What is Fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing is the propagation of fractures in a rock layer caused by the presence of a pressurized fluid. Hydraulic fractures may form naturally, as in the case of veins or dikes, or may be man-made in order to release petroleum, natural gas, coal seam gas, or other substances for extraction, where the technique is often called fracking or hydrofracking.

This type of fracturing, known colloquially as a frack job (or frac job), is done from a wellbore drilled into reservoir rock formations. The energy from the injection of a highly-pressurized fracking fluid, creates new channels in the rock which can increase the extraction rates and ultimate recovery of fossil fuels.

The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels hydrocarbons in their wells.

The practice is called hydraulic fracturing and involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas to the surface.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday for the first time that fracking — a controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells — may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.

The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.

The EPA said its announcement is the first step in a process of opening up its findings for review by the public and other scientists.

The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said. Elsewhere, drilling is more remote and fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater that would normally be used.

“This is an important first indication there are potential problems with fracking that can impact domestic water wells. It’s I think a clarion call to industry to make sure they take a great deal of care in their drilling practices,” said Steve Jones with the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Wyoming last year became one of the first states to require oil and gas companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Colorado regulators are considering doing the same.

The public and industry representatives packed an 11-hour hearing on the issue in Denver on Monday. They all generally supported the proposal but the sticking point is whether trade secrets would have to be disclosed and how quickly the information would have to be turned over.

And while the EPA emphasized the Wyoming findings we’re highly localized, the report is likely to reverberate.

The issue has been highly contentious in New York, where some upstate residents and politicians argue that the gas industry will bring desperately needed jobs while others demand a ban on fracking to protect water supplies. New York regulators haven’t issued permits for gas drilling with high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale since they began an extensive environmental review in 2008.

The EPA began sampling water from Pavilion’s aquifer to find out how troublesome the water contamination was. Although the EPA has not put together an official interpretation of the raw data, the samples from about forty-two homes found concentrations of pollutants—some known carcinogens—at levels much higher than safe for public consumption. Here are the results as reported by Abraham Lustgarten of ProPublica:

  1. Sampling showed the presence of a solvent called 2-Butoxyethanol, which is commonly used in the fracking process. The samples did not turn up “contaminants such as nitrates and fertilizers that would have signaled that agricultural activities were to blame.”
  2. The presence of cancer-causing benzene was found “at 50 times that level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols—another dangerous human carcinogen—acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.”
  3. Well “samples were saturated with methane gas that matched the deep layers of natural gas being drilled for energy. The gas did not match the shallower methane that the gas industry says is naturally occurring in water, a signal that the contamination was related to drilling and was less likely to have come from drilling waste spilled above ground.”

Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, said in an e-mail Thursday that the EPA in Wyoming is now recognizing what other experts and families in fracking communities have known for some time: “Fracking poses serious threats to safe drinking water.”

The practice of hydraulic fracturing has come under scrutiny internationally due to apparent concerns about the environmenthealth and safety, and has been suspended or banned in some countries.