The State of Affairs
The United States’ energy demands have grown considerably throughout time and are continuing to grow. Heightened interest in harnessing the U.S.’s internal energy sources has sparked a natural gas revolution known as the Great Shale Rush (2). Unconventional methods of gas extraction, like hydraulic fracturing, have become extremely prevalent within the past few decades. Large-scale production of shale gas is now economically viable due to advances in horizontal drilling technology and modern hydraulic fracturing procedures. The wells utilized with hydraulic fracturing are estimated as being 2-3 times more productive than traditional wells (3). Today, there are approximately 500,000 active wells in the U.S. that produce roughly 9.35 trillion cubic feet of gas annually (4).
Increasing numbers of fracturing wells have triggered environmental and social outcry about the process’ safety. The Great Shale Rush poses serious threats to ecological and anthropological wellbeing. The lack of chemical disclosure and frequent well casing accidents are of particular concern. Water contamination and negative health impacts have sparked several reform attempts, at state and federal levels. Improved regulation that balances economic, ecological, and social aspects would allow the industry to continue thriving while satisfying public interests. New policy needs to address chemical disclosure, improvement of well casing, and harsher punishment for fracking accidents.
Hydraulic fracturing first began in the 1940s and has grown extensively in recent years. The discovery of expansive “shale plays” in the United States, most notably the Marcellus Shale, Utica Shale, and Bartlett Shale, have significantly intensified production levels. (6). Currently, there are around 500,000 active natural gas wells in the U.S. Current annual production rates are greater than 9.35 x 1011 cubic feet of gas (according to 2013 reports). The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that roughly 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas exists in the United States. Roughly 60% of this resource is “unconventional gas” stored in low permeability formations such as shale, coal beds, and tight sands (7). The EIA projects that by 2035, shale gas production will increase to 340 billion cubic meters per year. This amounts to 47% of the projected gas production in the United States (8).
However, despite the economic prosperity that hydraulic fracturing offers, there are legitimate environmental and ethical concerns regarding the practice. Water contamination, increased methane levels in water, and undisclosed chemicals are serious worries. Another pressing issue is industry exemption from several key acts of environmental safety legislation (9). These pieces of legislation include, most notably, the Safe Drinking Water Act as well as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act (10). The exemption from the SDWA, especially, has experienced scrutiny from its direct tie to the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Commonly referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole” by legislators, NGOs, and the public alike, this loophole of the 2005 “EPAct”
disabled the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating fracking procedures. The policy also exempted fracking companies from disclosing what materials they inject into the ground. Furthermore, the Act diminished the requirement of “disclosing the concentrations and formulas of chemical solutions they (companies) inject into the ground to stimulate shale gas production” (12). Considering that Halliburton created hydraulic fracturing and they self-exempted themselves from federal regulation, skepticism and decries of industry corruptness are not too surprising.
– 1825: Shale gas first extracted in Fredonia, New York
– 1949: Fracking technique takes off when Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company conducts two commercial hydraulic fracking treatments
– 1960s: Pan American Petroleum first uses a process called “massive hydraulic fracturing,” which injects high volume fluids and proppants underground
– 1984: Oil and Gas Act regulates drilling procedures
– 1990s: Modern era of hydraulic fracturing begins
– 2011: FRAC Act first introduced
In 1996, shale gas wells in the United States produced 0.3 trillion cubic feet, which was roughly 1.6% of U.S. gas production. By 2005, there were 14,990 shale gas wells in the U.S. In 2006, production had more than tripled to 1.1 trillion cubic feet per year, being approximately 5.9% of U.S. gas production (15).
Over the years, numerous bills have been drafted and rejected by the House and Senate. The most common suggestions include improving drilling impact fees, providing definitions, protecting water sources, and disclosing chemical compositions. A few of these attempts include H.B. 1950, H.B. 1680, and S.B. 1226 (each introduced in the 2011 – 2012 session) as well as the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act – commonly referred to as the FRAC Act (16).
The FRAC Act of 2011 was introduced to both branches of the 111th U.S. Congress in 2009 by democratic political figures Diana DeGette and Jared Polis of Colorado as well as Maurice Hinchey of New York. The same bill was re-introduced to the House and the Senate in 2011 by representative Diana DeGette and PA senator Robert Casey (19). The main initiative was to amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempts the fracking industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and to disclose the chemical compositions. The Act also aimed to change the definition of “underground injection” to include fracking, but not subterranean natural gas storage (20). It attempted to regulate hydraulic fracturing at a federal level as well, but enabled states to implement their own regulations on top of existing federal ones.
In addition to disclosure, the FRAC Act would also help to enact an emergency provision requiring chemical formulas to be provided to a treating physician, the State, or the EPA in emergency situations (21). This would be “regardless of a written statement of need or a confidentiality agreement,” meaning that the trade secret privilege would not stand in such cases. However, chemical formulas would not need to be public knowledge, which upholds the right to chemical trade secrets (22).
In order to maintain environmental integrity as well as to satisfy human health concerns, the FRAC Act should be amended and then implemented into federal law. A few steps towards such policy alterations have already begun. In Pennsylvania, recently elected governor Tom Wolf has confirmed in an NBC report that he believes exploration companies should publicly disclose chemicals utilized for fracking. Acknowledging this agreement, discussions about industry regulations could soon be re-opened (23). While requiring nation-wide reforms will upset the fracking industry in terms of economic prosperity, the level of detriment experienced would be fractional (24). In addition to the Act’s written requests, several other improvements should arguably be included. First and foremost, law should require drilling companies to supply a detailed list of all chemicals utilized in their fracking fluid. Companies should include the precise percentages of chemicals used in their solutions for the EPA to analyze before drilling. The fracking fluid chemical list should also be available to the public through an open online site. However, the percentages and “recipe” of such frack solutions should remain publically undisclosed to protect from copyright infringement (trade secrets).
Furthermore, the durability of cement casings used within frack wells should be significantly improved to protect against the threat of water contamination. Such pieces of equipment should be highly regulated and cleared by certified specialists before being utilized. In the attempt to maintain environmental health standards, all spills and related accidents should also be reported immediately to the EPA and state-appropriate regulatory offices like the PA DEP. These practices could be overviewed by teams of environmental scientists and geologists working on fracking pads throughout the gas extraction process. Finally, to take one further step towards community water protection and societal wellbeing, the permitted distance between fracking pads and shared water sources, farms, residential areas, and state lands should be increased. The current 200-foot distance– as deemed by the Oil and Gas Act of 1984 – should rise to a minimum of no less than 500 feet (26).
Natural gas and hydraulic fracturing is the future of U.S. energy. Knowing that fracking will be continuing for years to come, implementing improved safety policies will allow the industry to continue growing and thriving while satisfying environmental and anthropological health concerns. The procedure must balance economic prosperity with ecological integrity to enable the greatest success in the long run. Industry and procedural regulation through the FRAC Act and its suggested amendments will fulfill such interests. Publically disclosing fracking chemicals will grant the public ‘s right to know what is being injected into their land – or what could be contaminating their water. Privileging healthcare personal with fracking companies’ formulas will enable more informed medical diagnoses to be administered. Furthermore, strengthening well casings, reporting hazardous incidents, and increasing the distance between well pads and water sources will make hydraulic fracturing less harmful towards the environment overall. Developing comprehensive industry regulation, based on scientific data and appropriate state and federal oversight, will pave a positive path for future energy extraction technologies (27).
- Brantley, S., & Meyendorff, A. (image). The Facts on Fracking. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/opinion/global/the-facts-on-fracking.html?_r=0
- Lavelle, M. (2010, October 22). Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear In Pennsylvania. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Jackson, R., Pearson, B., Osborn, S., Warner, N., & Vengosh, A. (2010). Research and Policy Recommendations for Hydraulic Fracturing and Shale‐Gas Extraction. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
- S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- EIA – Annual Energy Outlook 2014. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Garrett, J. (2011, January 1). The FRAC Act: The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
- S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Unchecked Fracking Threatens Health, Water Supplies. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Environmental Defense Center | Climate Change. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Hydraulic Fracking. (image) Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://visual.ly/hydraulic-fracking
- The Halliburton Loophole. (2009, November 2). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Hydraulic Fracturing: Six Decades of Unlocking U.S. Oil and Gas. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://www.energyfromshale.org/articles/hydraulic-fracturing-six-decades-unlocking-us-oil-and-gas
- IEA: Marcellus Shale Gas Production Lowers U.S. Gas Prices. (2013, November 19). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://gaslog.us/2013/11/20/iea-marcellus-shale-gas-production-lowers-u-s-gas-prices/
- Wilber, T. (2012, January 5). Shale Gas Review. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- PA General Assembly. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Slow Down Fracking in Athens County (SD-FRAC). (image). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from https://slowdownfracking.wordpress.com
- Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2013 (2013 – H.R. 1921). (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr1921
- Lustgarten, A. (2009, June 9). FRAC Act—Congress Introduces Twin Bills to Control Drilling and Protect Drinking Water. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Text of the FRAC Act. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Pennsylvania’s Disclosure Rules: What The Frack’s In The Ground? (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Governor Candidates: Where They Stand. (2014, May 17). Retrieved April 2, 2015.
- Pennsylvania Environmental Issues. (2011, June 20). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from https://garciaenergylaw.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/pennsylvania-environmental-issues/
- Davenport, C. (2015, March 20). New Federal Rules Are Set for Fracking. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- CHAPTER 78. OIL AND GAS WELLS. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015.