Editor’s Comments: Time to Get the Details Right—More Monitoring

Jan. 6, 2017

In December, EPA released a new version of its 2015 report on fracking—hydraulic fracturing, or the process of injecting high-pressure liquids underground to extract oil and gas. The original report found “no evidence that fracking systemically contaminates water”; the revised report does not include that statement, and instead concludes that drinking water supplies have in some cases been contaminated. You can see EPA’s summary and download the full report here.

We’ve generally stayed out of the fracking debate. Some states and watersheds have banned it, while others welcome the economic and energy benefits it brings. I’m not trying to wade into the debate now, necessarily, but rather to point out some things that we as stewards of surface waters should keep in mind.

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There are several concerns, among them the large amounts of water needed for the process itself, which may strain an area’s limited supply of freshwater; possible emission of nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere; and—of particular concern for us—what to do with the water that’s left over from the process. The water that comes back up after it’s injected contains not only chemicals and sand that have been added to help force open fissures in the subterranean rock formations, but also high levels of salt from the shale beds that contain the oil and gas. Some of this water is reused for additional fracking operations, some is treated, and some is disposed of in Class II injection wells. Rather than calling any of these processes inherently dangerous, EPA’s report notes that contamination is more likely when things go wrong: spills occur, fluids are stored in unlined pits, injection wells have fractures that allow liquids and gasses to mingle with groundwater, and so on. The effects range from temporary changes in water quality to, in the worst cases, rendering drinking water sources unusable.

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What can we do about the risks? An article in our June 2016 issue reported on a study of water quality in the Susquehanna River basin, which overlies perhaps the largest natural gas reserve in the country—enough gas, according to the US Geological Survey, to supply the needs of the entire US for the next 15 years at the current rate of consumption. After communities in the area expressed concern about possible detriment to the environment, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission installed automated equipment at 58 sites to continuously monitor water quality. Parameters of concern include turbidity, conductance, pH, and chlorides. Monitoring is ongoing, and real-time results are available online. This is one of the largest comprehensive monitoring programs in the country; more regions should be investing in the same thing.

EPA’s science advisor, Thomas A. Burke, says that although EPA’s new report contains evidence that fracking can contribute to water contamination, a great deal more study is required, and he isn’t suggesting any policy changes or recommendations based on what’s been found so far. There are relatively few federal regulations that cover the process anyway, with state and local jurisdictions mostly setting and applying their own rules. He notes that the report is intended to give local jurisdictions more information to use in their decision-making.

What we can do to better inform those decisions is to monitor local water quality as the Susquehanna River Basin Commission is doing, or to an even greater extent. EPA’s report suggests as much, calling for groundwater and surface water monitoring and “target research programs to better characterize the environmental fate and transport and human health hazards associated with chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.” For those in oil and gas production areas, it’s time to invest in some serious monitoring and networking equipment. With strong interests—financial, environmental, political—on every side of the debate, the one thing we can rely on is good data.