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How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science: Water Contamination

Fracking and Water

In the second installment of our series on opponents of shale development denying science (Part I is here), we tackle the issue of hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.

No single source of criticism of hydraulic fracturing is more pronounced than the claim that it pollutes groundwater. “Fracking,” according to the Sierra Club, is “known to contaminate drinking water.” Food & Water Watch says hydraulic fracturing “threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we love and the climate on which we all depend.” The Center for Biological Diversity begins its litany of criticisms of hydraulic fracturing with: “Contaminated water.” In his FAQ page, Gasland director Josh Fox says water contamination from fracking is “very serious.”

But when these same critics are asked to prove the claim, the evidence is far more elusive than their statements would suggest. At a major Senate hearing earlier this year, representatives from both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, when pressed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), could not name a single confirmed case of hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater.

Experts and regulators, meanwhile, have stated time and again that there is little to no evidence of “fracking” ever contaminating groundwater:

  • Ernest Moniz, Secretary of U.S. Dept. of Energy: “To my knowledge, I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.” (Aug. 2013)
  • U.S. Geological Survey: “This new study is important in terms of finding no significant effects on groundwater quality from shale gas development within the area of sampling.” (January 2013)
  • U.S. Govt. Accountability Office (GAO): “[R]egulatory officials we met with from eight states – Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas – told us that, based on state investigations, the hydraulic fracturing process has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination within their states.” (September 2012)
  • Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 2012)
    • Jackson: “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.” (May 2011)
  • Dr. Stephen Holditch, Dept. of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University; member of DOE’s SEAB Shale Gas Production Subcommittee: “I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers.” (October 2011)
  • Center for Rural Pennsylvania: “In this study, statistical analyses of post-drilling versus pre-drilling water chemistry did not suggest major influences from gas well drilling or hydrofracturing (fracking) on nearby water wells, when considering changes in potential pollutants that are most prominent in drilling waste fluids.” (October 2011)
  • Dr. Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University; member of DOE’s SEAB Shale Gas Production Subcommittee: “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” (August 2011)
  • State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc. (STRONGER): “Although an estimated 80,000 wells have been fractured in Ohio, state agencies have not identified a single instance where groundwater has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing operations.” (January 2011)
  • N.Y. Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS): “A supporting study for this dSGEIS concludes that it is highly unlikely that groundwater contamination would occur by fluids escaping from the wellbore for hydraulic fracturing. The 2009 dSGEIS further observes that regulatory officials from 15 states recently testified that groundwater contamination as a result of the hydraulic fracturing process in the tight formation itself has not occurred.” (2011)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “In the studies surveyed, no incidents are reported which conclusively demonstrate contaminationof shallow water zones with fracture fluids.” (2010)
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council: “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.” (May 2009)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Although thousands of CBM wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells.” (2004)

Additionally, two recent peer-reviewed studies confirmed that water contamination from hydraulic fracturing is “not physically plausible.” State regulatory officials from across the country have similarly stated that there is no evidence to support the claim that hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater.

Critics have claimed, however, that “fracking” is not just the process of hydraulic fracturing, but rather the entire shale development process. The Sierra Club has even expanded “fracking” beyond development to include downstream processes such as exports.

More specifically, Gasland director Josh Fox has said:

“Fracking – when taken to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well – has conclusively been linked to water contamination by federal and state environmental authorities many times.”

But “the entire process of developing an oil or gas well” is not hydraulic fracturing. That’s not an opinion, either; it’s a fact. Fox’s redefinition is one of convenience, which allows him to use the word “fracking” to indict any part of oil and gas production.

Thomas Pyle from the Institute for Energy Research responded to Fox with a similar critique:

The problem is that you cannot take fracking “to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well” because that is not what fracking is.

Hydraulic fracturing is one step in the process of developing many wells, but certainly not all wells. As the Environmental Protection Agency explains, “Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources; including oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, and even water.”

While an important step indeed, fracking is one small part of the process – a well stimulation process. It is not the entire process of drilling, casing a well, and producing oil and natural gas. It is one step. It is dishonest to suggest that it is anything else.

Shale development entails risks, and there are specific and unique risks with each part of the overall process. Given the rules and regulations that apply to those specific processes, conflating one for the other could potentially result in disastrous public policies, including new rules or regulations that do not solve any legitimate problems.

What opponents of hydraulic fracturing have done, however, is taken a harsh sounding word (“fracking”) and redefined it to mean whatever they want. So when opponents claim “fracking” causes water contamination, in their minds they’re telling the truth. The problem is that the actual truth is something completely different.

Photo Credit: Fracking and Water/shutterstock

Steve Everley's picture

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Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Aug 17, 2013 7:45 pm GMT

The reason there is (allegedly) “no evidence” is because drillers pay hush money to owners of contaminated wells.

Which they do specifically so they can falsely claim there is no evidence. Is this motivated by any desire to know the truth? Hell no.

Simple logic tells you this is nuts. Once the non-porous rock underlying an aquifer is pierced by a hole that goes down to pressurized gas-bearing rock, the ONLY thing that prevents gas contamination of the aquifer is the well casing. Which means that every single well casing through that aquifer must hold perfectly, forever, to avoid contamination — for decades, centuries, millenia after the well has been abandoned. How likely is that, in the real world?

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 17, 2013 8:17 pm GMT

Hydraulic fracturing has been a confused subject in recent years.  What many critics do not seem to understand or possibly ignore is how a shale gas or oil well is actually designed, installed and operated.  The initial well development (dry-hole drilling) does not involve the use of any hydraulic fracturing technology or the use of the chemical blended water based fluids required to eventually fracture the shale formations.  The well is first mechanically drilled down ‘several thousand feet’, through the water table that typically ‘less than 100 feet’ deep.   During this phase of the drilling operation the well walls are sealed by installing casings and liners to prevent all leakage (into the water table) and loss of the hydraulic fracturing fluids (above the shale formations); during this latter phase of the well installation-production process.  The well casings/liners are routinely pressure tested to identify any leaks, and any identified leaks (before the hydraulic fracturing process begins) are sealed by cement or synthetic sealants and retested to ensure the leaks are properly sealed.

Many oil & gas facilities also drill test-sampling wells adjacent the production well fields to monitor for any possible leakage into water table.  This practice also helps identify any possible leakage into the water table for more mature well hydraulic fracturing operations.  Yes, well casings/liners can wear and hole through if not routinely tested to ensure the integrity of the equipment.  That is why wells operations are routinely monitored and casings/liners properly and continuously maintained to prevent any adverse impacts on the water, land and air environments.

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Aug 18, 2013 1:30 pm GMT

Thanks for the post Steve. Isolating precises areas of developments is essential ro the establishment of safe standards and practices in oil and gas developments; as well as geothermal developments as well as Enhanced Oil Recovery technologies. Where any fracking fluids escape into potable water supplies must be predisely determined;  so solutions may be engineered where neccessary to perform remedial prodesses. Thanks for your comment as well John.

Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Aug 18, 2013 6:04 pm GMT

When frack flowback vomits highly saline brine on the surface, the industry’s response is to dump it, since they have neglected to develop water cleanup technology beyond the API separator (1933).

Dumping into rivers is excused by claiming that dilution is a solution for pollution.  Dumping underground via injection wells makes it disappear for the moment, which is good enough for PR purposes.  Injection wells make sense as part of a considered plan for keeping flow going out of the formation, but as a dump for pollution they cause earthquakes and threaten the groundwater.

So the groundwater issue is not to be evaded by changing the subject to well casing integrity over short time spans in the vicinity of new holes.  The casings in Pennsylvania may be holding, but how about the Ohio injection wells 50 years from now?  Cost-cutting cowboys will likely try to squeeze too much wastewater underground. Or maybe they’ll just dump it along the road.

The BP Blowout revealed the primitive state of the industry’s water technology and a safety culture routinely overruled by Wall Street.  The lack of any serious effort or expense to address frack flowback other than by dumping belies the sincerity of “we care a lot” propaganda by flacks for foreign rip-and-ship exploiters of American natural resources. 

Before ruining the groundwater of future Americans so multinational executives can frolic in redneck splendor, we should also consider the fast depletion of fracked gas wells.  The industry is under pressure to keep drilling just to stand still, and the promises of energy independence, local prosperity, etc. ring hollow.  The risk to the groundwater will remain once the frackers have moved on and the royalties have become a trickle.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 18, 2013 6:32 pm GMT

API separators are just the first step in the treatment of a facility’s waste water.  This step is followed by several other steps that often involve aerobic or anaerobic digestion to remove all hydrocarbons, chemical treatment to remove (precipitate) inorganic materials, pH adjustment and filtering to remove all solids.  No facility in the U.S. is allowed to just discharge untreated or inadequately treated water into streams, rivers, or underground injection without a proper environmental permit.  The permit process is very rigorous, involves critical responsible Government Agency’s review and approval, and normally includes an opportunity for the Public to contribute their concerns or issues into the permitting process.  After the permit is issued and operations begin, the treated waste water must be routinely tested to ensure it meets the permit treatment discharge requirements before being discharged into the local environment.

The process described above sounds possibly more like the regulatory process that existed in the 1930’s or well before the original Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.  

David Newell's picture
David Newell on Aug 24, 2013 3:54 am GMT

And besides, what proof is available to show that methane is not released through the process?

has there been an assessment by independent third party analysts who have stated that this does not happen?


If earthquakes eventuate, is there any possibility that ‘cracks” may release methane and CO2.??


As stated, we humans can justify anything we want to do: 



I vote NO to the dirty mother frackers.


Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 24, 2013 3:52 pm GMT

Can you please define “Dirty”, and if the Gas company pays to reclaim the water, why are you concerned.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 24, 2013 5:11 pm GMT

Methane release is a given.  Nature releases it all the time. If the releases from the fracking operation is at or around/near background release, then I see no real problems here.

What’s concerning to me is that there are groups which hate Fracking and those groups will exploit every real or perceive fracking problem, they’ll exaggerate the incidences and demonize all fracking even when or where the technological issues which lead to some problems at some sites have been resolved.

A good example is the term “Dirty” relating to water. Or the insinuation that puting water in the ground  along with a low concentration of naturally occuring chemicals/substances, some amounts to ground water contamination, or to the water being now and forever lost to the planet.


I really despise hype and incinsere exaggerations (by organized groups).


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Sep 1, 2013 6:44 pm GMT

“Simple logic” may be misleading.

Critics of fracking claim that it is uneconomical because wells are depleted within a few years:

If so, that means that there is not enough pressure to force gas to the surface. “Pressurized gas-bearing rock” becomes depressurized by mining. That is another thing that eventually would seem to prevent aquifer from being contaminated by gas — there is not enough free gas left.

So well casings need not hold ‘perfectly’ for centuries, etc. In fact, regulations require that nonproducing wells be plugged to prevent any leaking:

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken


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