Environmentalists have long contended that the natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing — or "fracking" — poses a danger to drinking water supplies for millions of Americans.
Alarming reports of water contamination in states where such drilling is common, including Colorado, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, have exacerbated their fears. Residents in some areas have described abnormalities — from flammable tap water to dying livestock — after fracturing began, and other areas have reported public health concerns related to tainted water.
But despite an increase in the number of such reports nationally, environmentalists' claims have been undermined by the fact that no scientific links have been established between fracturing — which involves blasting a solution of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to free natural gas — and reports of contaminated water. Studies by the federal EPA and the states, which have primary oversight over oil and gas drilling, have concluded that the technique is safe, and the oil and gas industry is quick to paint environmentalists' fears as unfounded and overblown. "To date there have been no verified instances of harm to groundwater as a result of hydraulic fracturing," a survey of 13 state regulatory bodies concluded in 2009.
One crucial question about fracturing, however, has always gone unanswered: Which chemicals, exactly, are drillers injecting into the earth as they search for natural gas? Government regulators themselves often don't know the answer because the chemical formulas are protected as trade secrets by the companies doing the drilling. Environmentalists say it is unfathomable that regulators don't know the chemicals that are being fired into the earth, often near aquifers and private water supplies. Now, amid continuing reports about water contamination and growing political momentum on the environmentalists' side, states are taking a closer look at fracturing, hoping to calm public fears without discouraging badly needed economic development.
Arkansas this month joined Colorado and Wyoming in requiring gas drilling firms to disclose the chemicals they use in fracturing, despite gas companies' worries that their trademarked solutions could be compromised, giving their competitors an advantage. In Pennsylvania, where the energy industry is racing to tap into a vast gas field known as the Marcellus Shale, state environmental officials also are leaning on firms to reveal their chemicals, though it is not yet required.
Many experts expect such rules to spread across the nation quickly. Two influential state-level regulatory groups, the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, have announced they are teaming up to develop a national registry that drilling firms can use to voluntarily report the chemicals they use in fracturing. The effort has been endorsed by major industry groups, including America's Natural Gas Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, though environmentalists remain skeptical about voluntary disclosure, arguing that companies will not provide complete information.
No state, meanwhile, has gone further to explore the science behind fracking than New York, which, like Pennsylvania, sits above the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. Outgoing Governor David Paterson last week issued an executive order that bans certain forms of fracturing until next July, when a detailed state environmental study of the process is expected to be completed. Paterson's decision came despite industry arguments that New York is scaring off drilling companies through a hostile regulatory climate that is costing the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in badly needed revenue. In a statement accompanying his executive order, Paterson noted that he is trying to accommodate the need for energy development without allowing a drilling method until it is proven to be safe.
Fracturing in some form has taken place in the United States for decades, but the technique has evolved in recent years — and, some say, become more dangerous — as companies have tried to tap into natural gas fields in hard-to-access shale formations, particularly in East Coast states such as Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. Drillers must use millions of gallons of water for each well they open in these areas — drilling horizontally as well as vertically — and the procedure also requires greater use of potentially toxic chemicals.
With states now beginning to require disclosure of those chemicals, the gas industry and environmentalists alike say far more will be learned about fracturing, though they disagree on what will be discovered.
Environmentalists believe disclosure rules will help them prove that their long-held claims about the inherent dangers of fracking are true. If testing finds an unusual chemical in a private water well, for example, it is far easier to make a connection to a nearby drilling operation that uses the same chemical.
Gas firms, despite their concerns over revealing proprietary chemical formulas to government regulators, acknowledge that there is a "fear of the unknown" when it comes to fracking, and they have come under increasing pressure to be more forthcoming about their operations. Many, but not all, now view disclosure as a way to build public trust, and to prove what numerous state and federal studies have already found: that fracking isn't responsible for water contamination.
Environmentalists "see the glass as half empty," says Mark Boling, executive vice president at Houston-based Southwestern Energy, which runs fracking operations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. "I think disclosure will prove that there is no connection."
While concern over the potential environmental effects of fracturing has led state officials to take a fresh look at the process, so too has the involvement of the federal government, which is developing an increased interest in gas drilling oversight — and, some believe, threatening to take some of that responsibility away from the states.
The U.S. EPA, which concluded in a 2004 study that fracturing is safe, has come under withering criticism for that analysis, which was seen by environmental groups as superficial. The EPA this year launched a much broader study of fracturing and has requested that several major gas-drilling firms reveal which chemicals they use in the process. Several members of Congress also have tried to pass legislation that would require disclosure, even though fracturing is currently exempt from federal oversight.
At the same time, the Department of the Interior is contemplating rules that would force drillers to disclose the chemicals being used in drilling on all federal lands. The Bureau of Land Management manages 245 million acres of surface area in the United States, including huge tracts that are leased to drillers for fracturing operations.
For many state officials, the prospect of strict federal action is a threat that is accelerating their own decision process when it comes to the examination of fracturing. "The states' desire is to keep this regulatory oversight of oil and gas," says Lawrence Bengal, director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, which voted to approve a chemical disclosure rule earlier this month. "The more the federal government talks about doing it, the more the states will move forward to adopt regulations to show that they are capable of doing this and want to do this."