How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science: Water Contamination

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 contamination of 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.

  • sheckyvegas
    Posted at 13:47h, 19 August Reply

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

    I have to disagree. To wit:

    I don’t have to see a baby shoot out of it’s mama’s crotch to know where it came from. How much do the Koch Brothers pay you to post?

    • Steve Everley
      Posted at 14:50h, 19 August Reply

      Thanks for reading, but unfortunately your sources don’t fit your claims.

      The authors of the Duke study you highlight stated explicitly that hydraulic fracturing was not the culprit, and that hydraulic fracturing fluids were not found in groundwater.

      The Texas study you mention was not only incredibly limited, but the authors were clear that hydraulic fracturing fluids had not been found in the water. Even the author of the Duke study that you cited acknowledged a significant limitation of the study, owing to its very small sample size.

      The ProPublica story on Wyoming? EPA’s draft report on water quality (on which that story is based) has since been abandoned by none other than the EPA itself, which announced recently it would not proceed with peer review. Why would you do that if you believed the data were sound and could withstand scrutiny? The answer is you wouldn’t. EPA’s report, by the way, received criticism from the Bureau of Land Management (which manages oil and gas production on federal lands), as well as state environmental regulators in Wyoming.

      The Huffington Post story is an attempt to re-litigate activist claims about Dimock, Pennsylvania. That situation has been resolved through both state and federal regulatory interventions, and just because an environmental group wants to manufacture another story about it doesn’t change the underlying facts — the EPA determined there was no need for further action.

      Finally, the Koch brothers are not members of Energy In Depth.

      Again, thank you for your comments. They provided us an opportunity to show once again that, despite opponents’ use of inflammatory talking points (even transparently false ones), the facts consistently tell a different story.

      • Nate
        Posted at 15:48h, 21 December Reply

        Who is paying you for your support I wonder?
        We should all know by now that people and even the EPA can be bought or forced by corrupt politicians… You spend time looking at the small issues on your side and miss the big picture.. I bet you wont go to homes with well issues and drink their water.

      • Richard Rhodes
        Posted at 13:57h, 26 April Reply

        Change the facts to believe what you want. You are a complete moron.

  • William Huston
    Posted at 15:43h, 19 August Reply

    Sorry Steve… you seem to be having a little amnesia. Or maybe Alzheimers? That’s OK, this should help re-orient you to the facts:

    1) Paradise Road, Terry Township PA: PA Courts determine Chesepeake Energy to blame for water contamination of 3 homes.

    2) 161 cases of water contamination determed by PA DEP as revealed by The Scranton Times-Tribune / Laura Legere

    3) DIMOCK CONTAMINATION determined by PA DEP to be caused by Cabot Oil & Gas in Consent Agreement signed by Cabot CEO Dan O. Dinges.

    Here’s a couple of photographs which provide evidence of water contamination from FRACKING ONLY (1: Iron in Gerri Kane’s water coincident with drilling activity in her area likely transported by fracking fluids. 2: Funky smelling gel coming out of Ray Kemble’s well just after fracking at the Gesford Well. PS: it was fracking at the Gesford well which apparently destroyed the Costello well right across from Ray Kemble’s house.

    • Steve Everley
      Posted at 14:26h, 20 August Reply

      Hi William,

      There are risks with respect to shale development, but labeling each risk or incident ever recorded as “fracking” – merely because it’s convenient – doesn’t solve problems. That was part of the reason for this post.

      As for the 161 cases of contamination that you cite, would strongly recommend you read EID’s response to that report. We highlight some pretty important points that many opponents are either forgetting or conveniently ignoring:

      • Richard Rhodes
        Posted at 13:59h, 26 April Reply

        Why would any of these people believe in facts. They are so screwed up in the head they will try to find anything to fit what they think. No matter how false it is.

  • Adam Green
    Posted at 11:11h, 20 August Reply

    Most of these sources of “evidence” are from US government departments; EPA, DoE etc. Are we really supposed to believe that they are commenting in an impartial manner? It is widely known that US government departments largely function for the benefit of industry.

    Also, what about this study;

    I’d be interested to hear your views on this.

    • Mark Rafael
      Posted at 17:28h, 26 September Reply

      Well I’m not sure if you have looked any reports up done by universities, but ANY source for research COULD have the POTENTIAL to be biased, every single report from varying agencies and departments seems to lend more credibility to any researched findings.
      Also the link you provided, I had to stop after the first paragraph. The author of the article cites a PNAS JUNE 2013 #24. I looked that issue up and could not find any information relevant to what he says was found in the study. If you could help point me towards the actual research that he is talking about that would help a lot, otherwise this is just another anti-fracking piece with no real science to back it up.

      Looking forward to your reply.

  • Troy H
    Posted at 10:04h, 26 October Reply

    It’s obvious that this article was bought and paid for by the oil and gas industry, but if you take the time to look at the links at the end of each one of those points, they contradict what is stated in the article, or have been misquoted, or they prove that fracking has had a major negative impact. The articles that are linked to the original article does more to support anti-fracking activists than the pro side. Do your research.

    • John
      Posted at 09:59h, 08 November Reply

      LMAO…take a remedial reading class

  • Mark
    Posted at 11:44h, 26 October Reply

    I think the focal point to these activists is just that, a very very small blinders on tunnel vision outlook on fracking. Considering the amount of cases where fracking had taken place, even if there was one solid case clearly outlining contaminated water, we have 2million frack operations that have none. In the mining industry where I live we have had about 4 deaths underground, DEATHS!! But we aren’t out targeting the mining industry to SHUT DOWN all operations. We as progressing humans, and industry, investigate, reconcile, learn, and progress to better methods and conditions. The States, and other countries really need to crack down on activists. Where found that if there is even a minute amount of false to their proclamation, we should be able to heavily fine them for outwardly causing mass public panic for nothing.

    • Nate
      Posted at 15:41h, 21 December Reply

      Every industry has the potential for deaths. Mining has added potential to trap people underground as well as respiratory issues. Driving your car has the potential of killing you, and over time more safety features have been added.. were talking about people losing clean water land and air. Of course drinking your well water should not have the potential to make you and your family deathly sick but this is what is happening in many places. Activists are people that care about the environment. You may happen to be a Big Oil & Gas activist if that is what you like. The bigger issue is how money and business is silencing opposition, controlling federal, state and local government.

      • Richard Rhodes
        Posted at 14:04h, 26 April Reply

        Would you just go away. It is ok to argue facts and have a difference of opinion. Bu t only when you have actual facts. People like you are the biggest problem this world has. Uninformed idiots like you should just shut up. When you can prove anything then maybe you deserve to talk. Until then just drop dead.

  • Benjamin
    Posted at 14:48h, 14 November Reply

    Hi Steve,

    I think that you generally have the right of it, but one thing I’ve been curious about from the industry side is its view of hydraulic fracturing and the “smell test.” I’m thinking particular of EPA’s 2011 draft Pavillion, Wyo., report that did conclude there was a causal link between fracturing and local groundwater contamination. EPA eventually gave up and passed it on to the State of Wyoming, and apparently Wyoming is continuing the study with the support of Encana, the very company alleged to have polluted the wells. That doesn’t give me much confidence in the research that’s being done into possible externalities — to make a possibly unfair comparison, tobacco did a lot of its own “science.”

    So to what extent is industry really helping advance the state of knowledge about possible harms? I think most sensible people want hydraulic fracturing to succeed, but also want to make sure that if (when?) something goes wrong, we’ve got the scientific and regulatory tools to mount a robust response.


  • Franklin Burns
    Posted at 03:01h, 20 November Reply

    “Energy in Depth”: I suppose that sounds more palatable than “Lobbyists for the Petroleum Association.” Nice job naming your organization!

    • JoeD
      Posted at 12:46h, 22 December Reply

      Ad Hominem fallacy mean anything to you? Try attacking the points rather than just inserting your own misguided viewpoint.

  • John Doe
    Posted at 16:38h, 05 December Reply

    This is a travesty. I am sure your “evidence” is from a lobbyist on capital hill with his hand int he energy departments back pocket. This was a complete waste of reading time and I am appalled that you think there is NO EVIDENCE. Government agencies will feed you whatever the public wants to hear. THEY HAVE MONEY!! Gas companies have fist fuels of cash to tell the government to tell the public what they want to hear. You sir need to do a good Ungovernmental fact check. You

    • JoeD
      Posted at 12:48h, 22 December Reply

      Brilliant rebuttal. Careful now not to spill any Fruit Loops on your bib.

      • Richard Rhodes
        Posted at 14:06h, 26 April Reply

        I hope him and all these other idiots choke on their fruit loops. It is any wonder we could end up with Obama in the White House.

  • Nik
    Posted at 11:57h, 13 December Reply

    This is actually funny given that just five days before you posted this article a little journal called Scientific American published an article titled ‘High Levels of Arsenic Found in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites’. “A new report finds poisonous arsenic contamination in Texas occurring in close proximity to natural gas extraction.”

    Why, if you take this seriously, would you not at least refute this research which couldn’t possibly be more in your face if you follow fracking. As someone has already pointed out, the vast majority of your resource links are from federal or state government bodies, who are under enormous pressure from oil and gas lobbyists, or from folks working for petroleum companies.

    As an editorial in the LA Times states, “We would have preferred a statewide moratorium on fracking, like the one in New York, until the studies were completed. Yes, fracking could create enormous numbers of jobs and billions in tax revenue, at least while the boom is on. But that would still be true in a couple of years, if the state ultimately determined the practice was safe. In the absence of a moratorium, the regulations should make clear that strict environmental scrutiny under CEQA is required before each fracking project begins.”,0,2575430.story#axzz2nNEFWzsp

    • David
      Posted at 12:32h, 14 June Reply

      Because Arsenic isn’t used in fracturing fluids, let alone the entire drilling and completions process.

    • JoeD
      Posted at 12:55h, 22 December Reply

      From the very article you link to:

      “Well, I can’t say we have a smoking gun. We don’t want the public to take away from this that we have pegged fracking as the cause of these issues. ”

      Science. It’s not for the faint of heart.

  • Sammy
    Posted at 09:08h, 27 December Reply

    Steve Everley,

    There is one way you can convince me totally that fracking is safe and doesn’t contaminate wells.

    Drink the water from those wells.

    If you refuse to do that, then in reality, you do not really believe what you are posting.

    Its really that simple.

    • JoeD
      Posted at 12:55h, 22 December Reply

      Bull. I’m sure you’re also opposed to DDT. But people have eaten DDT by the spoon fulls.

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  • acolvin
    Posted at 03:43h, 29 December Reply

    Well, if Big OIL says there’s no link between fracking and water contamination, it must be true. Why else would they be so adamant about it? They MUST be telling the truth, right? So, I think we should put our sheckles together and collect a few dozen bottles worth of water from some of the places where the un-contaminated water is and send it off to some oil execs who I’m sure would have no trouble gulping it right down because it’s so, you know, clean and pure. No? Gee, can’t imagine why.

    • Tom Andersen
      Posted at 20:11h, 24 April Reply

      I’ll drink water from them all. Stop thinking you know more than a geologist about the ground below your feet.

    • JoeD
      Posted at 12:56h, 22 December Reply

      Another Ad Hominem. You guys are so predictable.

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  • Christian
    Posted at 10:00h, 20 May Reply

    This is how we know fracking is safe – North Carolina GOP wants to jail anyone that discloses chemicals involved in fracking. Why on earth would politicians want to make it illegal to share that information if it is soooo safe? End.

    • Troy
      Posted at 17:03h, 08 January Reply

      They don’t disclose it because it is company property. It’s intellectual property that gives companies an edge over their competition. If everything was disclosed then their competition could just copy them and become more efficient and cost competitive.

    • steve
      Posted at 12:31h, 20 May Reply

      You will find the chemicals used on the labels of the trucks carrying them to the well as per transport regulations. Ironically, you will find the same chemicals in your household, many on the side of food containers. So if they are soooo safe, why are you ingesting them ?

  • Kevin Lafayette
    Posted at 01:04h, 20 September Reply

    You seen this? A study, a scientific one. The most detailed and comprehensive one to date. No contamination of ground water from fracking.

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  • Ray Menard
    Posted at 15:13h, 30 January Reply

    Was glad to read this post. I’ve been active in environmental movement for more than 30 years, but go where the evidence takes us–and thus far there’s very little evidence that fracking endangers ground or surface water sources despite being the focus of several good studies. The hysteria surrounding this issue is not warranted and taking energy from other important issues.

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  • Ann Jackson
    Posted at 05:40h, 20 May Reply

    It depends on who pays your scientist. We ALL know that an expert can be bought and Big Oil and the fracking industry has deep pockets. So you are trying to tell me that the frackers use benzene, toluene, xylene and sometimes release hydrogen sulfide but everything is paradise and no one is sick?? Statistics can be made to support anything if you spin it the right way. Do you live, breathe and drink water from these tainted water sources? Would you let your kids live there or let them drink the water? Big Oil can spin the truth any way they want…people are catching on and KNOW the truth. We will not believe your lies any longer. Do you have any interests in Big Oil or fracking?

    • Ann Jackson
      Posted at 05:45h, 20 May Reply

      So I went to Linked In and found out you do have interests in Big Oil and fracking. Why should we believe anyone who is a part of Big Oil or fracking? Because you have OUR best interests at heart? Keep spinning…Josh Fox and the Gasland Crew will be your undoing. How do you sleep at night knowing that people are being poisoned and you work to make sure we don’t know it.

      • Energy In Depth
        Posted at 09:44h, 20 May Reply

        Thanks for reading Ann, and excellent research. You could have discovered that we’re a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America by looking at any page on this site. That affiliation is also in the first sentence of the About EID page. Since you’re interested in LinkedIn, though, please consider following EID:

    • steve
      Posted at 13:00h, 20 May Reply

      Actually fracking uses less of those chemicals than you do in your household products and food. Curiously, why is oil referred to as Big Oil when they earn a fraction of the profit of other industries that use more of these chemicals to which you refer ? By the way, it really questions the credibility of your argument when you quote fiction films instead of actual studies ! Perhaps you should educate yourself with the facts rather than relying on others to form your opinions for you.

    • JoeD
      Posted at 12:59h, 22 December Reply

      NO! It doesn’t!!!!! It matter what the evidence is!!!!!

      You sound no different than “chem-trail” believers.

  • Joseph
    Posted at 14:28h, 24 May Reply

    So, let me get this straight… our water tables are not part of the earth that surrounds them, and when oil companies pump that earth with chemicals and steam – in order to extract a highly toxic and valuable substance – the water is miraculously preserved from absorbing and transporting any of those chemicals to homes that draw from those water tables?

    That’s freaking amazing! How the hell do those oil companies manage this absolute paradox in physics? It just goes to show how important the environment is to them… they’ve actually found a way to harness and bend the laws of matter to ensure that nothing else is affected by their continual battle to profit from our resources before they run dry.

    Oil companies… our heroes!

  • Adam Hughes
    Posted at 11:15h, 07 July Reply

    My cousin’s well water smells like rotten eggs, from hydrogen sulfide that has been stirred up from fracking. This can be poisonous. I’d like to see how much of your rhetoric carries weight when we take it to an elementary school and video tape children drinking it.138

    • JoeD
      Posted at 13:01h, 22 December Reply

      Wow! Mine does too, and you know what? I live NO WHERE near a fracking site!!!!

      You want to videotape children drinking poison water? You’re a sick guy. Perhaps you should seek therapy.

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    Posted at 16:09h, 17 February Reply

    This article makes more sense than your article or all the other articles paid for by the oil & gas industry.

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  • Cruz
    Posted at 07:12h, 18 September Reply

    “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”.
    So I guess minor influence is OK?

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