Hydraulic fracturing has often been criticized for its possible effect on groundwater, but the early results of a study by the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin indicates that the concern is largely unfounded. Early results of the study, entitled “Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development” shows that the process alone does not contaminate drinking water. Instead, what the study pointed out was that fracturing sites might have a higher rate of surface problems that could occur with any type of drilling.
The purpose of hydraulic fracturing is to wrest natural gas and oil from shale and sand formations, which tend to be dense and difficult to penetrate. The hydraulic fracturing approach uses a combination of sand and chemicals, mixed with millions of gallons of water, to break up and keep open the shale formations, resulting in hydrocarbons being released. Although most of the fracturing fluid is water, a tiny percentage is made up of chemicals, several of which could potentially be dangerous. There have been reports of surface spills killing livestock and polluting drinking water. The EPA has blown that tiny percentage out of proportion, claiming that fracking fluid in general is harmful and should be phased out by the oil and gas industry.
Yet the University of Texas results show that hydraulic fracturing has been getting an undeserved bad reputation. According to Chip Groat, the University of Texas geologist leading the study, what actually happens is that shale drilling causes more problems on the surface than drilling without fracking. These problems include spills of drilling and fracking fluids and leaks from wastewater pits. There have also been problems with surface casing (a steel pipe at the top of a well meant to isolate the flow of hydrocarbons from aquifers) as well as the cement jobs that hold the casing in place, but these are problems common to any type of drilling project, not just fracking. Chip Groat’s position is that no evidence links these problems to incidents of groundwater contamination.
In Texas, hydraulic fracturing is a common practice of the oil and gas industry. Prior to the study, the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator, reported at least 311 complaints about the possibility of contaminated drinking water from the beginning of 2006 to the end of September this year. However, one of the commissioners stressed that no complaint had ever been linked to an improper well cement casing.
The University of Texas study shows why it is important to get all of the facts before rushing to pass legislation — on a state or federal level — banning or seriously restricting a method that the oil and gas industry use on a regular basis. If legislators reacted to people’s fears and just passed legislation, the oil and gas industry could suffer a serious profit loss without any genuine benefit to the public. Indeed, the public would be hurt because losses in the oil and gas industry mean losses for everyone, across a wide span of industries. Texas depends upon oil and gas producers to keep its economy humming along. Therefore, any legislation that threatens to curb their actions must be thoroughly examined for potential harmful effect.