with the costs of fracking.

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