Shale Gas Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing

June 2011 Brief on Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale Gas Deposits / Update from September, 2010 Report

Recent discoveries of vast natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale region (spanning PA, NY, MD and DE) and in other parts of the country are driving down natural gas prices and sparking a modern “gold rush” of companies seeking to cash in on new drilling opportunities. This abundance is leading many energy industry experts and politicians to tout the promise of natural gas as a major piece in meeting US energy needs and reducing dependence on foreign resources. Because natural gas typically has a lower carbon emissions profile than coal,  progressives (including President Obama and the Natural Resources Defense Council)  have joined more conventional allies of natural gas, calling it a ”bridge fuel” between coal-fired generation and renewable options. However, recent studies have found that shale gas may not be as an environmentally or climate friendly and a shift to this fuel source may actually lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydraulic Fracturing or “Fracking”. The newfound abundance of natural gas is due in large part to unconventional drilling techniques, chiefly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. Fracking involves blasting a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals (the specifics of which are often undisclosed) into a well to force up the underlying gas from the shale. Fracking was invented by Halliburton in the late 1940’s, but has only recently been deployed on a large scale due to improvements in technology and increasing energy demand. Currently, about 15 percent of natural gas used in the United States is extracted through unconventional methods, but according to a recent Energy Information Administration report, the percentage is expected to increase to over 45 percent by 2035.


Environmental and Climate Impacts of Fracking. Fracking allows access to significant reserves of natural gas that were previously thought to be unattainable. However, it also takes a heavy toll on the surrounding environment. The chemicals that are used in the “fracking fluid” injected into the shale formation can seep into and contaminate nearby water sources. Last year, in one publicized incident, more than a dozen cattle died after drinking from a stream that was contaminated with fracking fluid on a Pennsylvania farm.

Currently there are no uniform national regulations requiring the disclosure of the particular chemicals used for fracking. In the absence of mandatory requirements, several companies in the industry led by Chesapeake Energy Corp have boasted their voluntary disclosure practices (see Still, these disclosures are usually submitted at the completion of the project, when the damage has already been done. Furthermore, a recent Duke University research team found that drinking water wells near active shale drilling sites in Pennsylvania and New York had methane concentrations 17 times higher than other wells. Numerous sites had levels higher than the Department of Interior’s Action Level for Hazard. The 2010 documentary Gasland depicts residents of affected areas setting their tap water on fire due to high methane concentrations.

Beyond water contamination issues, fracking also requires a tremendous amount of water that is often sourced from local rivers and streams. Other negative water, air and natural habitat problems are summarized in Appendix 1.

In April 2011, a highly publicized study on this issue by Cornell Professor Robert Howarth was released. It examined the climate change impact of methane released during fracking and transportation of natural gas. The study estimated that 3.6-7.9 percent of the methane in natural gas is released into the atmosphere through fracking and other unconventional natural gas extraction methods. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas (21 times more so than carbon dioxide), the emissions profile of shale gas compared to coal is higher over a twenty year time span. Building off this study, David Hughes, a researcher at the Post Carbon Institute concluded that a concentrated switch to natural gas would actually increase, rather than decrease US greenhouse gas emissions.


Environmental Community Perspective:
While several notable organizations (NRDC, Sierra Club) in the environmental community have supported natural gas as a bridge fuel to a cleaner economy, there is a general consensus that fracking and other unconventional extraction methods need to be studied further. PennFuture, a Pennsylvania based organization, has lobbied extensively for a severance tax on drilling in the Marcellus Shale as well as increased environmental regulation. The Sierra Club has taken the stance that while it supports well regulated conventional drilling, it calls for much greater scrutiny on fracking and other unconventional techniques.
Industry Perspective:
The natural gas industry is hailing shale gas as the cost effective, abundant and homegrown resource that will help the U.S. meet energy demands for years to come. Industry analysts dispute the assumptions made in the Cornell Study and claim that actual methane leaks are much lower than estimated. In a recent testimony before the House Science and Technology Committee, Cal Cooper of Apache Corporation asserted the claims often made by oil and gas companies: the technology used is very advanced and many precautions are taken to avoid harming the environment.

Recent Developments:
Maryland Lawsuit – After an accident that caused thousands of gallons of fracking fluid from a Chesapeake Energy well in Pennsylvania to contaminate the Susquehanna River watershed, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler announced the state’s intent to sue the company. Though a portion of the Marcellus Shale extends into Maryland, the state is taking a much more cautious approach to exploring the resource compared to Pennsylvania and has not issued any drilling permits yet. This incident highlights the need for federal regulation – many impacts of fracking are not contained within state borders.

National Action – In Early May, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced a panel to study hydraulic fracturing. In 90 days, the panel must come up with immediate recommendations to improve fracking safety and in 6 months they must advise federal and state governments on consensus regulatory conclusions. See the New York Times article “Fracture on Fracking” for an overview of the panelists.

International Action – On May 11, the French lower house of government voted to ban fracking amid large scale activism from environmental groups and others. As the bill goes to the Senate for consideration, there is speculation that this could be a harbinger of broader European opposition of fracking as the French anti-GMO movement led to the ban of GMOs throughout the EU.


There is a great deal of excitement about the vastness of the shale gas resource. This is leading to a “gold rush” mentality of extracting natural gas at a rapid pace that is outstripping necessary further study and prudent regulation. The lack of a national floor on regulations is beneficial for the powerful gas industry which is using this time to solidify positions and make huge profits on shale gas plays in states with little regulation. Further, as per the Energy Policy Act of 2005, fracking technology is exempt from regulation under the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the CLEAR Act as well other national standards.. This is not acceptable and should be amended as soon as possible.

Our energy future is no doubt a challenging one, and we will need to make use of many possible solutions to meet growing demand. However, it is crucial to weigh the full environmental and climate consequences of energy sources and to have national and state policies that effectively regulate the character and pace of development. Despite how safe the industry says fracking is, accidents do and will happen. The faster the pace of development, the more likely these accidents will be. One industry insider compared fracking to offshore oil drilling in terms of safety. The BP Oil Spill that sullied the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 proved that lax regulation and industry negligence is a recipe for disaster. We should not let fracking create another disaster in the pristine forests of Pennsylvania or anywhere else.

Appendix  1: Summary  of Environmental Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing

Water Use and Pollution:
• Fracking uses large quantities of water, which is often sourced from local rivers and streams.
• Wastewater is often kept in open holes, which must be monitored for leaking. Many companies dispose of this water in conventional wastewater treatment plants which are not equipped to handle chemicals used in the fracking process.
• Gas leakage  from encased wells into the water table can be deadly.

Air Pollution:
• The chemicals used in fracking cause local air pollution. Many companies do not release a listing of chemicals used and many of the known chemicals are not regulated.
• Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, can leak from natural gas wells.
• Ground level ozone, which contributes to smog, is a major local air pollutant in natural gas drilling.

Disruption of Natural Habitats:
• Drilling requires roads and wells to be built through Pennsylvania’s State Forests.
• Well sites disrupt soil and can lead to habitat loss as well as erosion.

Source: Clean Currents Marcellus Shale Brief. September 2010