A controversial oil and natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has received renewed national attention and scrutiny last fall after hundreds of people showed up to speak on November 16th at  the first of a series of public hearings on proposed New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regulations that would allow fracking in the state. A thousand people attended the following day’s hearing in Binghamton, largely in opposition.  New York State has banned fracking for the past three years, to allow the DEC time to consider the environmental impacts of the practice.  In light of the proposed regulations, many New York municipalities have passed local laws banning fracking, according to the environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch, though these regulations may be preempted by the DEC’s mining law.

Partially in response to these hearings, the Delaware River Basin Commission (which consists of the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania and a representative from the Army Corp of Engineers) cancelled and indefinitely delayed a meeting in which they had planned to vote on regulations for natural gas drilling near the Delaware River.  This announcement came after the Governor of Delaware announced that he would join New York in opposition to the measure, threatening the draft regulations’ chances of passage.  Despite the postponement, hundreds of fracking opponents still gathered in Trenton, New Jersey, for a rally that turned into a celebration of the delay.

Hydraulic fracturing operates by injecting a highly-pressurized mixture of chemicals and water into sheets of oil and gas-containing bedrock to fracture the rock layer and create channels through which the oil can be extracted.  Its proponents argue that it is a safe process that has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and generate massive amounts of domestic energy.  Its critics, on the other hand, argue that the process endangers the public health by contaminating land and nearby groundwater with heavy metals, radioactive elements, known carcinogens, and other highly toxic chemicals.  In November 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency released new water test results that suggest that high levels of cancer-causing chemicals used in fracking may contaminate nearby aquifers and groundwater. These measurements were taken from environmental monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyoming, where residents have long complained that fracking has fouled their water, causing it to turn black and smell like gasoline, and where some residents have alleged neurological impairment, loss of smell, and nerve pain.  Last year the EPA warned residents not to drink or cook with the water and to ventilate their homes when they showered, while the agency conducted its monitoring.  Although the EPA did not attempt to identify the source of the pollution and the data released consists only of raw sampling data, the EPA detected carcinogens including benzene at 50 times the level considered safe for people, high concentrations of methane gas, and specific chemicals widely used in the fracking process.  These results follow on the heels of a peer-reviewed study by scientists at Duke University that found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to hazardous levels when located near natural gas wells drilled through fracking.  High concentrations of methane in water wells have caused some wells to explode in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where part of the study was performed, leading to a settlement in which the oil company in question has been required to deliver water to homes since January 2009 and offer residential water treatment systems.

The EPA has begun taking measures to regulate fracking in recent months, announcing that it plans to regulate the disposal of the process’s wastewater in October and proposing the first national air standards for gas wells drilled through fracking in July, as part of its broader effort to improve air quality by combating smog.  In response, North Dakota lawmakers have approved $1 million dollars for a lawsuit by the state Attorney General against the EPA if the agency’s proposed rules threaten North Dakota’s oil production.  The EPA is currently in the middle of conducting a study on the issue that was requested by Congress; the initial findings are expected in late 2012.

Written by: Jae Yong Shin, GIELR Staff