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What is known about the risks and benefits of hydrofracking?

December 3, 2012
By Elizabeth Buck

I am writing in response to the editorial on fracking and Gov. Cuomo's current policy, or lack thereof, you published Nov. 26 from the New York Post Nov. 21.

I am NOT "for" or "against" hydrofracking.

I am FOR an informed public that participates in the creation of public policies that have the potential to impact the health and safety of every citizen in our state. To that end, I propose that you publish facts and information about hydrofracking, rather than paranoid opinions.

I am not an expert on fracking, but I am interested in the potential health and environmental impact of fracking, as I think all of us should be. My source of information is Science News, Sept. 8, "The Facts Behind Fracking" by Rachel Ehrenberg. All quotes in this commentary come directly from this article.

What is hydraulic fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing is an old technique that, combined with the newer technology of horizontal drilling, has unlocked vast stores of previously inaccessible natural gas.

This is the basic procedure for fracking: "(E)ngineers drill a well straight down, typically for thousands of meters, toward the target bed of rock. Operators then begin ... turning the drill so it bores into the formation horizontally.

"After small explosive charges perforate the far end of the well's horizontal portion ... hydraulic fracturing can begin. Millions of gallons of fracking fluid - a mixture of water, sand and chemicals - are pumped into the well at pressures high enough to fracture the shale. Methane within the shale diffuses into the fissures and flows up the well. Along with the gas comes flowback water, which contains fracking fluid and additional water found naturally in the rock."

"Today hydraulic fracturing is used in about nine out of ten onshore oil and gas wells in the United States, with an estimated 11,400 new wells fractured each year. In 2010 about 23% of the natural gas consumed in the US came from shale beds"

Does methane leak into water?

"Studies are few, but a recent analysis suggests a link (between fracking and methane in drinking water).

"Scientists who sampled groundwater from 60 private water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York found that average methane concentrations in wells near active fracturing operations were 17 times as high as in wells in inactive areas."

They then did studies to determine where the extra methane was coming from and concluded that the most probable explanation for increased methane in water near fracking operations "is that the cement between the well casing and the surrounding rock is not forming a proper seal. Cracking or too little cement could create a passageway allowing methane from an intermediate layer of rock to drift into water sources near the surface.

"Other types of gas and oil wells have similar problems ... but fracking's high pressures and the shaking that results may make cement cracks more likely."

Is fracking fluid hazardous?

"Companies have their own specific mixes, but generally water makes up about 90% of the fracking fluid. About 9% is 'proppants' stuff such as sand or glass beads that prop open the fissures. The other 1% consists of additives, which include chemical compounds and other materials ... that prevent bacterial growth, slow corrosion, and act as lubricants to make it easier for proppants to get into cracks.

"A report released in April 2011 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee did provide some chemical data: From 2005 to 2009, 14 major gas and oil companies used 750 different chemicals in their fracking fluids. Twenty five of these chemicals are listed as hazardous pollutants under the Clean Air Act, nine are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and 14 are known or possible human carcinogens.

"In addition to the fracking fluid, the flowback contains water from the bowels of the Earth. This 'produced' water typically has a lot of salt, along with naturally occurring radioactive material, mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals.

"(S)everal reviews of where fracking chemicals and wastewater have done harm find that the primary exposure risks relate to activities at the surface, including accidents, poor management and illicit dumping."

Does fracking cause earthquakes?

"Hydraulic fracturing operations have been linked to some small earthquakes ... but scientists agree such earthquakes are extremely rare ... and are avoidable with monitoring.

"Of greater concern are earthquakes associated with the disposal of fracking fluid into wastewater wells."

Researchers have advised that "injection at active faults be avoided. Drill sites should be considered for their geological stability, and seismic information should be collected. Only about 3% of the 75,000-odd hydraulic fracturing setups in the US in 2009 were seismically monitored.

"(Mark) Zoback (a Stanford researcher) and other scientists surveying existing data generally have concluded that there are dangers associated with fracking but that existing technologies, regulation and serious enforcement could resolve them.

"'Like many technologies, fracking comes with promises and with risks,' says Zoback. Rules tailored depending on local geology and other factors can mitigate those risks."

Is Gov. Cuomo dragging his feet regarding lifting the moratorium on fracking in New York state? Probably. Could there be good reasons?

Should the state of New York close its eyes to the potential health and environmental hazards of hydrofracturing?

Regulation and oversight might decrease oil-gas company profits, but isn't our environment and our drinking water worth the money invested now to protect them?


Elizabeth Buck lives in Saranac Lake.



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