Rick Perry Needs to Get a Fracking Clue

by Tom Kenworthy

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s energy plan for the nation is deeply flawed on many different levels, as Climate Progress has already noted.

One item that stands out among all the craziness is his ludicrous claim that the oil and gas industry has a perfect record of safe drilling as it has adopted the now widespread practice of hydraulic fracturing. “The EPA’s war on American fossil fuel production comes despite the fact they can’t point to a single incident of unsafe hydraulic fracturing of natural gas,” he said in his speech today in Pittsburgh.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is commonly known, is a technique — unregulated at the federal level under the Safe Drinking Water Act — in which drillers use a blend of water, sand and chemicals to stimulate gas and oil production by pumping the mixture at high pressure into underground rock formations. That fractures the rock and releases hydrocarbons.

As natural gas production has swelled with the discovery of vast new reserves in shale formations across many parts of the U.S., so too have reports of methane and chemical contamination of domestic underground water supplies and streams and rivers.

The oil and gas industry has long maintained that there has never been a single proven case linking fracking to the contamination of underground drinking water supplies. Fracking takes place thousands of feet below drinking water supplies, and the chemicals used cannot penetrate intervening levels of rock, the industry asserts.

But the New York Times reported in August that in fact there is a documented case of such contamination by the EPA.

And Perry’s broader claim of safety overlooks the many examples in which drilling may have led to public health and safety threats other than hydraulic fluid contamination of underground drinking water supplies. Those include instances when methane has migrated into domestic water supplies, and surface spills of chemicals.

ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, has done extensive reporting on fracking over the past few years, and has “uncovered more than a thousand reports of water contamination from drilling across the country, some from surface spills and some from seepage underground.”

An EPA investigation into complaints of drinking water contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming, a town where drilling is extensive, led last year to regulators warning residents not to drink the water and to ventilate their homes when showering or washing clothes. According to ProPublica, “Researchers found benzene, metals, naphthalene, phenols and methane in wells and in groundwater. They also confirmed the presence of other compounds that they had tentatively identified last summer and that may be linked to drilling activities.”

Regulators in Pennsylvania have recently leveled large fines against energy companies for methane contamination of water supplies, including a $900,000 fine against Chesapeake Energy Corp. and a $4.1 million fine against Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation.

A recent probe by the Denver Post found that four oil and gas companies recognized by state regulators as “outstanding operators” had been responsible for 350 spills in less than two years. “A Denver Post analysis in progress has found that spills are happening at the rate of seven a week — releasing more than 2 million gallons this year of diesel, oil, drilling wastewater and chemicals,” the paper reported. “Yet state regulators rarely penalize companies responsible for spills.

Health problems reported by residents living in close proximity to drilling hot spots in four states are extensive, ProPublica found in another report.

“In some communities it has been a disaster,” said Christopher Portier, director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for Environmental Health. “We do not have enough information on hand to be able to draw good solid conclusions about whether this is a public health risk as a whole.”

— By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow at American Progress.