Research & Commentary: Hydraulic Fracturing Does Not Pose a Serious Threat to Groundwater

Published November 3, 2016

Despite protestations to the contrary and hysteric claims made by green activists, the existing peer-reviewed evidence shows hydraulic fracturing processes do not pose a systemic impact on groundwater.

Since 2010, at least 15 of these studies have been produced, including ones by the Bureau of Economic Geology at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas-Austin, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the California Council on Science and Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, and Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources

The most noteworthy of these is a multi-year study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Released in June 2015, the study is widely considered to be the most exhaustive research to date on the subject of hydraulic fracturing. The EPA researchers found fracking has not led to systemic impacts on drinking water, stating, “the number of cases where drinking water resources were impacted is small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

More recently, a University of Cincinnati study on Utica-shale hydraulic fracturing and its effects on groundwater was released in February 2016. It examined 23 wells in Ohio’s Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, and Stark Counties using 191 separate samples. The evidence from this study shows “no evidence for natural gas contamination from shale oil and gas mining in any of the sampled groundwater wells … None of the measured parameters significantly varied in these groundwater wells before or after drilling or natural gas production.”

Courts of law are also reinforcing the findings in the scientific literature. In October 2016 in Pennsylvania, a Washington County Court of Common Pleas judge tossed out a fraud and civil conspiracy lawsuit filed by a local family against TestAmerica, “the leading commercial environmental testing firm in the United States,” claiming TestAmerica had conspired with the petroleum and natural gas exploration firm Range Resources to “[produce and permit] to be produced incomplete and allegedly misleading test results” at its Yeager drill site.

Further, a panel of judges in a different lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania man claiming Range Resources activity at the Yeager site had polluted his well water cleared the company of any responsibility. “Allegations against Range regarding the Yeager location have now been rejected six times by independent parties and no fewer than four government agencies,” including EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote Seth Whitehead at Energy In Depth.

The fracking process has transformed the energy outlook of the United States over the past decade, and the rise of shale gas as a replacement for coal has been primarily responsible for the United States now enjoying its lowest level of carbon-dioxide emissions since 1989.  As my colleague Isaac Orr has stated, “Hydraulic fracturing and the shale gas boom have provided the United States a cost-effective, clean, and abundant source of fuel that will stimulate economic growth while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in a practical and significant way.”

Federal, state, and local governments have tested thousands of sites for hydraulic fracturing pollution of groundwater and drinking water resources. There is no scientific justification for banning hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” or over-regulating it out of existence. Regulation should only be based on the best available scientific literature, not on wild, unfounded claims based on misinformation, fear, and superstition.

The following documents provide more information about hydraulic fracturing and groundwater.

Fracking Facts: The Science, Economics, and Legal Realities
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has been employed in the United States since the 1940s. Although innovation has improved the precision of the process, the essentials are the same. Utilizing horizontal drilling, a mixture of mostly water, sand, and trace amounts of chemicals, are used to create fissures in underground shale deposits to allow oil and natural gas trapped in hard rock to move toward the surface to be collected. Activists have blamed fracking and the processes associated with it for emissions of pollutants, earthquakes, and even groundwater contamination, though independent evidence consistently shows these allegations to be false. Leigh Thompson of the Texas Public Policy Foundation argues the evidence supporting fracking bans looks slim when attention is drawn to the facts.

Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources
This assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency provides a review and synthesis of available scientific literature and data to assess the potential impact hydraulic fracturing may have on the quality or quantity of drinking water resources, and it identifies factors affecting the frequency or severity of any potential impacts. The scope of this assessment is defined by the hydraulic fracturing water cycle, which includes five main activities: water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal.

Hydraulic Fracturing a Game-Changer for U.S. Energy and Economies
In this Policy Study from The Heartland Institute, Heartland Research Fellow Isaac Orr explains the advantages and disadvantages of smart drilling and its alternatives. Orr reviews the background and potential of hydraulic fracturing in the United States and puts that potential in the context of the supply of and demand for oil and gas. He addresses the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, both positive and negative, as well as the public safety issues raised by activists, such as potential harm to drinking water supplies. Orr also discusses how oil and gas production is regulated at the state and national levels and suggests appropriate policies for the industry.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2016 and beyond in the areas of budget and tax, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions we have identified are proven reform ideas gaining momentum among the states and with legislators.

Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help withstand ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography.

Hydraulic Fracturing: Critical for Energy Production, Jobs, and Economic Growth
Increased energy production on private lands in the United States has been one of the most promising economic success stories in recent years. A large part of the success is due to an energy-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing. Misconceptions about hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, abound. The Heritage Foundation’s Nicolas Loris explains hydraulic fracturing is safe when regulated effectively and says fracking greatly increases the nation’s energy production, thus promoting job creation.

Managing the Risks of Hydraulic Fracturing: An Update–hydraulic-fracturing
Kenneth P. Green of the Fraser Institute argues policymakers should ignore the siren song made by those calling for moratoria or bans on fracking.


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