Frack this: More dangers to public health from natural gas hydraulic fracturing emerge

Last month, CP covered the first bombshell NY Times piece on natural gas fracking (see NYT:  “The dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood”). CAP’s Tom Kenworthy has the followup and the fallout.

In the past couple of years big energy has launched an aggressive defense of the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, which employs a mixture of water, sand and chemicals pumped at high pressure deep underground to stimulate production of natural gas and oil. The practice is now used in about 90% of the roughly half million gas wells in the U.S.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is often called, “is well regulated and safe, and it has a proven track record.”

Energy in Depth, which falsely bills itself as an association of small, independent oil and gas producers, calls fracking “a safe, well-regulated, environmentally sound practice that has been employed over one million times without a single incidence of drinking water contamination.”

But those assertions that fracking is a benign and well-regulated practice have done little to quell growing concerns that fracking with often undisclosed chemicals poses significant threats to surface and underground water supplies. As natural gas development has soared in areas rich in gas locked in underground shale deposits from Texas to New York State, pressure has mounted on the industry to disclose the chemicals that are used and on Congress to give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the underground injections of fracking fluids. Congress in 2005 specifically exempted the practice from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The drive to better understand the complex issues surrounding fracking has been driven in large part by thorough and aggressive investigative reporting, particularly by ProPublica, a non-profit center for investigative journalism. Public discussion has also accelerated with the Oscar nomination of the independent documentary “Gasland.”

In the past week, the New York Times has advanced the story in a significant way, with reports on how wastewater produced during gas drilling is often laced with dangerous levels of radioactive elements like radium, and released into surface waters and used to de-ice highways. The final story, published Thursday, is a devastating portrait of how political pressures, dating to the Reagan administration, have derailed effective regulation and control of drilling wastes:

More than a quarter century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as E.P.A. studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope, and important findings have been removed.

In its first report, the Times reported that “thousands of internal documents obtained”¦from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood”:

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

In its second story, the Times charges that recycling of the wastewater produced during drilling also entails risks to public health and the environment:

Some methods can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other contaminants that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways. Some well operators are also selling their waste, rather than paying to dispose of it. Because it is so salty, they have found ready buyers in communities that spread it on roads for de-icing in the winter and for dust suppression in the summer. When ice melts or rain falls, the waste can run off roads and end up in the drinking supply.

Those reports come after a January investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee determined that oil and gas service companies have injected millions of gallons of diesel fuel into gas wells, apparently in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

With Energy and Commerce now controlled by lawmakers friendly to the oil and gas industry, it’s not likely there will be any further full committee investigations. But Democratic lawmakers are pressing for more information from the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has written to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson pressing for her agency’s plans to better protect the public from the risks of contaminated drilling wastewater. Markey and another committee Democrat, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) have asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for detailed information on the practice of hydraulic fracturing during drilling on federal lands. And three New York Democrats, Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey and Jerrold Nadler have requested congressional hearings into issues raised by the Times series.

The recent revelations ought to settle the argument over whether hydraulic fracturing needs to be subject to more effective and adequately funded and staffed oversight by both federal and state agencies. That will help ensure that industry is using the best available methods for protecting our air and water. Natural gas could help in the fight against climate change, but only if a well-regulated industry produces it responsibly and safely.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

29 Responses to Frack this: More dangers to public health from natural gas hydraulic fracturing emerge

  1. Wit's End says:

    Fracking disposal sites suspended – likely linked to arkansas earthquakes:

  2. Joan Savage says:

    Oil and gas production from Silurian and Devonian strata had problems with brine disposal and surface water contamination, long before the fracking method exacerbated the amount of liquid involved and added the complexity of proppants, soaps, etc.

    In 1987-1989, for my M.S. in environmental science, I did a literature review of the role of soil ecosystem in the disposal of oil and gas production brine. I concluded that the soil ecosystem could not support dispersal of the brine even at high dilution, and the oil and gas backers of my graduate funding were inclined to ignore that conclusion. They wanted to go ahead with a test study that would have trashed several mountainsides to experiment with dilution. At that time most of the brine data I had to work with were from shallower wells, with only two deep wells, with very high brine concentrations, which are more typical of the currently developed frack gas wells in the Allegheny region.
    I stalled turning in the final version of the paper. The industry found a market for the brine in road salting and a potential market in extraction of rare minerals. At that moment of optimism in 1992, I turned in my paper so I could finish up. However, the latter disposal method of mineral extraction failed when the radioactive components proved too expensive to separate out of the brine. From a reliable source a year ago, I further found that the road salting dispersal method was indiscriminate about radioactive content.

    At present, sheer numbers of proposed wells, technical access to deep highly saline shale strata, presence of radioactivity, and volume of water involved, has made this a nightmare. I grieve but do not give up.

    The has come out with a manual for assessing water use.
    Fracking should be evaluated in terms of its use of fresh water, as well as its other issues.

  3. Raindog says:

    [JR: I already posted your link to this. That link is worth reading, but it does NOT refute the key NYT article findings nor provide any reassurance whatsoever that public health is not at risk.]

    As a person who knows something about this issue, the whole way this has unfolded has really been quite disillusioning. The articles appealed to emotions but were short on facts. Read this response from the former head of the DEP in Pennsylvania:

    Hanger is a liberal democrat and a strong supporter of alternative energy.

    Th NY Times actually has no idea if dangerous levels of radioactivity are being released into rivers but it did not stop them from lobbing this grenade into the public discourse. The reporters are typically not scientists and don’t seem interested in science. They are properly skeptical of industry but take the words of environmental groups and landowners who may not know what they are talking about or who might have unstated agendas without any questions. The people to trust on this are life-long employees (not political appointees) of state and federal regulatory agencies who are speaking on the record. These people know what they are talking about, have no vested interest in drilling or not drilling and are charged with protecting the environment in their mission statement. Yet these public servants are either not interviewed or caricatured as incompetent shills for industry.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m tired of the oil, gas, and coal companies telling our government what to think, report, and do. It’s a disgrace.

  5. MikeB says:

    Should we be that surprised that fracking sites could be linked to area earthquakes? Similar events occured in the 1990’s in upstate New York when salt mines collapsed (after water dissolved the remaining support pillars).

    How much more evidence of human technological progress impacting the natural environment is needed before people finally respond? Besides the obvious, i.e. until it is in my backyard it is not a problem.

  6. Leif says:

    Fracking…. “has been employed over one million times without a single incidence of drinking water contamination.” At least the fossil industry has not admitted to one. Of course the fossil industry has not admitted to a problem from CO2 either. Coal mining is safe. Air pollution from Mercury? No problem say the GOBP. Particulates and black carbon? Hay, what is a little dust among friends.

    I have heard that the Moon is green cheese. That will solve the Earth’s food problem. We just get the GOBP to pass a law that gravity is only 1 foot per second squared to make the trip cheep and profits high and we all live happy ever after!

  7. Perhaps they should start fracking in Cheney’s back yard – wherever that is?

  8. Does this experience with the fracking technology have any relevance for problems we might expect from enhanced geothermal energy production?

  9. Raindog says:


    I am a huge fan of this blog. I read it every day. I can’t stand to see the great science you discuss here watered down with this anti-scientific nonsense about shale gas. There are definitely problems with shale gas drilling as there are with all sources of energy. But the movie Gasland, the articles written by Propublica and the NY Times are way off the mark.

    Look at this takedown that was ironically done by the NYT on the movie Gasland. Now if they could only do the same with their own reporters!

    [JR: This takedown was not done by the NYT, it was done by Greewire, which the NYT reprints. Nor is it terribly impressive as a full takedown. The stuff on the EPA whistleblower is laughable.

    I have been as big an advocate for responsible development of shale gas as anybody on the blogosphere — BUT I’m afraid the NYT stories are not so easily dismissed.

    Moreover, the jury is OUT on the leakage rates from shale gas and thus on its GHG benefits in a number of applications.]

  10. Wes Rolley says:

    I wonder if the news coverage of fracking is, in any way, related to who represents the city in Congress? Here is a link to a fracking story from the Oklahoman (James Infofe, of course.).

    The panel praised Oklahoma’s comprehensive regulations addressing the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and step-by-step process for dealing with any problems that may affect surface or groundwater.

    Actually, this reads like a press release published as news, not untypical these days. There is nothing that indicates what the criteria of the “test” was. And, finally, the release story ends with the most irresponsible quote.

    As the contrived controversy over hydraulic fracturing has steadily increased in other states, so two (sic) have the invitations for commissioners and Oil and Gas Division staff to speak to officials and citizens in other parts of the country and the world on what we do…

    “Contrived controversy” my (*&.
    Wes Rolley – past CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US.

  11. Ted Nation says:

    For those who have followed the global warming debate for decades, natural gas has repeatedly been held out as a hopeful lower carbon “bridge fuel” to a low carbon energy future. First there was an abundant supply of conventional natural gas, then there wasn’t, then shale gas promised abundance again, now this revelation! I read the NYT articles with dismay but not total surprise having seen the documentary, Gasland. Democracy Now also conducted some good interviews on the subject:

    In one of the comments to these blogs a reader also linked a summary of a Cornell study indicating that gas produced with hydraulic fracking was just as threatening as Coal from a global warming perspective, at least from some shale formations.–%20Jan%202011%20(2).pdf Please investigate the validity of this claim. If true, it makes it even more imperative to tightly regulate the drilling and production of shale gas!

  12. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    Go ask the citizens in the sacrifice zones of Garfield County, Colorado what they think of fracking. Wells contaminated, sick livestock, major health issues, including one woman’s death verified by medical doctors as being related to her well contamination (lawsuit in progress).

    The oil/gas industry snickers at all this while pretending to care and carries on as usual.

    Our dependence on gas/oil reminds me of an old car I saw out in the Utah desert yesterday – once a cool ride of 50s vintage, but now riddled with bullet holes and rusting away out in the badlands. It seems somehow symbolic.

  13. paulm says:

    You get what you frack for!

  14. Dispelling the propaganda that GAS is a clean energy source:

  15. Prokaryotes says:

    The people responsible should resign immediately and the companies in question should be forced to switch to alternative clean energy generation methods in compensation.

    THERE IS REALLY NO OTHER OPTION, at least if you prefer to have a viable habitable planet left for your daughter and son!

  16. Fracking even made its way into an episode of CSI (Vegas). Why the smart PhD CSI Ray Langston had to look up Fracking on the internet is a mystery.

    CSI Review: The Problem with Fracking

  17. K. Nockels says:

    Hey Raindog Who do you work for? We are talking about a fossil fuel, why are any of us surprized to learn they lied, decieved and payed big money to cover up public saftey issues? Gasland watch it and become undecieved about gas fracting.

  18. Lew Johns says:

    PA DEP just tested water drawn from the Monongahela River and found NO “radioactivity”.

    Monday, Katy Gresh of the state Department of Environmental Protection said testing had put those fears to rest.
    “The results speak for themselves. We deal in facts and sound science here at DEP and the results show that there is no need for concern,” she said.
    The state tested for radioactivity in seven rivers and creeks downstream from plants that treat drilling wastewater. In each case, the DEP found that readings for radioactive material were at or below safe water standards, something the drilling industry had maintained all along.

  19. Lew Johns says:

    Oh, again. If the 30% of fracwater recovered from Well “A” is pumped down Well “B” what is the contamination problem?


  20. Prokaryotes says:

    New Drilling Technologies Shake Up Global Market

    While the world fears a new oil price shock, the entire energy market is on the verge of a revolution. Companies are using increasingly sophisticated technology to tap new sources of natural gas. Drilling is also underway in Germany, where both the potential and the risks seem enormous.,1518,748573,00.html

  21. FS says:

    Hmm Lew… there really is no problem, you are right. The measurements taken must be wrong indeed. Sure there are no lacks and everything that goes down keeps at the bottom, save. There must be other reasons, unrelated to fracking, for the contamination measured (there exists other evidence then the one you bring forward).

    People like you make me sick.

    Tell me, if nothing from the bottom gets up, how can natural gas get into drinking water (to begin with…)

    It would be nice if some climate activist with money would pay for an advertisment spot with some of those lookers beeing send all over at prime time. I guess nothing else works, I guess.

  22. Raindog says:


    Please post this even though it goes against the narrative. It’s important that people not be frightened unnecessarily. This movement to kill shale gas drilling is going to badly hurt efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    The PA DEP actually has monitoring stations set up downstream of all of the waste water facilities that are set up to test water quality. They have had these set up for some time. The NYT certainly should have known this. Anyway they released a report yesterday with measurements of the radioactivity of the water and specifically radium-226 and 228. They found no elevated levels. This result is not surprising to people who actually understand the science. Here is a link to a press report:

    Here is a link to the PA DEP press release:

    John Hanger, the former DEP secretary, said he wasn’t surprised by the testing results.

    “I’m pleased by it, of course, as all Pennsylvanians should be,” Mr. Hanger said. “The results demonstrate powerfully that the concerns raised by The Times articles were false and Pennsylvania runs a stringent oversight program for the gas drilling industry.”

    [JR: I’m posting this in spite of your opening sentences. There is no “narrative” on natural gas here as any regular reader knows. If you want to post your stuff here regularly, then please do me and the other commenters the favor of reading what has been written here. Had you read my extended series on natural gas from last year you would know how absurd your comment is.

    Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Its use or release into the atmosphere helps contribute to global warming. Had there been a climate bill, I argued that natural gas could have played a crucial role as a bridge fuel. Absent a climate bill, natural gas’s role will necessarily be more limited.

    The jury is OUT on the public health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. I am always happy to report straight news of this sort. If it turned out tomorrow that fracking had no harmful effects to human health, I’d be delighted to report that, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that result.

    For climate hawks, the key question is what the leakage rate from fracking is. Some work suggests that it is fairly high, and if so, that would vitiate much of the climate benefits.]

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Where’s the surprise? Another pollution disaster, destroying ecosystems, blighting peoples’ lives and releasing nasty toxins, and the denialists deny it all. Up is still down, right remains left. And we have our own ‘concern troll’ if I have the lingo correct, pretending that ‘fracking’ is not only perfectly, totally, safe, but also a bridge away from greenhouse gas pollution. Just how credulous do they take us to be? There is only one solution, to radically downsize consumption, particularly in the rich world, thereby reducing the destruction of the planet’s biospheres. This means that the primary disease, market capitalism, with its ethos of unending growth, must go, and its acolytes, all those little metastases of the primary neoplastic disease, must be removed from power.

  24. Raindog says:


    This whole thing about hydraulic fracturing has been a very strange thing to watch unfold. All the sources for news that I normally trust have really botched this story. You must admit that the NY Times articles from last week have turned out to be almost completely bogus. Doesn’t it make you worry when you see how bad this reporting is? It makes me wonder what news I can trust. I read the NY Times but now I question everything they write. If their other reporting is anything like this story then it can’t be trusted at all.

    You fight bad science every day on this blog. I’d really like to see you go through the stories on hydraulic fracturing and find out which charges are still sticking in your mind. It seems to me that virtually every charge made (generally by reporters not scientists) has been refuted by actual scientists. Isn’t this the fight you fight every day? Real science vs fake science, reporters and talk show hosts?

    The problem is that this is emanating from sources that I (and I imagine you as well) normally trust on other matters. So it is quite disillusioning to see it for what it is – largely a made-up story made to frighten readers. I see this as quite like the East Anglia email story from last year – a made-up story.

    There are problems with gas drilling – no doubt. Areas that have no wells will now have wells, pipelines and roads and the landscape will be changed. There is a lot of truck traffic and noise associated with drilling. It is a fossil fuel and is also a greenhouse gas itself and I agree that everything possible must be done to avoid leakage so that the greenhouse gas savings are real. Water withdrawals are an issue that needs to be handled very carefully. Wastewater disposal is becoming less of an issue and may soon go away as companies reach 100% reuse. But hydraulic fracturing itself is not one of the problems and the media has failed us badly here.

  25. Matt says:

    So one can knowingly publish untrue pollution permitting erroneous tripe, seems.

    O/T Joe: Is there any way to list a simple archive view of CP posts by date? After three days history the post dates jump back to February or March 2010 and move forward sporadically from there. I managed to find this post by specifying posts by Joe but often enough I don’t have a chance to read the blog for several days and this method can be time consuming. It’s also possible other people are unaware. Of course, it is equally possible I am missing a glaringly obvious feature or function. If so my apologies and hit me with the clue stick.

    [JR: Yes, the archives are on the right hand bar — near the bottom, unfortunately.]

  26. Matt says:


    Thank you Joe.

  27. Matt says:

    Probublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten on TRMS, March 10 2011.