Environmental Health

Hydraulic Fracturing and Laboratories: What Does it Mean for You?

This week is National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week and National Environmental Laboratory Professionals Week.  APHL is honoring the many individuals working public health and environmental laboratories around the world.  Stay tuned for blog posts this week featuring the work of many of those unsung heroes working to protect the public’s health.

By Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

With the increasing interest in our nation’s energy supply, natural gas mining is getting more attention. Advances in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” now make it possible to reach and extract previously inaccessible stores of natural gas. The Energy Information Administration estimates there are 750 trillion cubic feet of natural gas locked in shale deposits in the lower 48 states. Fracking may allow recovery of up to 86% of that total; enough to meet the country’s demand for the next 100 years.

Drilling a Marcellus Shale well in the State Game Lands in Roulette, Pennsylvania

Originally developed in 1947, but becoming more widespread, fracking is a method of gas extraction that drills horizontal wells into gas-containing shale formations and injects millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals to create pressure pockets that fractures the shale. When the shale fractures, it releases the natural gas contained within the rock, which is then recovered through the well. Typically, fracturing fluid is 98% water and sand and 2% chemicals, although specific mixtures vary by location and operation. With up to five million gallons of fluid needed to fracture a well, 100,000 gallons can be chemicals.

Fracking fluid can contain any number of chemicals and solutions to aid in the fracturing process. Currently, 11 states require – or are proposing – registration of the chemicals in fracturing fluids used at individual wells. However, because formulas and compounds can be protected as trade secrets, registrations sometimes only include chemical families or CAS numbers, not the specific material or amount present in the fluid.  In addition to the chemicals used in the process, other liquid products return up through the well during drilling and fracturing, including brine, metals, and hydrocarbons. This “produced water” must be treated before recycling or disposal. Consequently, fracking is not without potential effects on human health and the environment, with groundwater contamination being the primary concern.

Because the wells necessarily pass through aquifers to reach the deeper shale deposits, opinions differ on whether there are impacts to groundwater resources. EPA is studying fracking and groundwater resources, but the results are years away. There are reports of groundwater contamination near mining operations, but connecting the drilling directly to the contamination is difficult. In the meantime, some say keep drilling, while others say stop until we better understand the issues. In addition to groundwater contamination, there are other potential impacts, including air and dust emissions from the drilling equipment, produced water overflows from surface tanks and storage ponds, and well casing leaks.

Environmental and public health laboratories already find themselves involved with the issue. As fracking becomes more widespread, laboratories will increasingly be asked to test groundwater, surface water, soil and air samples in the areas around drilling sites. Moreover, laboratories may not be able to avoid the developing political debate. In Pennsylvania, for example, doctors may ask to see fracking fluid recipes, subject to confidentiality agreements, but are not allowed to share the specifics with patients. Is this a gag order on doctors or trade secret protections? Where will laboratories find themselves in the discussion?

Fracking will continue to dominate the energy and environmental debate. Until the science catches up with the technology, we cannot know the true costs and benefits.


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