Many are rightly concerned about environmental effects of gas production by hydraulic fracturing, and look for EPA to do an effective evaluation of the process in its work through its Science Advisory Board. Having stood at the Love Canal disaster site, after studying environmental engineering in an upstate New York area slated for drilling, and working full-bore for years on the cusp where legal/regulatory and technical/scientific issues overlap, I have some perspectives to share.
There’s a long, unfortunate history of chemical contamination resulting from techniques that were once “state-of-the-art.” Failure to understand the consequences, coupled with lack of transparency, led to the hazardous waste problems revealed at Love Canal, PCB releases to the Hudson River by General Electric, and other problems we still are trying to address. To believe claims that hydraulic fracturing is safe when performed according to the “state-of-the-art,” and without full disclosure, is to deny this history, at our peril.
I have yet to see a technical explanation of why hazardous compounds must be injected to accomplish hydraulic fracturing. In fact, the term “hydraulic fracturing” is something of a misnomer. Fracturing fluids contain a plethora of chemicals (and arguments that they are at low concentration are scientifically meaningless). Just because certain fracturing compounds are effective does not mean there are no suitable, benign substitutes.
However, even if benign substances are mandated (as should be done) for fracturing, the large volumes of fracturing fluids, which must be pumped out to let out the gas, can contain hazardous constituents removed from the subsurface. Proper treatment of waste fluids from fracturing is expensive, and will result in residuals (i.e., sludges) which must also receive careful consideration.
Predicting the fate and transport of fracturing chemicals is fraught with difficulty. One vexing problem: fluids immiscible with water are very difficult to track. Certain hydrocarbons and other fluids used for fracturing are lighter than water, and work their way upward through the subsurface. Conversely, fluids heavier than water work their way downward. Such factors, in combination with the heterogeneity of subsurface strata, mean that mathematical modeling of movement of these compounds is, at best, an exercise suited to helping understand the mechanisms at play. In other words, once injected, these chemicals will surely move, but it is impossible to know where or when.
Industry claims of confidentiality for fracturing chemicals are not helpful. Confidentiality claims are often submitted just because they can, keeping machinery working at law firms, which are not known for leaving billable hours on the table. The Clean Water Act specifically exempts effluent data from confidentiality claims because we have a right to know what is being discharged into surface water, and the same can be argued for the subsurface. In all events, it is important to have legislation requiring full transparency. This is serious business, and there is no room for legal shenanigans.