Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and North Dakota saw more than 6,600 spills from fracking wells — or more than one spill for every five wells — from 2005 to 2014, according to a study released Wednesday by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The results suggest that the oil and gas industry needs to have stronger, more consistent reporting requirements for spills, which can include oil, chemical-laden water, and other substances, researchers said.
“As this form of energy production increases, state efforts to reduce spill risk could benefit from making data more uniform and accessible to better provide stakeholders with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills,” said lead author Lauren Patterson.
During hydraulic fracturing, a type of unconventional oil and gas extraction, large volumes of chemical-laced water are injected at high pressure into shale formations underground. The water breaks up the shale, releasing deposits of oil and gas trapped within. The practice has been linked to earthquakes and vast quantities of methane emissions, but while water contamination remains a leading risk of the practice, there is limited data on how much and how widespread spills are. The chemicals used in fracking are often confidential, but can include arsenic and other toxins.
An earlier EPA analysis of eight states — twice as many as the new study — found only 457 spills between 2006 and 2012, because the EPA looked only at the fracturing stage. In reality, spills can occur during fracturing, but also during the entire lifecycle of the well production, from extraction to transportation.
Half the spills documented in Wednesday’s study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, were related to gas and oil being stored or transported in flowlines.
“Understanding spills at all stages of well development is important because preparing for hydraulic fracturing requires the transport of more materials to and from well sites and storage of these materials on site,” Patterson said. “Investigating all stages helps to shed further light on the spills that can occur at all types of wells — not just unconventional ones.”
The researchers also found that newly drilled wells were more likely to have a spill. The first three years of a well’s life, when it is most active, were the most problematic.
In addition, between 26 percent (Colorado) and 53 percent (North Dakota) of all spills were from wells that spilled multiple times.
“I think the most compelling result from the study is that many of the spills are caused by problems that could be relatively easily fixed,” said Hannah Wiseman, another author on the report and a professor at Florida State University College of Law. “A lot of the spills came from equipment like flowlines.”
Wiseman said weather and human error — failing to connect one end of the line, for instance — played a role in the spill rate. She and her colleagues are working on a document that will offer best practices for the industry to prevent these types of errors, and the spills they cause. Wiseman said they would also offer guidance to regulators who might be looking to “improve the surface impacts” of fracking.
Notably, though, the researchers cannot conclude much about the impacts themselves. The report only includes four states, because the data sets were either incomplete or inaccessible.
“It’s really hard for us to conclude there is a large risk of surface spills, because the data varies so much among states,” Wiseman said.
Researchers in Texas previously found that cancer-causing toxins related to fracking had made their way into the water supply.