Despite the shale gas industry’s aggressive efforts to keep a lid on water use and contamination issues relating to its activities, troubling new evidence continues bubbling to the surface, making it increasingly difficult to deny such concerns.
Two big strikes against shale gas industry
In December, a subsidiary of America’s second biggest fracking company, Chesapeake Energy, was hit with a penalties totalling close to $10 million by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for violations of the Clean Water Act – this in spite of regulatory loopholes that shield shale gas operators from such fines.
Meanwhile, the EPA’s internal watchdog denied attempts to quash the agency’s legal intervention in fracking activities allegedly contaminating water in Parker County, Texas.
Both cases simultaneously demonstrate the lengths to which shale gas operators have gone to protect themselves from investigation and the the ways in which those efforts are beginning to fail.
Industry, governments play defence
Last year, the EPA was forced to abandon a landmark study into water contamination in Wyoming, under intense political and legal pressure, following the release of its damning preliminary findings in 2011. Despite convincing evidence of carcinogenic fracking fluids from Encana’s nearby shale gas operations in two test wells drilled by the EPA, the study was handed off to state authorities far less equipped to conclude the work. It is now being funded in part by the very company under investigation, Encana.
Fracking and water issues in Canada
In Canada, the same company is the subject of a $33 million lawsuit over water contamination being brought by longtime oil and gas industry environmental consultant and Alberta landowner Jessica Ernst. Ernst recently announced that she is appealing an Alberta Supreme Court decision that severed and provided immunity to the provincial regulator, named alongside Encana in the original suit.
In neighbouring British Columbia, Natural Gas Minister Rich Coleman and representatives of the Oil and Gas Commission continue to maintain:
[quote]BC’s water supply is protected and safe. It has never been contaminated as a result of hydraulic fracturing.[/quote]
EPA finds new tools to take on fracking
Despite the litigious nature of the industry and regulatory capture of governments, it’s getting harder and harder to deny the water contamination issues that surround fracking. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as of 2009, fracking companies there were using a cocktail of at least 260 chemicals to help crack open shale formations – including known carcinogens like benzene.
Changes made in 2005 to the US Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act largely exempted fracking fluids and contaminants from regulation. This led to years of inaction on the part of the EPA – but that has begun to change. The agency employed section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which does not apply to the fracking fluids themselves, to go after Chesapeake recently.
The EPA explained its method as follows:
[quote]The federal government and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) allege that the company impounded streams and discharged sand, dirt, rocks and other fill material into streams and wetlands without a federal permit in order to construct well pads, impoundments, road crossings and other facilities related to natural gas extraction.[/quote]
The result, was a settlement with Chesapeake for approximately “$6.5 million to restore 27 sites damaged by unauthorized discharges of fill material into streams and wetlands…and a civil penalty of $3.2 million, one of the largest ever levied by the federal government for violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA), under the Section 404 program, which requires a federal permit prior to the discharge of dredge or fill material materials into wetlands, rivers, streams, and other waters of the United States.”
Fracked up water in Texas
The announcement of the Chesapeake settlement came just 5 days before another deeply troubling regulatory decision for the industry, involving well water contamination in Texas. After investigating and siding with complaints of water contamination related to Range Resources’ Parker County fracking operations, the EPA’s Region 6 office intervened on behalf of local landowners like Steve Lipsky. The company later sued Lipsky for $3 million over alleged defamation when he publicly linked the ability to light his water on fire to the company’s nearby fracking activities, referencing the EPA’s findings.
Republican Senator and renowned energy industry defender James Inhoffe also interfered with the EPA’s efforts, calling for an internal investigation into the agency’s study and subsequent regulatory intervention. Inhoffe alleged the original investigation was politically motivated by the Obama administration.
Yet, on December 24, the agency’s Inspector General overruled Inhoffe’s complaint. According to Earthworks Gulf regional organizer Sharon Wilson:
[quote]The EPA’s internal watchdog has confirmed that [it] was justified in stepping in to protect residents who were and still are in imminent danger…Now we need an investigation as to whether political corruption caused EPA to withdraw that protection.[/quote]
For landowners like Lipsky, the Obama administration isn’t going far enough to regulate fracking.“President Obama promised that hydraulic fracturing would occur safely,” said Lipsky after learning of the Inspector General’s findings. “With this IG report, it now seems clear that he is determined to squash any evidence to the contrary.”
Even with the EPA’s strengthened position, the battle is far from over, as the state-run Texas Railroad Commission has decided to wade in with its own investigation, which, in another bizarre example of the Byzantine regulatory tangle that continues to protect the industry, could once again usurp the EPA’s ability to halt or control fracking activities in Parker County.
A recent study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology sounded yet another alarm regarding the threat shale gas poses to groundwater. The study, published by professors at Duke University in October, found concentrations of radium in a tributary of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny river at 200 times normal levels. The radium, along with a number of other contaminants, came from a nearby plant for treating fracking wastewater.
In an interview with Bloomberg, the study’s co-author, Aver Vengosh stated, “The absolute levels that we found are much higher than what you allow in the U.S. for any place to dump radioactive material…The radium will be bio-accumulating. You eventually could get it in the fish.”
It appears that fracking underground shale beds may release pre-existing radiation along with the gases trapped deep beneath the surface – a veritable Pandora’s box which shale gas companies are unwittingly opening.
These concerns are echoed anecdotally by Alberta cattle rancher Howard Hawkwood, who has lost 10 percent of his his cows over the past year, which he attributes to radiation from fracking operations.
Hawkwood described these dead cows and dead spots on his farm in a recent radio program:
[quote]These are the dead spots in the field, where my cows have urinated. This all showed up last spring…We’ve actually taken soil samples of the dead spot and a sample from a foot and a half away and we’ve got high levels of radon, barium, uranium, strontium, and magnesium is extremely high.[/quote]
Hawks also raises the issue of industry intervention in investigating these problems. He contends it imposes detailed non-disclosure agreements on landowners seeking compensation for damages to their land and health. “The other ranchers are experiencing the same thing but they don’t want to come forward, because they don’t want to create a problem,” says Hawkwood. “Or they have oil and gas on their property and they’ve had to sign non-disclosure agreements. One fellow told me that if he does a cow problem, he phones them and he’s got a cheque in the mail – as long as he doesn’t speak up.”
The issue of “radio-fractivity”, to coin a phrase (you heard it here first), is at an early stage of investigation, but these few indications are already deeply troubling and should raise the level of regulatory caution and research – unfettered by industry and government.
If the fracking industry is as clean as it purports to be, then there is no need for the aggressive tactics it continues to deploy – suing concerned landowners, imposing non-disclosure agreements, pressuring governments to scuttle investigations and create regulatory loopholes to protect them from compelling evidence that they are jeopardizing the health of people and the environment.