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EPA’s Broad Study Targets the Safety of Shale Drilling

Hydraulic fracturing, also commonly called hydrofracking or fracking, is the process of drilling into shale and then turning the drill horizontally to tap pockets of natural gas.

The Post-Standard says Ron Bishop, a chemistry professor at the State University College at Oneonta, explains that the procedure involves pumping in thick chemical slurry to keep the drill bit clear of debris. Concrete seals the well and large amounts of water – potentially millions of gallons – are pumped in under pressure to hydrofracture the shale and release natural gas. The polluted water is often stored in tanks or drainage ponds before being disposed.

Critics Raise Concerns Over Hydrofracking

Environmentalists are concerned that hydrofracking has the potential to contaminate drinking water aquifers and groundwater. Some claim the tanks and ponds used to store the contaminated water are prone to leaks and overflow. Moreover, pollution from pumps, compressors and trucks used to haul the water, and wear and tear on rural roads are causing concern.

Robert Puls, lead on the hydraulic fracturing study for the EPA, says that fracking wells can use as many as five million gallons of water per well. With companies drilling up to 16 wells per well pad, this amounts to 80 million gallons of water. The EPA is examining the source of this water and whether it is competing with other uses, like drinking water.

Lou Allstadt, former Mobil Oil Corp. vice president, expressed serious concern over hydrofracking, explaining that wells will be fracked many times over, increasing the risk of fissures. Executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club Neil Woodworth also notes the probable lack of capacity of the Northeast to clean up the chemical- and sand-laden hydrofracking fluids in the event of a spill.

A spokesman for the Onondaga Nation reportedly dubbed fracking “the most serious environmental challenge we’ve ever faced.” Joseph Heath, general counsel for the nation, said the more he studies the process, the scarier it becomes. The Haudenosaunee issued a statement requesting that New York ban hydrofracking and other unconventional gas drilling methods.

The Industry Says Fracking Will Lead to Jobs

The industry is striking back, with the promise of jobs in a tough economy and by addressing the EPA’s concerns. Resonating with some New Yorkers is a recent conference call in which the American Petroleum Institute (API) publicized a study indicating that drilling commencing in 2011 in the Marcellus Shale, which travels the shoreline from New York to Pennsylvania to West Virginia, could reach production of 9.5 billion cubic feet per day in 2020. Under this middle-range scenario, hydrofracking the Marcellus Shale could generate more than 180,000 jobs and nearly $4 billion in additional tax revenue.

Cathy Landry, spokeswoman for the API, reportedly said that even if all the wells expected to be drilled are actually drilled, water usage for natural gas operations in the state would grow only to 28 million gallons per day. She added that golf courses in New York State use a seasonal average of 58 million gallons per day.

Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, claims there has not been a solitary case of groundwater contaminated by frack fluid in New York. He laments that “fear-mongering and emotion will always trump science.”

EPA Study

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently said because hydrofracking occurs thousands of feet below the surface, there is a certain level of protection against contamination of groundwater. Nonetheless, the EPA addressed the volume of water used in fracking and said it would evaluate the integrity of some individual wells as a part of a high profile study. The industry had been urging the EPA to keep the study narrowly focused.

Some Pennsylvania residents have called for a study of hydrofracking, telling an EPA panel that their water turned foul after drilling began nearby. Syracuse.com reports on Darrell Smitsky, who says five of his goats died mysteriously and his water shows high levels of manganese and iron, and Stephanie Hallowitch, who says her family’s well is no longer safe enough even to allow her children to run through the sprinklers.

The study should provide guidance and valuable safety information to lawmakers and policymakers with regard to hydraulic fracturing along the Marcellus Shale. Any future decisions should adequately account for prosperity of the communities as well as the safety of drilling employees and families living near wells or storage facilities.

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