Fracking Confusion

Should we listen to this guy...

...or this one? (Photo source: Green Party).

In 2008, residents of Pavillion, Wyoming began to complain to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about adverse tastes and smells from their drinking water, drawn from nearby wells.

The EPA went to investigate the water quality and found that the aquifer that they were drawing water from contained “compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing” from nearby gas fields.

The water quality tests found:

  • Methane (from below surface origins)
  • Foaming agent
  • Gasoline
  • Diesel fuel
  • Benzene (a carcinogen), toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene
  • Naphthalene
  • Isopropanol
  • Synthetic chemicals

All these ‘enes and ‘nols can be found in fracking fluid. The EPA found that frack pits (surface holding pits for fracking fluid pumped from underground) were a source of shallow ground water contamination. You can read the draft report here.

As a result of this, residents were warned not to drink their water, and to ventilate their homes while showering or washing clothes to prevent an explosion from the methane.

However, EnCana, the major oil and gas exploration company in the area refutes EPA’s findings.

“We have and continue to work extensively with Wyoming regulators and independent laboratories to determine whether natural gas development is affecting the community’s water quality. To date, all studies found no connection. We care about the impacts of energy development on the environment and we are committed to working to ensure our operations do not impact groundwater,”

On the flipside, fracking is carried out in many places in a way that does not contaminate groundwater. Here in New Zealand, our Minister for the Environment Phil Heatley claims hydraulic fracturing has been used in Taranaki for twenty years, and the Taranaki Regional Council say there have been no instances of groundwater contamination relating to fracking.

Again, Gareth Hughes of the Green Party disagrees:

“A Shell Todd Oil report from 2011 found that discharge of fracking fluids in Taranaki resulted in groundwater contamination that was unsuitable for drinking or stock use, or for irrigation.”

Fracking has been banned in several countries, including France and Belgium, and in many states in the US and in Québec, Canada.

Currently in New Zealand, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is investigating the risks that fracking may have, focusing on water contamination, storage of fracking fluids, whether fracking triggers earthquakes, and air pollution as a result of methane gas emissions.

 This is a highly debated topic, both within New Zealand and around the world. I look forward to the Commissioners report, and hope that (for me) it will shed some light on an issue that is surrounded by controversy and confusion.


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