Well, well, well, now that’s a deep subject…especially if you are talking about the use of hydraulic fracturing to create natural gas wells.

There’s a lot of frack and forth in the debate about drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing. Some Americans shake in fear of earthquakes and polluted ground water potentially caused by hydrolic fracturing, or fracking. Others believe natural gas can provide a less-polluting alternative to other fossil fuels like oil and coal.

Geologists on both sides of the fracking rift say the other side has feet of clay and lacks rock hard data. Mountains of controversy uplift as the tectonic forces of industry, environmentalism, science and social justice collide.

ANALYSIS: Crude Words Exchanged Over Oil Sands

The bed rock of the problem is that since fracking is relatively new, there aren’t decades of studies on its long-term effects. In an attempt to remedy that problem, Buffalo University recent led a review of environmental violations resulting from fracking operations in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2010. The study suggested that fracking was causing less environmental damage on a per well basis as use of fracking expanded.

The study found a decrease in the percentage of the number of violations issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in relation to the number of wells. The number of environmental violations per well dropped from 58.2 percent in 2008 to 30.5 percent in 2010.

“This study presents a compelling case that state oversight of oil and gas regulation has been effective,” lead author Timothy Considine said in a press release. “While prior research has anecdotally reviewed state regulations, now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates, without ambiguity, that state regulation coupled with improvements in industry practices results in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year.”

One thing to note is that the degree of enforcement of environmental laws could affect the results of a study like that done by Considine. If the protection agency became more lax in their enforcement of legislation, it would look like the number of violations per well was dropping.

Over the years studied, 25 major environmental disasters occurred. One incident contaminated the water wells of 19 families with methane and resulted in more than $500,000 in fines for the well’s operator, Cabot Oil and Gas.

ANALYSIS: Groundwater Fouled by Fracking

While methane tainted water is a serious problem, the Considine study looked only at contamination events that have already occurred and are accounted for in PA DEP reporting. The study was unable to consider some of the less obvious and more controversial problems some associate with fracking, such as the possible correlation of earthquakes to fracking. In another study, computer simulation suggested the rock beneath Pennsylvania could become more porous after hydraulic fracturing which would allow fluids used in the procedure to contaminate water supplies more rapidly.

ANALYSIS: Man-Made Earthquakes A Fracking Big Deal?

The potential damage to people’s lives, livelihood and homelands is unlikely to stop fracking, if the history of fossil fuel mining and drilling is any indication. From the missing mountains of Appalachia to the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the Ecuadorian Amazon and Niger Delta, the lure of profits have frequently trumped human rights.


Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marcellus Shale Formation for natural gas in eastern Moreland Township, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, USA (Ruhrfisch, Wikimedia Commons)