Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) Safe?

“Hydraulic Fracturing 3D Animation”, is a good you-tube video that will give you an overview of the process if you aren’t familiar with it. Briefly, it involves drilling vertically to the Marcellus Shale level and then horizontally through the shale. Water is pumped into the drill hole. The water pressure causes fractures in the shale so that more natural gas is released than in conventional gas drilling. Chemicals are added to the water to kill bacteria, make the water slicker, aid drilling and further increase productivity.


On-line sources state that fracking involves injecting a mix of 25,000- 40,000 gallons of chemicals and 4-5 million gallons of water per fracture. 4 million gallons of water is enough to fill 6 Olympic-size swimming pools. Each well can be fractured a number of times, according to Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a fracking expert, Engineer and Professor at Cornell University, so a lot of water is used. Dr. Ingraffea also warns that the number of wells currently drilled is the tip of the iceberg of what is to come. Pennsylvania may very well become a very industrialized state instead of the bucolic forested land we love.

What chemicals are used in fracking is an industry “trade secret” so no one really knows what they are. A 2011 congressional report states that in the US, fracking injected 10.2 million gallons of more than 650 products into the earth. Some of the scariest chemicals contained in fracking fluid are known to be or possible human carcinogens, including methanol (in paint solvent and antifreeze), BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene), diesel fuel, lead, hydrogen fluoride (in rust removers and heavy duty cleaners), naphthalene (in mothballs), formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, and crystalline silica (repeated inhalation of dust can cause silicosis or cancer), according to the report. Dr. Ingraffea warns that hydraulic fracking technology puts “drinking water at risk for contamination with biocides, heavy metals, salts, radioactive materials, endocrine disruptors and oils”.

A good deal of the water injected into a fracked well does not come back; up to 80% remains in the ground, according to Dr. Ingraffea. What does come back out of the well is called “flow back” and “ brine“. It is often radioactive due to contact with radioactive shale. The soil that comes out of the drill hole, called “cuttings”, is also often radioactive, according to Dr. Peter Davies of Cornell University. A 2011 U.S. Geological Survey found that the medium levels of radium in Marcellus Shale wells was three times higher than brine collected from conventional oil and gas wells. An individual sample taken in 2009 from PA Marcellus Shale was alarmingly high, according to an article posted in the Columbus Dispatch on September 13, 2013; the sample was 300 times higher than what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows for discharges to drinking water, according to that Ohio news source.

Disposal of flowback, brine, and cuttings is a big problem and there is concern that the chemicals and water that are not recovered from the ground will contaminate drinking water. Initially, the flowback & brine is held in plastic lined ponds so that the volume of the liquid is reduced by evaporation. There is a risk that the ponds will leak into the ground water. Much of the “brine” is taken to Ohio for disposal into deep injection wells. In the Winter, fracking “brine” may have been spread on New York roads to control ice, according to a watchdog environmental group called “Riverkeepers”. PA has a permitting process that allows fracking liquids to be spread on country roads to control dust.

While fracking is not taking place in the center of Pennsylvania, Western PA and Northeastern PA are being fracked. Anyone who has seen the film “Gasland” will remember the flammable drinking water of Dimmock, PA. Many Pennsylvanians are dealing with pollution of their drinking water and air and need our support. Fracking wells are only 50 miles away from State College so it is closer than many think and polluted groundwater doesn’t respect county lines!

Why is this allowed? In 2005, the Bush administration and Congress passed legislation, now called the “Halliburton Loophole” in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and 90% of natural gas wells are also exempt from the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. Why is it called the Halliburton Loophole? Because Halliburton was a pioneer of the fracking process. Halliburton’s CEO from 1995-2000 was Dick Cheney, who became Vice President and chaired Bush’s Energy Policy Task Force which helped to get the loophole passed. And yes, Halliburton is the same company that got no-bid government contracts during the Iraq War and serviced oil contracts.

During PA Governor Tom Corbett‘s administration, Act 13, an ALEC bill, was fast-tracked into law, welcoming fracking to our state. Fast-tracking avoids the normal channels of study and comment before a bill becomes a law. ALEC is a well-funded organization that helps to get pro-industry legislation passed..

Earlier this year, the PA Supreme Court declared a good deal of Act 13 unconstitutional, allowing local zoning rules to be applied to determine where fracking may be allowed. Parts of Act 13 were remanded to the Commonwealth Court for further action. One issue remaining involves doctors who are treating patients exposed to fracking chemicals. Under Act 13, doctors may obtain information about the ‘trade secret’ fracking chemicals used but they can not discuss this information with their patients or alert the community if the doctors believe the chemicals pose a threat to their community. This is called a “gag rule.” Getting legislation passed to exempt the industry from public safety rules and gagging doctors who might become whistleblowers does not seem like the way a safe industry would operate.

In addition to the unknown chemicals, big business pressuring and misleading information put out by the industry, we are now learning that fracking most likely causes earthquakes. Ohio geologists recently made this connection and some drilling was curtailed there as a result.

Now it’s election time again. All of the major party candidates for Governor of PA support fracking, which doesn‘t give voters much of a choice. Currently, the industry pays an impact fee of about $40,000/well to the state. Gov. Corbett supports this. Some candidates believe that the industry should pay more in the form of a severance tax which would be a percentage of the value of the gas they take. However, none of the Democratic or Republican candidates support a moratorium on fracking until it is studied and proven safe. Only the Green Party candidate for Governor, Paul Glover, supports a ban on fracking.

So, what do you think . . . is fracking safe? Should the community be more involved? Should we demand full disclosure and proof that the industry is safe before more wells are drilled and fracked? Should the Halliburton Loophole be closed?

If you are interested in joining on a Moshannon Group committee on Fracking Education & Political Action, please contact Melody Fleck @ (814) 954-7788.

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