The Crux Of Determining Fracking's Safety
For people who live in close proximity to the current oil and gas boom, are there health risks?
It’s a question people are asking from Colorado to Texas and from Pennsylvania to North Dakota, as more and more communities find themselves in the midst of unprecedented energy development.
A lot of concern around the safety of oil and natural gas exploration – along with the extraction technique commonly known as fracking – centers on the frac fluid: the stuff well operators inject into the ground to shake loose the oil and gas.
Anti-fracking activists, sometimes in song, will tell you about the hundreds of scary-sounding chemicals in frac fluid.
Both sides are right. But, according to scientists, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Lisa McKenzie, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health, said, “That other 0.5% is important from a health perspective.”
“Chemicals can have very negative effects in extremely small quantities,” McKenzie said.
While the long list of chemicals contained in most frac fluids may be intimidating, “the fact that we’ve got 1,000 shouldn’t alarm people,” said Joe Ryan, a professor in engineering at the University of Colorado studying how drilling affects groundwater.
To figure out what chemicals we need to worry about, Ryan looked at three main factors: toxicity, mobility, and persistence. That means how dangerous those chemicals are to humans, how likely they are to move through the soil and water, and how long they stay in the environment before they degrade.
“We take a list of 1000 and get down to a list of a couple dozen,” Ryan said. “We should be watching for these chemicals, because they could actually show up somewhere.”
Ryan is the lead researcher on a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how natural gas development affects communities from all angles: ecology, health, economics, even sociology. In addition to figuring out what aspects of drilling might harm people, the collaboration - called Air Water Gas - also looks at the benefits of the natural gas industry.
They are developing a research-driven decision matrix people can use to decide if the drilling industry is something they want in their community, and if so, how to regulate it. This project grew out of a public demand for unbiased, trustworthy information about drilling.
A few years ago, the University of Colorado started getting calls from people asking for information about fracking: They wanted to know if they should be worried about their drinking water and they didn't know where to turn to find answers.
So the university forwarded those calls to Mark Williams, a hydrologist. To meet the demand for information, Williams developed a guide for people living near oil and gas development to learn how to test their well-water and get baseline information about their water quality.
Williams referenced the videos of people lighting their tap water on fire, and said, “a lot of that is real, and what they’re lighting on fire is methane.”
Having methane in your water, while scary and gross, isn’t actually a health hazard.
“There are no human health effects for methane,” said Williams. “Unless of course, you blow up your house, which is not a good thing.”
Groundwater contamination is very rare, and for it to happen, generally something has to go wrong in the drilling process [.pdf].
Air pollution is another concern that hasn’t caught public attention the way flaming tap water has.
John Adgate, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health, said water contamination is of less concern than "the traffic and the noise and air pollution that are around these sites.”
Trucks and construction equipment - in addition to causing traffic accidents - bring diesel exhaust and dust to communities. Extracting and transporting oil and gas can release pollutants like benzene and ozone. Although scientists - including those on Ryan’s team - are still learning how these pollutants move through the atmosphere and interact with the environment, we know they can be dangerous to humans.
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has issued a hazard alert to oil and gas workers [.pdf] about dust inhalation, and recently announced results of a study that showed cancer-causing chemical benzene is present in worker’s urine at unsafe levels.
Because oil and gas drilling is happening in residential areas, people who don’t work at well sites may need to worry about these air pollutants, too.
When it comes to oil and gas drilling, the track record of using scientific research to make policies and regulations hasn’t been great.
For example, how far do oil and gas wells need to be from homes and schools? This is called set-back distance. In Colorado, when new rules were decided [.pdf] in 2013 increasing the distance to 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, Ryan said, “it was freely admitted that no scientific information went into the current choice.”
That’s what the Air Water Gas project aims to change.
“From a health perspective, there’s very little evidence of the distance wells should be located from homes,” said Lisa McKenzie, she also is part of Ryan’s research team and looks at health effects - like the rate of birth defects in babies born to mothers living near wells - that can help fill in that knowledge gap.
No industry - including oil and gas - will ever be completely free from risk. But understanding those risks is the only way we’ll be able to evaluate them.
“There are risks that we accept and risks that are imposed upon us,” said Ryan. For many communities, the fracking boom has been a risk imposed. “And we get a lot more concerned about the risks imposed upon us than the ones we accept.”
With more science, communities can learn what they should - and shouldn’t - accept.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.