Fracking is a highly charged and contentious industry. It’s well established in Texas, may soon come to the U.K., and is banned in New York and across all of France. One of the main issues that features hotly in the debate is the danger it poses to drinking water. This week, scientists found traces of a chemical often used in hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, in the drinking water of houses near a reported fracking well leak.
The new study has brought to light further evidence that questions the safety of fracking near or under drinking water sources. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University analyzed the drinking water from houses in Bradford County, Pa., and discovered traces of a chemical that is commonly used in fracking. The exact origin of this chemical was unable to be identified.
This potentially marks the first fully documented case of fracking chemicals making their way into drinking water, and has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The chemical, called 2-Butoxyethanol (2BE), is a common constituent of the drilling fluids used in fracking due to its ability to aid in pumping water at high pressure. In lab tests, large amounts have been shown to cause tumors in rats, but this has not been proven in humans. It is, however, also common in other household products such as paint and cosmetics.
The fracking industry maintain that their practice of injecting a cocktail of high-pressured water and chemicals into shale rock deep below the surface to fracture it and release the natural gas trapped within is so deep underground that groundwater and aquifers are not contaminated. They also note that their procedures and well integrity are highly regulated. However, the authors of this study suggest that things might not be so straightforward.
“These findings are important because we show that chemicals traveled from shale gas wells more than two kilometers [1.2 miles] in the subsurface to drinking water wells,” said co-author Susan Brantley. “The chemical that we identified either came from fracking fluids or from drilling additives and it moved with natural gas through natural fractures in the rock.”
The researchers used a new analytical technique with instruments more sensitive than is available in most laboratories to test the apparently foaming drinking water from three homes one to three kilometers (0.6 to 1.8 miles) away from a Marcellus shale gas well pad. Whilst the water tested positive for 2BE, its concentration was measured in parts per trillion and was not above regulatory limits. Critics of the study use this to point out that contamination in such low levels could easily have come from other sources.
Apparently, the results the scientists found are concurrent with a reported leak from a well in 2011 in Bradford County, after which the three households sued Chesapeake Energy Corporation who run the site. Even though the fracking company never admitted liability, they settled the lawsuit and eventually bought the homes as part of the agreement.
Despite the fact that the authors were unable to determine the source of the 2BE, in part because the fracking company refuses to publish the exact recipe they use for fracking fluids, the paper does highlight a very real need for transparency and accountability in the industry. As Brantley says herself, “for the first time, all of the data are released so that anyone can study the problem.” Let’s hope more people can follow suit so we can gain a clearer image of what's really happening.