Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, has undoubtedly become one of the most contentious and hotly debated issues in states across the nation where natural gas deposits are found. The state of Pennsylvania has become ground zero for oil and gas companies, who have flocked to the area for its precious Marcellus Shale region. As an energy source, natural gas is not a new component of the world’s energy portfolio. What is new however, is the extraction technique known as fracking, which can be extremely risky and deleterious to the environment and public health. These serious risks have prompted EPA, environmental groups, and concerned citizens to speak out on the potential dangers associated with this type of natural gas production.
Hydraulic fracturing is a process where an initial well is drilled deep, typically 6,000 to 7,000 feet, into the Earth, passing through groundwater aquifers, until the shale geologic formation is reached. Once the drilling equipment has reached a depth of approximately 6,000 feet, a horizontal track is taken to ensure maximum rock fracturing when the fracking process begins. The extraction process itself is extremely energy intensive, requires substantial amounts of water, myriad toxic chemicals, and vast amounts of sand. This concoction, commonly referred to as fracking fluid, is pumped into the well where it cracks or fractures the formation as a result of high levels of pressure. The natural gas trapped in the shale formation seeps into the well, where it is pumped back to the surface and collected. The gas is then transferred into a pipeline, where it travels to holding tanks, and is finally distributed to end users.
The rapidity by which this process is expanding has led gas companies to explore new regions that have been legally off limits due to moratoriums or have not employed the fracking technique for extraction. An area of particular concern is the Delaware River Basin, a tract of land that extends into Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey, and contains the majestic Delaware River. The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is a coalition of governors from the above mentioned states and a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers. The DRBC has lifted the ban on exploration and created a set of regulations that will be voted on in late November. If approved, the Delaware River Basin will be the latest fracking area.
The public outcry resulting from these proposed drilling operations and the regulations are not baseless claims. Because the fracking process requires substantial amounts of fresh water, the Delaware River Basin will be an optimal site for this extraction technique. Moreover, what has citizens and environmental groups most concerned, is the lack of strict regulations that would protect the Delaware River from being used as a supplier and dumping ground for the fracking process. The potential for groundwater contamination resulting from the disposal of wastewater that is a product of the fracking process is very high. This has prompted the EPA to conduct a study on water quality in areas where hydraulic fracturing is occurring, which was released earlier this week . The report used seven case studies from Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, and North Dakota to examine the effects of fracking on groundwater and surface water quality. The report acknowledged the need for additional research, however it did state, “Based on the number of chemicals currently known to be used in hydraulic fracturing operations, EPA anticipates that there could be several hundred chemicals of potential concern for drinking water resources”.
The combination of the EPA report and the DRBC regulatory proposals have come at a time when citizen concern and outrage are at an all time high. Many local environmental organizations including the New Jersey Sierra Club, Delaware Riverkeepers, NYH20, and the New Jersey Hudson Riverkeeper have taken strong oppositional positions on the issue. These organizations and others have planned several activities and rallies designed to raise awareness on the issue and demonstrate their opposition to the potential drilling. The vote to approve the regulations and drilling operations in the Delaware River Basin will be held on November 21.