Is hydraulic fracturing – a common, but controversial, technique used to extract oil and gas from shale rock – bad for the environment?
If you're shrugging your shoulders, you're not alone. Studies on the potential impacts of fracking are released on what seems like a daily basis, some indicting the practice for potential groundwater contamination, and others hailing it as a godsend to relieve the nation of its energy woes.
But we don't really know what the impact of hydraulic fracturing has on the environment, according to a new paper, published in Science magazine Thursday, that examines the potential effects of fracking on groundwater in Pennsylvania's Marcellus region. Because of the massive ramp up in production thanks to the discovery of massive deposits of oil and gas in shale formations across the country, the infrastructure and technology to track the effects of things like fracking haven't kept pace. That's why we don't exactly know the true impact of fracking.
U.S. News talked to Radisav Vidic, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a co-author of the paper, "Impact of Shale Gas Development on Regional Water Quality." Here are excerpts:
Let's start off with the million-dollar question: Does fracking pollute ground water?
There's never enough information really, but at this point based on the data now available, we can conclude that there is no irrefutable evidence for sustained environmental impact on water quality in Pennsylvania from this industry.
So should we go ahead with more fracking?
Well, we also noticed that the density of monitoring sites in Pennsylvania is much lower than the density of wells, which raises the question of our ability to actually pick up [evidence of contamination] with our current monitoring network. If somebody spills millions of gallons [of fracking wastewater], by the time you get down to where you have a gauge, you may not have picked it up at all.
So the number of water quality monitoring sites can't handle the number of operational wells?
Yes. Another problem is that people have data, the industry has data, some federal agencies have data but they're just not sharing the data because of privacy issues or potential litigation, so we're doing the best we can with what we have available.
A recent EPA study found no evidence of water contamination as a result of fracking. Do your findings support that?
Correct. We could certainly use more data but with the data we have access to now, this is the conclusion that we can draw. But that doesn't mean we didn't miss anything ... because we don't have advanced data collection networks.