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Hydraulic fracturing poses risks to us, ecosystems

With the release of the controversial documentary "Gasland" and the continuing debate in Congress over the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, the issue of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from deep shale deposits has become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Hydraulic fracturing mining is the process of injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into an underground well to facilitate the extraction of natural gas. For more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency regulated hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The act was passed by Congress to protect the nation's drinking water from industrial contamination. It includes drinking water sources, such as rivers, lakes, springs, and reservoirs.

In 2005, Dick Cheney, then vice president of the United States and a former CEO of Halliburton Co. (a large stakeholder in natural gas drilling), helped enact the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Included in this bill was an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act that exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation. Termed the "Halliburton Loophole" by opponents of deregulation, the amendment allowed the use of fluids and extraction agents with little oversight.

Since being enacted, the loophole has received attention from many organizations around the nation. Increased awareness can be attributed to the numerous testimonies pointing to the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing and the relatively recent discovery of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a formation of sedimentary rock that extends from the western part of New York to West Virginia.

While the process of hydraulic fracturing previously took place in the south-central United States, it is now an issue for people living on or around the Marcellus Shale. As drilling keeps expanding toward new grounds, organizations are starting to convene, arguing hydraulic fracturing has extended beyond state borders and therefore requires action at the federal level.

The FRAC Act was proposed in June to address the need for federal regulation. There are two stand-alone bills in the House and the Senate, presented by Reps. Diana DeGette, Maurice Hinchey and Jared Polis and Sens. Robert Casey and Charles Schumer. Both bills ask to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act and give the EPA authority over hydraulic fracturing. The bills also require the energy industry to disclose the chemicals it uses in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Energy in Depth, a group promoting gas drilling, claims the FRAC Act could result in the closure of half of the United States' oil wells and one third of its gas wells being closed. Some opponents of hydraulic fracturing have disputed the accuracy of these claims.

The FRAC Act addresses multinational corporations that produce equipment and provide services to smaller businesses that actually conduct the extraction of natural gas. Local extraction companies make up a large majority of the natural gas industry. However they buy their tools and injection chemicals from big corporations, such as Halliburton Co. and Schlumberger LTD that are openly opposed to the FRAC Act. The corporations consider the components of their hydraulic fracturing fluid to be a trade secret.

A previous EPA study in 2004 declared that hydraulic fracturing posed "little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water," but some considered this study to be emotionally and politically biased. To help resolve the many discrepancies between the gas industry and activists, the EPA announced on Feb. 24 it would begin a $1.9 million study of the hydraulic fracturing process. On July 22, the EPA held a public meeting in Pennsylvania to discuss the direction of research. The results of this study should be available by late 2012.

Disagreements about hydraulic fracturing are partly because of a lack of reliable information regarding effects, both to ecosystems and to people. New York is holding a moratorium on drilling permits for the Marcellus Shale region until studies and regulations are in place.

We encourage these actions:

  1. Contact your local representative ( to ask for more comprehensive studies.
  2. Collaborate with local organizations to raise awareness.
  3. Call the Department of Environmental Conservation (1-518-402-8013) for information and to voice your concerns about this issue.


Russel Auwae, Joel Hogle, David Markman, and Ana Elisa Perez are undergraduate students in the Cary Institute's Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program.

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