As shale fracking booms, environmental protection lags

Natural gas flares off a well on a farm outside the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Leroy.
Natural gas flares off a well on a farm outside the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Leroy. Kevin G. Hall/MCT

WASHINGTON — America's race for cheap natural gas and energy independence has been outpacing the flow of state rules aimed at assuring people that gas production won't harm their health.

Today 24 states have wells that use hydraulic fracturing: pumping water, sand and chemicals into deep layers of rock at high pressure to release oil and gas. Because the nation's major environmental laws exempt the oil and gas industry, regulating hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — is largely up to state environment departments. States have been issuing new rules and guidelines, but often years after the boom began.

The biggest environmental issue, especially in Pennsylvania, the heart of Marcellus Shale formation fracking, is what happens to the wastewater that gushes up from deep in the Earth when a well is fracked. The water is full of salt and contains naturally occurring radioactive elements and metals from deep layers, as well as the fracking chemicals.

"The industry's practices have been rapidly evolving here over the last few years," said David Yoxtheimer, an extension agent at the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

Pennsylvania geology lacks many underground wells where wastewater can be stored. Companies increasingly recycle the wastewater by cleaning it enough for new fracking jobs. The salt sludge that gets removed is sent to landfills. Some of the wastewater goes to wells in Ohio.

The companies "do recognize in the long term there might not be adequate disposal capacity," said Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist. "There's frankly going to be a fair amount of waste generated from the development of these energy resources. Finding safe, environmentally responsible disposal may be a challenge," and that's why they're looking at deep wells.

New York state, which shares part of the Marcellus Shale formation, has taken a much more cautious approach. The state is nearing the end of a 3 {-year study of high-volume hydraulic fracturing and will decide next year whether to begin issuing the first permits for it.

In addition, no deep natural wells in New York are now permitted to store wastewater permanently. There are water treatment facilities and injection wells in other states that could accept the waste materials if fracking moves forward in the state, said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.

Pennsylvania's environment department asked drillers in April to inject wastewater into deep wells or recycle it instead of taking it to water-treatment plants that weren't equipped to handle it, though drillers aren't required to do so.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, immediately agreed to comply, said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman at the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

"It's a sea change in disposal practices," he said.

Sunday said his department estimated that in past years, about 95 percent of the wastewater from fracking in Pennsylvania was sent to sewage plants that didn't have the technology needed to treat it. In parts of the state, the water flowed into rivers that millions of people used for drinking water.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said its members accounted for 95 percent of the horizontal drilling rigs in Pennsylvania and all of them had agreed not to send the wastewater to treatment plants for discharge.

"Without question, Pennsylvania's regulatory framework is one of the nation's most forward-leading," said Kathryn Klaber, the industry group's president. She said her group would work with state regulators to make sure that standards for wells and rules for wastewater worked to protect the environment. The industry also was "focused on continuously improving upon our best management practices," she added.

Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania director for the environmental organization Clean Water Action, said there was little planning by the state for the impacts of large-scale gas drilling before problems arose.

"The states have not gotten ahead of the curve," said Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're just catching up to the industry."

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trade group for smaller producers, contended that states have successfully regulated hydraulic fracturing in vertical wells for decades.

"We definitely think the environmental issues are best handled at the state level," spokeswoman Julia Bell said.

A flash point in the well contamination issue was Dimock, Pa. State regulators determined that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. had drilled defective natural-gas wells that let gas escape into 14 water wells. Cabot denied wrongdoing, but it paid fines and fixed water supplies. Some residents said those efforts fell short, and they're still fighting Cabot for restitution.

Texas, where the shale gas boom began, has thousands of storage wells for fracking wastewater. On Dec. 13, Texas regulators required operators of new wells that get permits after Feb. 1 to disclose the chemicals and the amount of water they use to fracture them. State officials said that companies voluntarily reported the chemicals for about half of the existing wells in the state. The reports in Texas and other states are entered on a national registry website,

In Pennsylvania, people are pressing for more complete disclosure, said Steve Hvozdovich, the Marcellus Shale policy associate for Pennsylvania Clean Water Action.

"Part of the issue we have is that there's such a wide range of chemicals used, nobody knows for sure what the industry is using at a particular well site," he said. Hvozdovich said the industry had insisted on gag orders on the results of some court cases over fracking problems. "All this is adding a bit of mystery and cloud over water issues."

The Environmental Protection Agency is studying whether fracking practices have harmed any drinking water supplies. The study is expected to be completed in late 2014.

An early draft report caused a stir Dec. 8 when the agency found that wells in Pavillion, Wyo., contained pollutants "likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing." It said the samples were generally below safety standards and that the shallow wells in Wyoming were unlike those in other parts of the country.

The EPA's news release repeated what it usually says when fracking comes up: "Natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future and the Obama administration is committed to ensuring that the development of this vital resource occurs safely and responsibly."

Burning natural gas for power produces much less air pollution than coal does. But that doesn't mean that natural gas is pollution-free. Hot spots of smog show up in places where many drilling engines and other equipment are at work.

The EPA has proposed the first national air-pollution standards for the oil and gas industry. Its final version is expected in April.

The industry is opposed. The EPA's proposed rules aren't "practical and cost-effective," said Howard Feldman, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. "The public is already protected with an ample margin of safety."

The EPA's rules would limit conventional air pollution and seepages of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and a major component of natural gas. The EPA estimates that the industry would save money by doing more to capture emissions. Feldman said the EPA had overestimated the savings.

The Department of Energy's Argonne National Lab reported in November that even when fugitive emissions of methane are factored in, shale fracking's greenhouse gas emissions are 33 percent lower than coal's.

Those findings contradicted another study this year. In April, Robert Howarth at Cornell University published a report that said natural gas produced from shale with fracking had higher greenhouse gas emissions than coal did because of the methane that escaped from shale gas wells.

Howarth said in an email that he stood by his study. He said other studies underestimated the emissions.


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