Is our drinking water in danger from fracking?

Is our drinking water in danger from fracking?

What is fracking?

Imagine if the clean tap water you’ve known all your life became contaminated and undrinkable. What could you do? What could have caused it? You’ve probably heard of the term fracking, used by the oil industry to tease out oil and natural gas from the layers of rock beneath our feet. The process involves injecting a slurry of water, various chemicals to better facilitate extraction, and proppants, which are various sizes of ceramic beads used to keep a freshly fractured seam open in order to create a path for the oil or gas to travel through. The slurry is injected into horizontal wells that permeate the target seam at high pressure, which fractures the rock strata and liberates the natural resources. Fracking wells are an effective method to extract previously unobtainable reserves of oil and natural gas within the United States. However, does the injection of drilling chemicals into the ground compromise our aquifers used for drinking water?

What occurs during a fracking well operation

Is fracking safe?

The oil industry assures us that fracking is safe, and does not pose a threat to drinking water. When fracking is performed, it is usually done in deep wells that are below layers of impermeable rock, of which would stop any spreading of the fracking slurry to aquifers above. It would seem that as long as wells are always deep and not shallow, the risk of cross-contamination is minimized.

Schematic of a typical fracking well
House near Pavillion Oil Field

A small town that may change an industry

Near the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming, oil and gas wells dot the surrounding countryside. Some of the wells where fracking is taking place are shallow wells, shallow enough to be at the same depth as groundwater wells. In 2008, the EPA was brought in to investigate objectionable taste and odor complaints in resident’s drinking water. Chemicals not normally present such as benzene and diesel were detected in water samples, yet the EPA would not definitively conclude that the presence of these chemicals was a direct result of fracking in the area. The investigation remains open however, with two active monitoring wells maintained by the EPA. The State of Wyoming is keeping tabs on the situation, as is Encana, the Canadian energy company that runs the fracking operations. A Stanford study suggests that shallow fracking in Pavillion has negatively impacted groundwater supplies. As seen below, there are two acid stimulation wells and one hydraulic fracturing well at the same depth as domestic water wells in the Pavillion area.

Depth of fracking wells near Pavillion, Wyoming

The investigation at Pavillion may have a large impact on fracking depending on what is learned with the relationship of shallow fracking operations and groundwater supplies. Does fracking have the potential to contaminate groundwater? The answer is yes. As it is saturated with oil wells in the area, Pavillion will serve as a test subject to glean more information about the unknown effects that fracking has in the long run. Are we willing to trade clean drinking water, a necessity for life, just to get at the remaining domestic sources of fossil fuel?

Location of oil wells near Pavillion, Wyoming

The EPA discovered several chemical compounds in both of their underground monitoring wells at Pavillion, Wyoming., Their test results are posted below.

Detected levels of organic chemicals in EPA monitoring wells