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.


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