Can hydrofracking—using fluids to break open underground rock formations and recover trapped natural gas—be done safely? This is a question I am often asked by friends who read stories linking shale gas production to incidents of water pollution. While fracking is frequently blamed for contaminating groundwater, studies indicate that pollution may actually stem from more basic issues like faulty well construction and design or improper wastewater disposal.
No matter the cause of the pollution, people should not be forced to trade their children’s health or quality of life for cheap energy. Serious questions about the environmental and public-health impact of natural-gas drilling need to be addressed (see “Drilling for Shale Gas.”)
While the burden of proof is on industry and regulators to show that shale gas development can be done without polluting the water and air or damaging our climate, one needs to be clear-eyed on the issue. Like any industrial activity, natural-gas development has risks, which can be reduced in a variety of ways. But with thousands of gas producers and service companies supporting them, there is no way the good intentions of a few in industry are going to win the day without help. There is no substitute for strong regulation and vigilant enforcement.
The Environmental Defense Fund is spearheading a national campaign to make sure that public health and the environment are not compromised by the natural-gas industry. Our objectives are simple. The rules on well construction, wastewater management, and air emissions must be reformed. Full disclosure of the fracking fluids deployed at wells must be required, because communities have a right to know what chemicals are used in their midst. Claims that production activities are safe mean nothing unless data on air emissions and water quality are regularly collected and publicly shared. Lastly, emissions of methane, the main ingredient in natural gas and a powerful greenhouse gas, should be limited to 1 percent or less of the total extracted at a well. Even small leaks can undo much of the environmental benefit of substituting natural gas for coal or oil, limiting the positive role that natural gas can play in a low-carbon future. Achieving these objectives will not be easy, but it is essential. The jury is still out on whether gas production can and will be done safely. The public will judge industry and regulators harshly if they fail to get this right.