Monday, November 11, 2013

What's not gray about hydraulic fracturing?

A few months ago, I began working in a microbiology lab that is working towards understanding the ecology of microbes that live in drinking water.
One of the projects I am leading aims to examine the microbiology of well water along the front range of CO (my home!). This area is particularly interesting to me and many others because natural gas extraction activities have exploded here over the past few years. The natural gas is often extracted using hydraulic fracturing techniques, which basically shoots large volumes of water, chemicals, and particles deep into drilled wells at extremely high pressures in order to create fissures in the rocks and to tease out the natural gas hidden within them. It's an amazing engineering feat by any standard and one which is creating an eruption in natural gas production nationwide.

However, hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) can create numerous environmental and human health problems ranging from minor nuisances (noise pollution) to major impacts, such as drinking water contamination.

We've all come to accept that humanity's thirst for energy comes at a financial and environmental cost, and historically we have been willing to accept those costs, or to at least make informed decisions about our energy use. However, fracking has become highly polarizing in the media: supporters assert that the technique poses no risk to human health or the environment, while opponents insist that any fracking at all poses serious risks. Thus, an all-or-nothing environment has developed that stifles actual progress and downplays scientific facts*.

My goal with this post is to compile a list of peer-reviewed, scientific publications that test the effects of fracking activities on human health and the environment. The reason is simple: I don't believe that I know enough about the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing to make an informed decision about how and where it should be allowed and how it should be regulated. Considering that regulation is minimal at this point in time, we've got a lot of work to do. As with many difficult topics, my opinion about fracking becomes more blurred the more I learn. I hope that, by revealing more than just soundbites I can convince you to move toward the grey areas, where compromises live.

If anyone happens to stumble across this list and has suggestions for additional articles, I'd be happy to hear from you.

*As we now know them.

Here is the first set of articles related to Hydraulic Fracturing (added Feb 3, 2014):

Boudet H., Clarke C., Bugden D., Maibach E., Roser-Renouf C. & Leiserowitz A. (2014) “Fracking” controversy and communication: Using national survey data to understand public perceptions of hydraulic fracturing. Energy Policy 65, 57–67.

Boxall P.C., Chan W.H. & McMillan M.L. (2005) The Impact of Oil and Natural Gas Facilities on Rural Residential Property Values: A Spatial Hedonic Analysis. Elsevier B.V.

Brantley S.L., Yoxtheimer D., Arjmand S., Grieve P., Vidic R., Pollak J., et al. (2014) Water Resource Impacts during Unconventional Shale Gas Development: the Pennsylvania Experience. International Journal of Coal Geology.
Cluff, M.A., A. Hartsock, J. D. MacRae, K. Carter, & P. J. Mouser (2014) Temporal Changes in Microbial Ecology and Geochemistry in Produced Water from Hydraulically Fractured Marcellus Shale Gas Wells. Environmental Science & Technology 48: 6508–6517. 

Darrah, T.H., A. Vengosh, R.B. Jackson, N.R. Warner, & R.J. Poreda (2014) Noble gases identify the mechanisms of fugitive gas contamination in drinking water wells overlying the Marcellus and Barnett shales. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111:39 14076-14081.
D J. (2012) Shale gas in South Africa: Fracking the Karoo. The Economist.
Ecology and Environment, Inc. (2011) Economic assessment report for the supplemental generic environmental impact statement on New York State’s oil, gas, and solution mining regulatory program. Ecology and Environment, Inc., Lancaster, NY.

Eltschlager K.K., Hawkins K.K., Ehler W.C. & Baldassare F. (2001) Technical measures for the investigation and mitigation of fugitive methane hazards in areas of coal mining. Appalachian Regional Coordinating Center.

Gunningham N. (2014) A shale gas revolution for China? Climate Policy 14, 302–320.

Hamilton S.K., Golding S.D., Baublys K.A. & Esterle J.S. (2014) Stable isotopic and molecular composition of desorbed coal seam gases from the Walloon Subgroup, eastern Surat Basin, Australia. International Journal of Coal Geology 122, 21–36.

Heilweil V.M., Stolp B.J., Kimball B.A., Susong D.D., Marston T.M. & Gardner P.M. (2013) A Stream-Based Methane Monitoring Approach for Evaluating Groundwater Impacts Associated with Unconventional Gas Development. Groundwater.

Howarth R.W., Ingraffea A. & Engelder T. (2011a) Natural gas: Should fracking stop? Nature 477, 271–275.

Howarth R.W., Santoro R. & Ingraffea A. (2011b) Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic Change 106, 679–690.

Hultman N., Rebois D., Scholten M. & Ramig C. (2011) The greenhouse impact of unconventional gas for electricity generation. Environmental Research Letters 6, 044008.

Integra Realty Resources (2011) Flower Mound Well Site Impact Study. Integra Realty Resources, Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX.

IPCC (2007) The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK.

Jackson R.B., Vengosh A., Darrah T.H., Warner N.R., Down A., Poreda R.J., et al. (2013) Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 11250–11255.

Katzenstein A.S., Doezema L.A., Simpson I.J., Blake D.R. & Rowland F.S. (2003) Extensive regional atmospheric hydrocarbon pollution in the southwestern United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, 11975–11979.

King J.C., Bryan J.L. & Clark M. (2012) Factual causation: The missing link in hydraulic fracture-groundwater contamination litigation. Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum 22, 341–360.

Li H. & Carlson K.H. (2014) Distribution and origin of groundwater methane in the Wattenberg oil and gas field of Northern Colorado. Environmental science & technology.

Molofsky L.J., Connor J.A., Wylie A.S., Wagner T. & Farhat S.K. (2013) Evaluation of Methane Sources in Groundwater in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Groundwater.

Moniz E.J., Jacoby H.D., Meggs A.J.M., Armtrong R.C., Cohn D.R., Connors S.R., et al. (2011) The future of natural gas - an interdisciplinary study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Muehlenbachs L., Spiller E. & Timmins C. (2014) The Housing Market Impacts of Shale Gas Development. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Myers T. (2012) Potential contaminant pathways from hydraulically fractured shale to aquifers. Ground Water 50, 872–882.

Osborn S.G., Vengosh A., Warner N.R. & Jackson R.B. (2011) Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 8172–8176.

Paltsev S., Jacoby H.D., Reilly J.M., Ejaz Q.J., Morris J., O’Sullivan F., et al. (2011) The future of US natural gas production, use, and trade. Energy Policy 39, 5309–5321.

Pétron G., Frost G., Miller B.R., Hirsch A.I., Montzka S.A., Karion A., et al. (2012) Hydrocarbon emissions characterization in the Colorado Front Range: A pilot study. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 117, 1–19.

BBC Research and Consulting B. (2001) Measuring the Impact of Coalbed Methane Wells on Property Values. BBC Research and Consulting, Denver, CO.

Soeder D.J., Sharma S., Pekney N., Hopkinson L., Dilmore R., Kutchko B., et al. (2014) An approach for assessing engineering risk from shale gas wells in the United States. International Journal of Coal Geology.

Strait R., Roe S., Bailie A., Lindquist H. & Jamison A. (2007) Colorado greenhouse gas inventory and reference case projections 1990–2020. CDPHE, Denver, CO.

Talma A.S. & Esterhuyse C. (2013) Natural Methane in the Karoo: Its Occurrence and Isotope Clues to its Origin. In: Groundwater conference, Durban. .

US EPA Hydraulic Fracturing.
US GAO (2012) Unconventional oil and gas development: Key environmental and public health requirements. U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Vengosh A., Warner N., Jackson R. & Darrah T. (2013) The Effects of Shale Gas Exploration and Hydraulic Fracturing on the Quality of Water Resources in the United States. Procedia Earth and Planetary Science 7, 863–866.

Vidic R.D., Brantley S.L., Vandenbossche J.M., Yoxtheimer D. & Abad J.D. (2013) Impact of shale gas development on regional water quality. Science 340, 826–834.

Wang Q., Chen X., Jha A.N. & Rogers H. (2014) Natural gas from shale formation–The evolution, evidences and challenges of shale gas revolution in United States. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 30, 1–28.

White J.S. & Mathes M.V. (2006) Dissolved gas concentrations in ground water in West Virginia. U.S. Geological Survey.

Willow A.J., Zak R., Vilaplana D. & Sheeley D. (2014) The contested landscape of unconventional energy development: a report from Ohio’s shale gas country. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1–9.

Yang C. China drills Into shale gas, targeting huge reserves amid challenges. National Geographic.
Zoback M., Kitasei S. & Copithorne B. (2010) Addressing the environmental risks from shale gas development.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. FYI: I originally added the references in the comments section, but it makes more sense to have them in the actual post, so the comment was removed.