Mining is controversial for many reasons, not least because of environmental concerns. Traditional mining methods such as open-cut coal mining have the potential to affect not only the environment around the site, but also to contribute to global warming. Fracking was touted as a cleaner solution to an ever-increasing demand on our natural resources, and effectively created a huge new cache of power sources at our disposal.
But many are left wondering—what are the effects of fracking on water quality? It’s fairly safe to say the research is inconclusive. You can find studies to support both sides of the argument. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
What is fracking?
According to APPEA, fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is a process by which oil and gas flows to wells are increased by pumping fluid to the area, and creating fractures or ‘cracks’ which release the materials. The use of sand and some chemicals are also integral to the fracking process. APPEA explains:
“The injected fluid is typically more than 99% water and sand plus a very small amount of chemicals. The chemicals are needed to reduce friction, remove bacteria, dissolve some minerals and enhance the fluid’s ability to transport sand. Chemicals used in Australian fracking operations include sodium hypochlorite and hydrochloric acid (both used in swimming pools), cellulose (used to make paper), acetic acid (the active part of vinegar) and small amounts of disinfectants.”
The organisation claims that fracking is a highly-regulated industry within Australia, and that the process has been used safely for over 65 years, worldwide.
PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)
This peer-reviewed study, released by PNAS in 2011, found dangerously high levels of methane in drinking water surrounding a number of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) sites in Pennsylvania and Texas. The concentration of methane increased in direct correlation to proximity to the sites. While no evidence of increased levels of fracking fluids or deep saline brines was found, the high concentrations of methane did pose an explosion/flammability risk. The results suggested that there may have been faults within the wells created for the extraction of methane, or perhaps natural or man-made fractures within the surrounds of the extraction area. The writers of the study concluded that greater regulation was necessary, in order to improve the public safety perceptions of the shale gas extraction processes.
According to the industry website, water quality surrounding mine sites is monitored before, during and after mining activities to ensure the safety of mining operations. The results of these tests are used to develop water management strategies to ensure the ongoing protection of water sources, and to implement updated care plans where necessary. If water is determined to be contaminated, there are a number of treatment options available, which can negate the effects of the contamination.
APPEA goes as far as to say,
“Academic and government studies in the US, the UK and New Zealand have shown that fracking is safe. Given the nature and dilution of chemicals used in Australian operations, fracking does not impair water quality. Indeed, even in the US where stronger chemicals have been used, studies have repeatedly shown fracking has not affected water quality.”
Water treatment and environmental rehabilitation are compulsory components to mine operations in Australia, and throughout most the world. The Australian government aims to keep miners accountable with hefty rehabilitation fees, with a view to protect and restore the areas affected by mining endeavours. However, issues arise when water contamination is less than conspicuous. Seepage of chemicals and contaminants into aquifers, for example, are less easy to detect and test than water accumulating within an open-pit mine. Leaks within fracking wells can take months or even years to uncover.
The PNAS study suggested however, that weak wells were most likely accountable for leaks into aquifers within the Pennsylvania and Texas shale gas mining area, rather than the fracking process itself. Advances in well-building and concrete technologies are said to lead to the reduction of this kind of leak.
With over 2 million fracking operations having been conduction around the world in the last 65 years, the process is no doubt a valuable transition between finite resources such as coal, and the inevitable rise of renewable energies. Producing only half the CO2 emissions of brown coal, shale and coal seam gas are clearly cleaner options, however the jury is still out on the issue of water quality. As studies continue, proponents and challengers alike sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation.