I’m not uniformly against fracking as many other environmental scientists may be. Although my initial impressions of fracking were extremely negative, I’ve come to see the need for transitional energy sources as we move away from fossil fuels toward a renewable energy economy. Fracking does have its benefits compared to coal and oil, namely about one fourth of the net greenhouse gas emissions of coal (although there is some question about more methane emissions than originally thought). What worries me is that this ultimate goal of a largely renewable economy will be lost amid the fervor and excitement of cheap natural gas that will likely make the US a net exporter by 2020.
This loss of the bigger picture seems especially apparent with the publication of this new article indicating that the shale drilling industry is expanding far more quickly than our understanding of its ecological and biotic impacts. This article illuminates all that is wrong with continued fracking developments, mainly that the alluring vision of leading the natural gas market is captivating wide-eyed capitalists and clouding the judgments of CEOs and legislators alike to ignore dealing with the potential dangers first.Fracking differs from other fossil fuel extraction methods because it requires incredible amounts of water and has a large geographical footprint. Shale deposits also happen to coincide with regions of great biodiversity. As seen in the figure above, the shale deposits (black outlines) overlap with freshwater species richness (in blue), especially in the eastern United States. Thus, fracking could exacerbate dangers to already vulnerable freshwater populations. Unfortunately, there is almost no data available on the impact of fracking on surrounding biospheres. To assess impact, the study systematically addressed each step of the fracking process and identified environmental risks. For each risk, the authors assessed its spatial extent, temporal extent, difficulty in mitigation, and current understanding of the problem. Information regarding these assessments came from a search through the previous research literature. Below I’ve tried to provide a brief outline of their main findings:
1) Underground contaminants: fracking injects highly pressurized water filled with chemicals to help retrieve the natural gas in shale. These chemicals have been linked to negative health effects in humans. Although this water ends up deep underground, not enough research has been done to know if this method leads to CH4 or other chemical contamination regularly or due to equipment malfunction. We just don’t know yet. The possible spatial and temporal extent of this contamination is unknown, and there are currently few solutions regarding mitigation.
2) Accidents and spills: The frequency of these accidents has not been quantified yet. There are 24 states with shale reservoirs but only five states provide public records of spills or company violations! In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection found violations of waste disposal standards and pollution prevention measures in 5% of wells and spills at a third those violating sites. In addition, of all spills eventually found, only a little over half were ever reported by the drilling companies, indicating that these companies are not taken such procedures seriously. This lack of reporting prevents the community as a whole from understanding the impacts of these spills and general contamination. Again, spatial/temporal extent is unknown, mitigation difficult is high.
3) Waste management/disposal: Once again, like a broken record, very little information exists about company adherence to state regulations or about the impact of violations on surrounding biological systems. Most fracking sites use temporary containment ponds to hold the wastewater used to release the shale gas, however the authors found a multitude of violations in the integrity of these ponds that lead to leakage. Indeed, 34% of all violations in Pennsylvania were due to inadequate waste management practices.
4) Cumulative impact: Fracking affects biological systems through habitat loss, loss of water, and pollution. Due to pipelines required for transport, this can occur in locations far fro the actual fracking pad, as habitats are divided and disrupted by pipelines. Again, more research is needed about these long-term effects.
The authors have identified these four areas as top research priorities for better understanding the impact of fracking on the surrounding aquatic and terrestrial species. In each case, it is a simple lack of information that prevents us from knowing the true effects of these operations – we don’t know the spatial/temporal extent and we don’t know what type of technology will be required to mitigate the risks. More research along with tighter regulation on companies is imperative to ensure safe, clean practices. I recommend calling or emailing your legislators about this lack of data to show them that they have constituents who care about a better understanding of these methods that will only become more ubiquitous in the years to come!
Souther, S., Tingley, M., Popescu, V., Hayman, D., Ryan, M., Graves, T., Hartl, B., & Terrell, K. (2014). Biotic impacts of energy development from shale: research priorities and knowledge gaps Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12 (6), 330-338 DOI: 10.1890/130324