At first it seemed like just another newspaper article on the potential environmental dangers of fracking to produce natural gas from shale, but on second look there is something new in the New York Times article, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.” Most such stories, and much of the public’s attention, have been focused on the possibility that a badly drilled well could taint groundwater. The new article reveals that disposal of the produced water recovered during fracking operations is likely the more important environmental concern. While produced water is (generally supposed to be) treated before being returned to waterways, some of the facilities used for treatment may not be capable of providing the services needed.
The web version of the story includes extensive related materials, including interactive maps, spreadsheets filled with data, and perhaps most significantly 1,113 pages of documents with annotations provided by the Times (described as the most significant documents out of more than 30,000 pages the Times reviewed for the project). The documents were collected via open records requests, obtained directly from regulators in the Marcellus shale region, or leaked to the Times by state or federal officials.
No doubt that a badly-drilled or poorly finished well can create problems, but the enviro-hype and associated docudrama film have insisted that this is the biggest problem. Probably not. The industry can reasonably point out that thousands and thousands of hydrofracking wells have been completed and of those many thousands only a handful have been linked to any kind of groundwater issue. In fact, as one of the documents points out, fracking has been used for years in Pennsylvania without a lot of controversy to produce coal-bed methane. The bigger hazards may be in produced waters downstream from drilling operations.
Some of the documents relied upon are several years old, and some reports are preliminary rather than final. There is much more to be learned, including – possibly – that the wastewater disposal problems are not as serious as the story suggested (or, of course, it could be worse). Clearly, this newspaper article isn’t the end of the story, but it does the service of advancing the public’s understanding of the issue.