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Editor's Note: Study Illustrates Unknowns at Play When Regulating Fracking

Jamey Dunn
mattpenning.com 2014
WUIS/Illinois Issues

  A recent change in regulatory rules meant to encourage fracking well operators to recycle wastewater in drought-stricken Texas could be contributing to a newly detected threat to public health.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and natural gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking. Horizontal drilling allows oil and gas companies to permeate rock along a horizontal line, which can sometimes stretch for miles. 

Researchers at Rice University in Houston analyzed the fluids that are a byproduct of the process at sites in Texas, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, where oil and gas companies are fracking shale formations. The presence of shale formations in Illinois is also the draw for would-be fracking well operators in this state. 

The fluid, which is sometimes dubbed “produced water,” includes the fracking cocktail that is pumped into wells, and water and materials from deep underground. The substance can contain heavy metals and salts, and can also be radioactive. Researchers took fracking fluid from storage tanks that linked directly to wells. They collected the liquid in specially cleaned mason jars. The study is being called one of the most comprehensive looks at produced water to date. 

At the three locations, 25 inorganic substances were found, and at least six — antimony, arsenic, barium, chromium, copper and mercury — were found at levels that would make the water unsafe to drink. Consuming these chemicals at a high level can cause a host of health problems, including digestive system, liver and kidney damage, and cancer. 

While it is clear that fracking wastewater must be kept away from drinking water, researcher Andrew Barron told online publication Inside Climate News that, at least at the sites they tested, fracking waste water “was not quite as bad as we thought.” Barron is a chemist and a professor of material sciences at Rice. The chemical benzene, which is often found at oil and gas operations, was not found at any of the sites. Benzene can cause cancer, and benzene water contamination has been linked to fracking operations in the past. Barron and his team found that the fracking water was less harmful than water produced by coal-bed methane mining, a practice that has been in use in Illinois and other states for years. 

The study broke new ground by identifying and analyzing organic compounds found in fracking wastewater. Researchers stumbled upon a bit of a mystery when they found the presence of organic carbons, known as halocarbons. The compounds are not naturally occurring at the drilling sites and were not added to the fracking water before it was injected into wells. 

Eventually, the team was able to trace the compounds to the recycling process. Chlorine is often used to clean the processed water. Then, the water is used again for fracking. Barron and his team discovered that when the chlorinated water was pumped back into the ground, it reacted with materials naturally occurring in the local geology to create the halocarbons. Barron said that so far the team has only found low levels of the halocarbons and that the discovery is “not a cause for panic.” But at a higher level, some of the compounds would pose a health risk.

Barron said the findings do not mean that fracking well operators should not recycle water. Because a single well can use millions of gallons of water, he says that recycling will be a necessity in the future. “We believe the industry needs to investigate alternative, nonchemical treatments to avoid the formation of compounds that don’t occur in nature,” he said in a written statement. He said that policymakers in areas that are considering fracking should pay attention to the newest research on it and try to get the best regulations in place from the start. Barron hopes to analyze additional sites to learn more about the variation in wastewater content across shale formations. 

The study comes as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources released the second draft of its proposed rules for fracking in Illinois. The first draft of the rules was roundly criticized by the environmental community. Meanwhile, industry representatives accused environmentalists of trying to renegotiate the law through the rule-making process.

Environmental groups say the rewrite of the regulations is an improvement, but they say a proposed cap on the fines that operators would pay if they violate regulations would allow oil and gas companies to build the penalties into the cost of doing business instead of addressing problems. Those in the industry say the proposed rules go far beyond the regulations written in the original law, and they are asking a panel of lawmakers that will vote on the rules not to accept all the new restrictions proposed by IDNR. Industry experts say that even if an agreement is reached soon, it will probably be next year before high-volume horizontal fracking operations begin in the state because of the timeline of the permitting process. 

The controversy over fracking rages on in part because there are still so many unknowns, and plenty of misinformation and hyperbole is spread around on both sides of the issue. Dangerous groundwater contamination, while rare, has happened in states that were early adopters of fracking. A recent study tying it to a higher risk of birth defects seems to be cause for concern and so are reports of potentially dangerous air pollution around some fracking operations. However, the extraction of fossil fuels always comes with some risk, and Illinois has decided to take that gamble in the hopes that the payoff will mean a boost to the state’s economy. States that have seen water contamination also had scant regulations. Illinois’ law, at least on paper, is one of the strictest in the country. 

Because of the lack of scientific data on fracking, the National Science Foundation has launched an initiative, called AirWaterGas, to study it from several angles, including air and water quality, health effects and economic impact. The group is working to create a research-based decision matrix, which lawmakers and residents can use to decide if they want to allow fracking in their area. It is clear that the public and policymakers need more information to guide the country’s future relationship with fracking. For more information on AirWaterGas and its research, go to airwatergas.org. 

The study from Rice shows that regulators cannot always predict what the outcome of fracking rules will be. The well-intended concept of encouraging water recycling ended up introducing more toxins. That doesn’t mean recycling fracking wastewater is not worthwhile. It means that as new science comes in on fracking, regulators and industry will need to be adaptable. Regulators in Illinois must keep up with the newest science on fracking and be ready to protect the public from any as-of-yet-unknown dangers that may come to light.

Illinois Issues, October 2014

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