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Jan 16, 2009

Of all the tests facing a new president, few are as vexing—or as likely to reach his desk—as a potential conflict between two critical needs: energy and water.

By Abrahm Lustgarten

In the early morning of December 15, 2007, a home in Bainbridge, Ohio suddenly went up in a fireball. By nightfall, 19 nearby homes and their residents had been evacuated as a precaution. No one was injured, but the explosion represented a signal warning of danger in a very odd place. A recent study (PDF) has identified the source of the explosion as contaminated tap water.
Drinking water is not normally flammable, not to mention explosive, but recent reports from around the country indicate that this case of contamination is far from unique. Last fall, tests of 220 fresh-water wells in Sublette County, Wyo., found 88 of them to be contaminated. When researchers returned to some of them to take more samples, they could not open the wells; monitors showed they contained so much flammable gas they were likely to explode.
What Ohio, Wyoming and several other states have in common are natural gas drilling sites in the places where that contamination has occurred.
In 2006—the latest year for which the government has statistics—there were 448,000 gas wells in 32 states in the U.S., 31 percent more than there were in 2000. The numbers have since continued to increase, driven in part by a technique called hydraulic fracturing (PDF), commonly known as fracking. Pioneered by Halliburton, it can multiply well flow by a factor of 20. This has obvious benefits for the economics of natural gas, which is America’s second most plentiful source of energy and one that emits 23 percent less carbon than coal, the nation’s most abundant energy resource.

Reporter’s Notebook: Abrahm Lustgarten takes FLYP readers on a journey through Sublette County, Wyo. to take a tour of the wells and hear the voices of residents and experts on the issue.

The fracking process, now used in 90 percent of U.S. gas drilling projects, uses water and sand to fracture rock layers one to two miles underground, where natural gas is trapped in pockets.
To facilitate the drilling, the mixture is laced with a “secret sauce” (PDF) of chemicals, some of which are highly toxic. The drilling also dislodges toxic chemicals that occur naturally and brings them to the surface when the drilling mixture is recovered. Contamination can result from either a spill above ground or an accident below. A single well that is fractured can produce millions of gallons of waste, and the “produced water” (PDF), which is hazardous, must be treated accordingly by law.

Using Water to Break Rock: FLYP’s interactive infographic describes the hydrofracturing process.

The laws that cover fracking are otherwise lenient, in part by design. The 2005 Energy Policy Act—written with input from the 2001 Energy Task Force (PDF) run by Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Halliburton CEO—exempted the fracking process from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. That exemption sharply curtailed the safety enforcement function of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—and state enforcement efforts cannot fully compensate, especially when the sites are on federal land, as many are.
Sublette County, Wyo., which has one of the nation’s richest deposits of natural gas, is emblematic. In September, a study sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)  found water wells to be dangerously compromised. Shortly thereafter, the BLM—ignoring a notice of objection from the EPA based on that research—approved a plan to drill 4,400 new gas wells there.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that gas-exploration companies consider the fracking process competitive information and hold the details, including the identities of the chemicals in fracking fluid, tightly under wraps. That claim of confidentiality hamstrings scientists’ ability to trace the source of contamination; without knowing whether a contaminant is used in hydraulic fracturing, there is no way to tell whether fracturing caused the problem.
“This is huge,” says Gregory Oberly, a water researcher at the EPA office in Denver, referring to the drilling in Sublette County. “You’ve got benzene in a useable aquifer and nobody is able to verbalize well, using factual information, how the benzene got there.”
What is certain is that contamination has occurred with unsettling frequency in the places where oil and gas are drilled—more than a thousand cases in at least five states. In the specific gas drilling regions that ProPublica visited, no contamination was recorded until drilling—and hydraulic fracturing—had begun in earnest.

Watch FLYP Media’s interviews with Amy Mall, a senior analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, and Lee Fuller, a vice president at the Independent Petroleum Association.

To the extent drilling for gas and fracturing are the source of the problem, it threatens some of the nation’s most important water sources, from the enormous watersheds that serve the Northeast, including New York City, to the Colorado River, which supplies much of the West.

Watch FLYP Media’s video interviews with Jim Baca, former director of BLM, and Dustry Horwitt of the Environmental Working Group.

In its final days in office, the Bush administration escalated its sales of leases of land for drilling throughout the Colorado River’s watershed. As legal contracts, those will be difficult if not impossible to overturn. But legislation pending in Congress could address the drilling that goes forward. A new bill would eliminate fracking’s exemption from EPA oversight authority.
However, if past lobbying and legal efforts are any measure, the oil and gas industry can be counted on to deploy every argument against the corrective legislation. Meanwhile, the confidentiality of the drilling companies’ “secret sauce” has left scientists scrambling to answer two critical questions: Are hydraulic fracturing and its components causing the contamination, and if so, how can that be prevented?
“If you don’t know what’s in [the fluid],” says Joyel Dhieux, an environmental inspector for the EPA’s Rocky Mountain Region, “I don’t think its possible.”

Read FLYP Media’s second floor extra stories about specific problems in the Northeast and the Southwest with polluted waterways.


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This is far and away the best article I have seen on fracking and I have lived in natural gas country for decades. When we considered drilling on our property in Western NY, my ex–a gas and oil exec at that time–told me about fracking and we decided not to drill. Now, the action has moved to central NY where my husband and I have a main residence. Information like this is hard to come by. The article tells us how we got into the situation of having fracking exempted from the Clean Water Act (Cheney.) Now what? Spread the word and wait for a citizen revolt? Everybody who drills likes their money. Why don’t we hear more from those whose wells have been destroyed? And what is the risk to single source aquifers which should be protected by the laws since they effect everyone. Benzene!

destiny kinal
Feb 21, 2009