Dispute Over 'Fracking' For Natural Gas Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," uses water and an array of chemicals to push apart underground rock formations, releasing natural gas for collection. Environmental groups want more regulation of the chemicals used in fracking; industry groups say more rules aren't necessary.
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Dispute Over 'Fracking' For Natural Gas

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Dispute Over 'Fracking' For Natural Gas

Dispute Over 'Fracking' For Natural Gas

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Have you ever heard of fracking? Fracking - it's short for hydraulic fracturing and it's a process that blasts water, sand and chemicals into underground rock deposits to release natural gas. And fracking has mostly been used in the western United States but new discoveries of gas-rich rock in a formation called the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York down through Pennsylvania into West Virginia, could mean a lot more fracking in a lot more places and it has created quite a controversy.

Some people are worried about what fracking can do to groundwater or what to do with the waste water that it has produced as it finds its way; are there spills on the drilling sites and streams and places like that - what does it do to the wildlife in those areas?

That's what we'll be talking about this hour - the progress and the politics of the process. And my guests are Gwen Lachelt. She is the director and founder of the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project. And she joins us from Durango, Colorado. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. GWEN LACHELT (Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be on the show.

FLATOW: Thank you. Kathleen Sgamma is the director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States in Denver. And thank you for being with us today, Kathleen.

Ms. KATHLEEN SGAMMA (Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States): Thank you for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us how fracking is done.

Ms. SGAMMA: Well, we drill a well for natural gas or oil and we drill down several thousand feet into a source rock layer containing natural gas or oil. And we may drill horizontally through that rock layer. And because of the intense pressure and because of the depths that we're drilling at, it's not easy for the natural gas to flow from that source rock into the well bore. So we do a process called Hydraulic Fracture Stimulation whereby we pump water and sand and some chemicals, a mixture of those down in through the well bore and into, down below ground into the source rock and literally try to crack that open.

And you know, we're lucky if we can get some horizontal cracks about, you know, a few hundred feet out if we're lucky, because of the intense pressure. But it's important to note that before we do that fracturing process we've cemented and cased that well bore so there's a steel pipe that runs the length of that well. There's cement around that to ensure that nothing can go from the well bore to any adjacent layers or into a aquifer. So it's a very safe process. It's been used over 60 years and over a million wells across the United States.

FLATOW: So, what happens when something does go wrong and you have these spills of thousands of gallons of the drilling fluid out onto the surface?

Ms. SGAMMA: Well, there are regulations in place. States heavily regulate every process involved with fracturing or with drilling a well. So, if there is an accident, there are measures in place to make sure that's cleaned up and to handle that. You know, we work very hard to ensure the environmental impact is very minimal.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Because we've had reports of various states of up to 8,000 gallons spilled out into the area. There have been reports of fish dying in creeks and places where the water and the chemicals have impacted the environment.

Ms. SGAMMA: Right, there was a case, Dunkard's Creek in Pennsylvania, that was blamed on natural gas and it turns out it was a coal mine discharge. So there are lots of anecdotes out there...

FLATOW: That's not what I read in the other sources. They don't agree with you obviously.

Ms. SGAMMA: Well, don't take my word for it then. The EPA under the Clinton, Bush and now the Obama administration has repeated that there have been no cases of any contamination of drinking water from hydraulic fracturing and state regulators in all the states that have oil and gas development has also made that point.

FLATOW: Well, we're not - I'm not talking about the drinking water. I'm talking about the creeks and the spillage that comes out of the site.

Ms. SGAMMA: Again, as I was saying, there are regulations in place to handle that. If an unfortunate accident does occur, the company is responsible for cleaning that up. And that was the case recently in Pennsylvania where there was a spill and it was handled accordingly.

FLATOW: Kathleen, what problems do you have with all of this?

Ms. SGAMMA: Well, I don't have a problem with it. You know, we've been developing natural gas and oil in this country for over a 150 years.

FLATOW: Yes, so you're pretty...

Ms. SGAMMA: The last 60 of which we've been using hydraulic fracturing with exemplary safety record.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Gwen Lachelt, you were concerned that we really don't know what's in some of these chemicals being pumped in there.

Ms. LACHELT: Well, that's correct. And, you know, I'm a community organizer by training with a degree in political science and I can tell you that fracturing is a big political issue. And we don't really have the science and it's turned into a game of he said/she said. And we really do need the science. We need the EPA to conduct a comprehensive study of the practice and we need to require companies to disclose the chemical constituents that they use in drilling and fracturing fluids.

FLATOW: Well, you mean we don't know what's in those chemicals - which - what the chemicals are?

Ms. LACHELT: That's correct. And industry has for years stood behind what they call trade secrets and that they don't want to disclose their recipe, if you will, for fracturing fluids. And our positions is, you know, that's fine. Coca-Cola - the Coca-Cola recipe is secret, but we know what the ingredients are. Those ingredients are listed on the side of the can. And we believe the same needs to be true for communities that face oil and gas development.

FLATOW: What kind of ingredients do we know of? Do we know about some of them?

Ms. LACHELT: Well, some of the chemicals are disclosed on Material Safety Data Sheets that we've been able to get from our local fire stations and those list everything from trade names like ZetaFlow and all sorts of propenes(ph) and gels and that benzene, toluene, ethylene glycol, that those are some of the things that are contained in fracturing fluids.

FLATOW: When you have a hazardous material spill, don't the fire department, don't they like to know what they are going to be cleaning up when they come and clean that up?

Ms. LACHELT: Exactly. They need to know what they are dealing with. So, a lot of those chemicals have to be disclosed on these MSDS, Material Safety Data Sheets, but those lists aren't complete. And we need to have full disclosure of the chemicals used in these operations so emergency responders know what they are going to be dealing with once they arrive at a site where there may be an incident.

FLATOW: Kathleen, what would be wrong with that, with the disclosure of all the chemicals?

Ms. SGAMMA: Absolutely nothing because that's the current case today. On a well site, you have all the Material Safety Data Sheets for every chemical that's contained on that site. We comply with all regulations as far as that goes. If you would like a list, everything is disclosed. Pennsylvania and New York State's environment departments both have comprehensive list of chemicals. The Ground Water Protection Council, which is a body of state regulators, also publishes a list of the chemicals used. And certainly in the event of an accident, those material data - safety data sheets are handed to responders and our on-sites exactly for that reason. And the specifics are available to regulation - to regulators who are responsible for ensuring it's environmentally sound.

FLATOW: Gwen, what's wrong with that?

Ms. LACHELT: Well, that's exactly why we need to pass a bill that's before Congress today. It's called the FRAC Act, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. And that bill would set a federal floor and it would require that fracturing be regulated and that chemicals be disclosed. And currently we do not have - every state in the country does not regulate the practice of hydraulic fracturing, and we have 32 oil and gas-producing states. So this bill would set a federal floor. States are welcome to pass additional regulations governing fracturing.

FLATOW: And Kathleen, you say that despite Pennsylvania citing Cabot Oil & Gas Company last February - I'm reading from a Forbes article - for contaminating wells used for drinking near drill sites, you're going to stick with your line that none of this gets contaminated.

Ms. SGAMMA: Right. There's been no case of contamination of drinking water from fracturing in its 60-year history, and as for disclosure and regulation, the states who have oil and gas already regulate the process very heavily. If they want to add more laws for disclosure, as New York is set to do, they can certainly do that, but you know, it's regulated heavily today.

FLATOW: Gwen, any final words?

Ms. LACHELT: Well, our position is that hydraulic fracturing is an unregulated practice, and in 2005, due to heavy industry lobbying, the Congress exempted the practice of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

And companies are not required to disclose the chemical constituents, with the exception of a new requirement in Colorado. So no one is actually monitoring for contamination, and until we have full public disclosure, we won't know what chemicals to test for when there is an incident. So because this practice is unregulated and we don't know what chemicals to test for, we haven't seen what the issues really are or potentially could be from this practice.

Ms. SGAMMA: Ira, that's just not true. We have - we are subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act. We have been since 1974, when the act was put in place. The only thing that we are not is - is Safe Drinking Water Act does not require fracking specifically to be under a particular underground injection control permit program.

But as far as handling the materials at the top of the - at the surface and the waste water, that's all handled in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

FLATOW: But there's no regulation for underground, as you're saying.

Ms. SGAMMA: Absolutely. Each...

FLATOW: So you're saying that's just for the stuff that's above the ground. There's no EPA regulations.

Ms. SGAMMA: There is not, because the states are regulating that now, and the EPA under the last three administrations has said that they don't need to regulate it and that it is a safe practice.

FLATOW: That might change with this bill coming up? Who knows. We'll see. Thank you both for taking time to be with us. Gwen Lachelt is the director and founder of the Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project. She was in Durango, Colorado. And Kathleen Sgamma is the director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. She was in Denver. Thank you all, and have a good weekend too.

We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with one of my favorite guys. Dr. Eric Kandel is here. He's going to talk about, well, he just turned 80. Happy birthday. And also, there's a new film out. He stars in his own documentary film, which is an interesting take. Maybe he's going into the movie business. We'll talk about it. You know, he's won the Nobel Prize, and so there's a lot to talk about, 1-800-989-8255. Eric Kandel up after the break. Stay with us.

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