Georgetown International Environmental Law Review Fracking: What is it Costing Us? Pt. I



Fracking: What is it Costing Us? – Pt. I

by Daniel Quandt

Fracking, a source of national controversy, has been widely publicized, and often vilified. Despite its frequent presence in the national news, it is argued that fracking should not lie solely in the domain of federal regulation.

Instead, local communities are trying to take the lead in restricting the practice.

In this three part series, the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review will explore the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, a practice more commonly known as “fracking.” Part I provides an overview of the history of fracking, and the process involved in the technique. Part II addresses statutory regulation of the practice, at the federal, state, and local levels. Part III delves into the controversy, analyzing the legal challenges to fracking brought in In the Matter of Wallach v. Town of Dryden and Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Part I: History of Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a technique designed to access the oil and gas reserves trapped in low-permeable rock formations. Hydraulic fracturing wells are drilled vertically and horizontally up to 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface.[1] A mixture of water, sand, and various chemicals are pumped through the wells at high pressure and causes fissures to open in the rock.[2] The sand holds the fissures open, which allows natural gas to escape into the well.[3] Used water and chemicals are stored in pits before being treated, although not all of the water and chemicals used can be recovered.[4]

The United States contains large reserves of natural gas, in sandstone or shale rock formations that are difficult or impossible to access by traditional means.

Hydraulic fracturing has opened up previously inaccessible natural gas supplies and greatly increased overall American gas production.[5] According to some estimates, these new sources of gas will provide the United States with a supply sufficient to last 110 years.[6]

“Fracking has opened up previously inaccessible natural gas supplies and increased American gas production.”

While hydraulic fracturing has been successful at increasing gas supply, the public has become increasingly concerned about the negative side effect of fracking.[7] Carbon emissions from burning gas and methane that escapes during the drilling process can contribute to climate change.[8] Reports of natural gas escaping into drinking wells have been accompanied by footage of nearby residents lighting their drinking water on fire.[9]

It is still uncertain whether hydraulic fracturing can cause minor earthquakes.[10] Hydraulic fracturing also uses huge quantities of water, which can strain local water supplies particularly in drier parts of the country.[11] However, perhaps the most common concern connected with hydraulic fracturing is with the health and environmental impact of unrecovered chemicals used during the process.[12]

Chemical contamination from unrecovered hydraulic fluids used during fracturing present serious environmental and public health risks. Even the hydraulic fracturing fluid which is recovered poses environmental problems: the fluid may leak during storage or transportation, and still must be safely recycled or disposed of.[13]

“Chemical contamination from unrecovered hydraulic fluids used during fracking presents serious environmental and public health risks.”

Compounding this issue is the fact that while companies use thousands of hydraulic fracturing products containing hundreds of different chemicals, there is no general disclosure requirement for hydraulic fracturing fluid. Moreover,companies frequently refuse to disclose the exact chemicals used, citing the need to preserve trade secrets.[14]

The best available data on the composition of hydraulic fracturing products comes from an April 2011 minority staff report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.[15] This report was compiled using data from fourteen oil and gas service companies between 2005 and 2009.[16] These companies used 750 different chemicals to create over 2,500 unique hydraulic fracturing products.[17] These chemicals serve a number of functions, including lubricating the wells, improving the flow of hydraulic fracturing fluid and killing bacteria that can disrupt the hydraulic fracturing process.[18] A total of 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products were used during this time period.[19]

The hydraulic fracturing products surveyed contained both harmless products, such as salt and instant coffee, as well as a number of chemicals known to be dangerous or harmful.[20] The most common chemical used was methanol, a hazardous air pollutant.[21] Other dangerous chemicals used included benzene, lead, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene.[22] In total 29 chemicals were used that were either “(1) known or possible human carcinogens, (2) regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”[23]

“In total 29 chemicals were used that were known or possible human carcinogens…”

It is impossible to evaluate the total risks presented by hydraulic fracturing fluid mixtures, or fracking fluid, as gas companies regularly refuse to disclose chemicals which they deem to be trade secrets.[24] Twelve percent of all hydraulic fracturing fluid used during 2005 to 2009 contained at least one chemical that manufacturers refused to disclose.[25] In fact, many oil and gas drilling companies were unaware of the exact chemical makeup of the fluid used, as they were products purchased from third parties.[26]

Fracking fluids are injected deep underground, where the chemicals are capable of migrating to areas where they could cause environmental or health damage.[27] Well failures pose a particular risk, as these failures can cause leakage closer to the surface, where contamination of drinking water is more likely.[28]

Part II will address the regulation of fracking. State and local governments are starting to take action in response to an alleged lack of regulation at the federal level.

[1]          What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?, ProPublica, (retrieved online April 28, 2014, 2:00 pm)
[2]          Id.
[3]          Id.
[4]          Id.
[5]          Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing, supra note 1 at 2-4
[6]          Id.
[7]          Id.
[8]          Fracking FAQS, GasLand Official Site, (retrieved online April 28, 2014, 2:00 pm)
[9]          Id.
[10]        Id.
[11]        Oil’s Growning Thirst for Water, The Wall Street Journal, (retrieved online April 28, 2014, 2:00 pm)
[12]        Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing, supra note 1 at 2-4
[13]        Id.
[14]        Id.
[15]        Id.
[16]        Id.
[17]        Id.
[18]        Id.
[19]        Id.
[20]        Id.
[21]        Id.
[22]        Id.
[23]        Id.
[24]        Id.
[25]        Id.
[26]        Id.
[27]        Id. at 2-4
[28]        Id.