Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh
February 17, 2010
The boom in shale natural gas drilling has raised hopes the United States will be able to rely on the cleaner-burning fuel to meet future energy needs.A bill in Congress would require companies to disclose chemicals used in fracturing, and would give the Environmental Protection Agency more oversight of the industry. Industry spokesmen say more federal rules are unnecessary because states already do a good job of regulating gas drilling. Congress has asked the EPA to do a scientific study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.
But concerns about its impact on water quality could slow the industry's ability to tap this bountiful resource.
New York state has yet to allow drilling of high-volume, horizontal wells in the Marcellus Shale, effectively banning industry from the most efficient manner of extraction.
Some questions and answers:
WHY ARE ENVIRONMENTALISTS CONCERNED ABOUT SHALE GAS DRILLING?
The natural gas industry says the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing is entirely safe, citing research that has yet to prove any link between it and water contamination that could cause illness.
Critics of the U.S. boom in shale gas drilling fear the practice contaminates the aquifers where many rural residents get their domestic water supplies, pollutes the air around gas rigs and compressor stations, and scars the landscape with drilling pads and new roads.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM WITH WATER SUPPLIES?
Critics believe hydraulic fracturing chemicals are escaping into groundwater and in several states there have been reports of fouled water and increased illness since drilling began. In addition, naturally occurring toxic substances such as arsenic have been found at elevated levels near some drilling operations.
HAS ANYONE ACTUALLY FOUND TOXIC CHEMICALS IN WATER WELLS NEAR GAS DRILLING?
Yes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found 14 "contaminants of concern" in 11 private wells in the central Wyoming farming community of Pavilion, an area with about 250 gas wells. The August report did not identify the source of the contamination but the EPA is conducting more tests and is expected to reach a conclusion this spring. In Pennsylvania, at least two privately conducted water tests near gas drilling have also found chemical contamination. One set of tests is being used in a lawsuit by a landowner against a gas company.
HOW DOES THE INDUSTRY RESPOND TO THESE CLAIMS?
Companies say hydraulic fracturing chemicals are heavily diluted and separated from water supplies by layers of steel and concrete injected into the shale a mile or more underground and thousands of feet below aquifers. Industry officials say there has never been a documented case of water contamination from gas drilling.
WHAT'S THE EXPERIENCE OF PEOPLE WHO LIVE NEAR GAS DRILLING?
Residents complain of water that is discolored, foul-smelling, bad-tasting, and in some cases even black. Some say drinking it causes sickness and bathing in it causes skin rashes. In a few cases, water has become flammable because methane has "migrated" from the drilling operations to water wells. That migration was confirmed by regulators in Pennsylvania. Many low-income people who live near gas rigs drink bottled water, and some have their water supplied by the gas company.
IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH WASTE WATER?
Yes. Around a third of the millions of gallons of water used in fracturing comes back to the surface where it is either reused or trucked to treatment plants. In Pennsylvania, where the industry is rushing to exploit the massive Marcellus Shale formation, critics say there isn't enough capacity to remove toxic chemicals from waste water. As a result, some waste gets pumped into rivers and creeks with little or no treatment, critics say. Some residents have accused tank trucks of dumping waste water on rural roads.
HOW ARE STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS DEALING WITH THE SHALE BOOM?
A bill in Congress would require companies to disclose chemicals used in fracturing, and would give the Environmental Protection Agency more oversight of the industry. Industry spokesmen say more federal rules are unnecessary because states already do a good job of regulating gas drilling. Congress has asked the EPA to do a scientific study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.
HAS THE EPA EXPRESSED CONCERN ABOUT THE SAFETY OF GAS?
Yes. The federal agency said on December 30 it has "serious reservations" about whether proposed gas drilling in the New York City watershed is consistent with high-quality water supply to the city's 9 million residents. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for a ban on drilling, saying the city should not risk the purity of its renowned water supply, and that the consequences of allowing fracturing could be "severe."