Pro-Fracking Arguments Fail to Grasp One Inconvenient Issue –– the Reality on the Ground


The Wall Street Journal – owned by conservative gadfly Rupert Murdoch – ran an opinion piece over the weekend that showcases the untruths, convenient omissions and wildly unscientific cause-and-effect connections that are part and parcel of any pro-fracking argument.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an aggressive (even by today’s rough-and-tumble standards) and highly controversial extraction process that involves injecting large volumes of water – mixed with sand and a brew of toxic chemicals – deep into the ground under extremely high pressure. The pressurized fluid breaks up rock formations (usually shale) and releases natural gas and oil for drilling companies to speed to market. The stakes are high as boosters and critics face off over the familiar balancing act between industrial “progress” and safety and environmental risks. On one side, we have the “irrational exuberance” that comes with billions in potential profits, and on the other, the uninterrupted supply of safe drinking water to millions of Americans in communities across the country.

It’s hard to know exactly where to begin when taking the WSJ piece to task for perpetuating and lending credibility to what are now considered standard industry talking points – but I’ll do my best.

For starters, the poorly titled WSJ rambling, “The Facts About Fracking” (June 25), inexplicably shrugs off as irrelevant, unavoidable issues like how to safely dispose of billions of gallons of radioactive wastewater that the fracking process generates. And the piece fails to even mention that one of the biggest problems tied to the rapid expansion of fracking has nothing to do with the contamination of drinking water but rather its depletion from local aquifers and reservoirs. One of the most conspicuous omissions from the Journal’s “fact-finding” piece is that drilling companies use millions of gallons of freshwater reserves in the fracking process – leaving public officials, residents and environmentalists concerned that many “fracking communities” will experience severe water shortages down the road. But by then, the drilling companies will have made their monster profits and moved on.

Fracking requires water – lots and lots of water. Barry Kohl, an adjunct professor of geology at Tulane University, is just one of many researchers warning that the fracking process uses so much water that it will quickly deplete underground aquifers or draw down lakes and streams. It is already happening in gas-rich – but water-poor – areas of the world where fracking has found a foothold. Nowhere is the water-depletion problem more apparent than in South Africa’s Karoo Basin where annual rainfall can be as little as 20 millimetres. “Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and lead to contamination of the groundwater table,” says Jonathan Deal of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG). It is happening in Karoo, and it will happen in the United States over time.

So what we have is drilling companies churning through local drinking water supplies at a dizzying rate and turning it into toxic wastewater. You can almost hear the frackers asking each other: “Well, what the hell do we do with it now?” Strangely, the Journal doesn’t find that situation problematic, but not unexpectedly many others do. “We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

I’ll say not. According to veteran New York Times reporter Ian Urbina – who since February has been delivering deeply researched installments to his explosive fracking series “Drilling Down” (see link below):

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

That’s a million gallons of toxic wastewater per well. According to industry records, there are more than 70,000 active gas wells in Pennsylvania alone, which is home to the (in)famous Marcellus Shale region. Do the math. It’s a mind-boggling amount of wastewater. As for the toxicity levels, Mr. Urbina cites internal EPA documents (see link below):

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

The radiation levels, according to internal EPA documents, are hundreds – even thousands – of times above the federal standard for safe drinking water.

So where does all the radioactive wastewater end up? According to Urbina’s heavily referenced article, much of it goes straight to public sewage treatment plants that are ill-equipped to remove radioactive contaminants, like radium:

Drillers trucked at least half of this waste to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009, according to state officials. Some of it has been sent to other states, including New York and West Virginia.

Yet sewage treatment plant operators say they are far less capable of removing radioactive contaminants than most other toxic substances. Indeed, most of these facilities cannot remove enough of the radioactive material to meet federal drinking-water standards before discharging the wastewater into rivers, sometimes just miles upstream from drinking-water intake plants.

A treatment plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, accepts between 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of wastewater every day. And it is reported that some of that wastewater contains levels of radioactivity more than 2,000 times the drinking water standard. Since plants aren’t equipped to remove the radioactive material, it’s discharged with the “treated” water directly into nearby rivers and streams. It’s a scary scenario – despite the nonchalance of the Journal.

The WSJ piece approaches the “wastewater disposal” issue with what I would describe as a convenient journalistic naivete. It’s either that, or a complete lack of awareness as to what’s really happening on the ground in fracking communities. From the Journal:

Drillers must dispose of fracking fluids, and environmentalists charge that disposal sites also endanger drinking water, or that drillers deliberately discharge radioactive wastewater into streams. The latter accusation inspired the EPA to require that Pennsylvania test for radioactivity. States already have strict rules designed to keep waste water from groundwater, including liners in waste pits, and drillers are subject to stiff penalties for violations. Pennsylvania’s tests showed radioactivity at or below normal levels.

Confidential EPA documents and a secret drilling industry study (see link below) show that the WSJ simply doesn’t grasp the issues. If you’re offering “liners in waste pits” as a serious remedy to the major problems with fracking, there are some holes in your understanding of the issues. From the New York Times:

…documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

…most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.

Doesn’t sound like we’ve got anything to worry about – unless you happen to prefer your water without a radioactive twist.

As for water contamination, the WSJ says no way, can’t happen based on geological realities:

One claim is that fracking creates cracks in rock formations that allow chemicals to leach into sources of fresh water. The problem with this argument is that the average shale formation is thousands of feet underground, while the average drinking well or aquifer is a few hundred feet deep. Separating the two is solid rock.

Again, the Journal seems to have only a very basic understanding of fracking and the geological realities surrounding it. Drillers don’t use fracking in virgin territory, where “solid rock” would, indeed, separate shale formations from drinking water wells. Drilling companies employ fracking in old oil fields – many that were drilled before fracking was first utilized by Halliburton in the late 1940s – where the geological landscape has already been compromised by a network of oil wells. Although those old wells have been plugged, leaky well casings at the earth’s surface and faulty cement jobs (like that tied to BP’s runaway Macondo Well) can provide a direct conduit for toxic fracking fluids to seep back up to the relatively shallow level where drinking water wells reside. So, in reality, shale formations and drinking water wells are not separated by “solid rock,” as the Journal would have us believe, but rather separated by rock riddled with the passageways of old wells.

I should note that on the particular point of faulty well casings, the WSJ piece gives some credit to the recent Duke study, “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing”:

The Duke study did spotlight a long-known and more legitimate concern: the possibility of leaky well casings at the top of a drilling site, from which methane might migrate to water supplies. As the BP Gulf of Mexico spill attests, proper well construction and maintenance are major issues in any type of drilling, and they ought to be the focus of industry standards and attention.

One of the big regulatory shortcomings on this front is that nobody monitors these old well casings. All drilling companies have to do is sign a document stating the well has been properly plugged. That’s it. And nobody checks or monitors the casings – and the industry acts accordingly (as you might imagine). Let’s put it this way: It’s much cheaper to do a sloppy job on plugging a well than one that’s up to regulatory standards. But again, nobody checks the plugs, and the industry knows it.

Old, poorly cased and cemented wells give fracking waste access to drinking water wells and aquifers. Methane, radioactive material and fracking chemicals can and do leach into drinking water supplies. And although methane is not toxic – and therefore not dangerous to drink – the risk is that the gas can collect in homes and asphyxiate residents or lead to catastrophic explosions. There are reports of people dying in such methane-fueled blowups. According to a 2009 investigation by ProPublica, methane contamination from fracking is commonplace in shale-rich states like Pennsylvania and Colorado. In a handful of incidents, houses exploded after methane gas seeped into residents’ basements or wells. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the Duke researchers gathered data, some residents’ drinking water wells blew up or their water could, literally, be lit on fire.

Sounds safe to me.

My final poke at the Journal’s argument is its misplaced trust and confidence in the ability of states to regulate the oil and gas industry. Again, we see a certain naivete revealed in the WSJ’s understanding of the situation on the ground:

States already have strict rules designed to keep waste water from groundwater, including liners in waste pits, and drillers are subject to stiff penalties for violations.

As an attorney who has more than 20 years of experience suing oil and gas companies for damages tied to production waste, I can tell you that states do not have the political will to effectively regulate Big Oil. It just doesn’t happen, and to think otherwise can only be the result of not knowing the political realities surrounding regulatory enforcement in oil-producing states. A big part of the problem is that there is a revolving door that continually spins between the industry and state regulatory agencies, like Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). So we have former industry execs responsible for regulating their former companies and colleagues. Enough said.

The Louisiana Weekly sheds some light on the regulatory vacuum in a June 27 article:

Last week, Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck said “the state has been reluctant to regulate any aspect of the oil and gas industry for the past 90 years.” Produced water is one of many areas, including access canals, pipelines, air emissions, waste pits and deepwell injections, that need more oversight, he said. In the case of produced water, he said “sadly, the substances are particularly nasty.”

Louisiana would be in worse shape without the federal government and lawsuits, Houck said.“What regulations and protections we enjoy have been federally imposed, often by citizen lawsuits,” he said. “But the oil and gas industry, led by our Congressional delegation, has managed to neuter much federal regulation.”

Are there benefits to increased natural gas production? Of course. But shouldn’t we make sure we’re extracting the product in a way that’s safe for the environment and the general public? Fracking poses serious environmental risks, and to dismiss them as some sort of tree-hugging fabrication reveals, at best, a dangerous level of unawareness and, at worst, a new low in journalistic irresponsibility.

Read the full pro-fracking piece from the Wall Street Journal here:

Catchup on Ian Urbina’s explosive NYT fracking series here:

Here are the confidential EPA documents that reveal risks associated with fracking:

Read the full Duke study tying drinking water contamination to fracking: methane-contamination-of-drinking-water

Here’s the May 9 ProPublica report on the groundbreaking (so to speak) Duke study:

Here’s the link to my post that debunks the claim that natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels:

Here’s my previous post on the Duke study that scientifically links drinking water contamination to fracking:

Here’s the link to the confidential industry study showing that radioactive material in fracking wastewater can impact drinking water:

Catchup on fracking issues in Louisiana:

Here’s the link to my post on the use of radioactive brine from fracking as fertilizer on farms:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved


  • My husband and I have been offered a Buy out due to proven thermogenic methane in our water – a proven result of drilling next door. Our cherished , 5 generation property is ruined for all intents and purposes. I would invite any person who thinks this Marcellus shale exploration is safe – to come have a drink . We are heartbroken – and as fractured as the shale beneath our feet.

  • I don’t understand why there isn’t more public outrage. There is more than enough proof to back up all of the negative consequences that come with fracking, just come to PA and see for yourself, or Tx or CO or OR of AK….WAKE UP AMERICA, without clean water we can not survive.

  • thanks for a very very informative and well researched and written piece. We are now facing this threat in the North West of Ireland (Lough Allen Basin) from 2 companies, Tamboran and Langco. They lie, placate and trot out all the platitudes about jobs, cheap gas and no damage whatsoever to environment, tourism, health, air quality, water, ………. please help us to prepare a short, succinct piece with links to pollution and fracking accidents in the fort worth , Dallas region which Tamboran are holding up as a shining beacon of Fracking glory. We are a tiny, poor, rural community, we can only fight from the bottom up, against state sanctioned corporate might, please help.
    meg rybicki

  • We’re a gaggle of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your site offered us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done a formidable task and
    our whole community will likely be thankful to you.


    • As a native and resdient of Cayuga County, I applaud CAFA and Sen. Nozzolio for taking a stand against the Hydrofrcking Industry. We need to preserve the Finger Lakes water supply for generations to come. We must carefully weigh any short term benefits (jobs) at the risk of long term detriments (environmental impact) of hydrofracking.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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