Learn more about the threat drilling for methane gas poses to fresh water.
Welcome to the water initiative of the Center for Media and Democracy, which includes a special focus on the threats to our rivers, watersheds, and fresh water supplies from drilling for shale oil and gas using the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" technique, without adequate protections, in the Marcellus Shale region of the Northeastern U.S. and other states across the country.
What is hydraulic fracturing or "fracking"?
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a process used to extract deposits of gas and oil from shale. After a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected under high pressures, which fractures the shale and allows for the release of the oil and gas. This is a new technique that allows access to shale deposits that were previously inaccessible through conventional drilling. This practice has become highly controversial over the past few years because of mounting evidence that it contaminates local water supplies and poses risks to the health of local residents and the environment.
Why Worry about Fracking
Advancements in technology over the past few decade have made drilling horizontal wells for "natural" gas and oil more economically efficient. These new techniques allow greater access to untapped shale than was available with a conventional vertical well, and can be "fracked" numerous times. A combination of this new technology, as well as vast deposits of "natural" gas in the U.S., has brought the practice of fracking to 31 states. There were more than 493,000 active "natural" gas wells in the U.S. in 2009, which is almost double the number in 1990. Around 90 percent of these have used fracking.
Map of Marcellus Shale Region
The Marcellus Shale
is a mass of shale deposits in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and neighboring states. As one of the largest "natural" gas fields in North America, it is one of the top targets of the gas industry. Energy companies have honed in on the region, as well as in other major shale deposits throughout the country, including the Haynesville Shale, Fayetteville Shale, Eagle Ford Shale and Barnett Shale.
Fracking involves injecting huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas and oil. In December 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency linked fracking to groundwater contamination for the first time in Wyoming. The agency is currently undergoing a multiyear national study of the effects the process has on water supplies.
Fracking is not regulated by federal statutes governing water safety, because industry lobbyists obtained an exemption from this law, known as the "Halliburton loophole." Although no complete list of the chemicals used by each drilling company exists, information obtained from environmental clean-up sites demonstrates toxic substances.
An April 2011 report filed with the U.S. House of Representatives, showed that 29 chemicals used in some 650 different fracking products are carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, and/or hazardous air pollutants.
An investigation by the New York Times in February 2011, based off of thousands of internal EPA documents "reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law."
In a March 2012 Rolling Stones piece, the journalists writes: "An even larger threat is the flowback waste that is pumped out after a well is fracked. It's a salty brine, mildly radioactive, and laced not just with toxic chemicals but with natural hydrocarbons and heavy metals like barium and benzene, which are known carcinogens even in minute quantities."
According to a piece published in ProPublica, three company spokespeople and a regulatory official said that as much as 85% of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is regularly left after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale. According to the article, this means that "for each modern gas well drilled in the Marcellus and places like it, more than 3 million gallons of chemically tainted wastewater could be left in the ground forever. Drilling companies say that chemicals make up less than 1 percent of that fluid. But by volume, those chemicals alone still amount to 34,000 gallons in a typical well."
Impact of fracking on wildlife have been documented in a 900 page Environmental Impact Statement filed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in September 2011.
Environmental reporter and activist Iris Marie Bloom has been interviewing residents in Pennsylvania to document how fracking has impacted them. In February 2012, she reports on Janet McIntyre's experience who lives in an area where she is surrounded by 30 gas wells: "Janet described her own water as foaming out of the tap on two occasions, which she refers to as “attacks” because it felt their water was under attack by the gas drilling company. She said it was purple. Other residents have reported their water turning orange, red, and brown."
"Gasland": the New Silent Spring
Gasland is a 2010 movie directed by American filmmaker and environmental activist Josh Fox. The film exposes the dangers of drilling for shale oil and gas in the United States and features communities that have been impacted.
Fox began working on the film after he received a letter from a "natural" gas company offering to lease his family's property in northeast Pennsylvania. Fox documented communities across the country where drilling had already commenced. He found individuals who were able to ignite the head of their faucets on fire from the chemicals seeping through the pipes. He also found individuals suffering from health issues which they attributed to a contaminated well. Fox discovered residents who reported having obtained a court injunction or settlement from gas companies to replace or purify water supplies.
Fox won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming in 2011 for the film, and it was a nominee for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards the same year. Fox's production company, "The International WOW Company," describes the movie as an effort to document the impacts as "the largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. What is uncovered is truly shocking--water that can be lit on fire right out of the sink, chronically ill residents of drilling areas from disparate locations in the US all with the same mysterious symptoms, huge pools of toxic waste that kill cattle and vegetation well blowouts and huge gas explosions consistently covered up by state and federal regulatory agencies."
Robert Koehler of Variety referred to the film as “one of the most effective and expressive environmental films of recent years… "Gasland" may become to the dangers of natural gas drilling what Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was to DDT.” Bloomberg News critic Dave Shiflett wrote that Fox "may go down in history as the Paul Revere of fracking."
Immediately upon the film's release, Energy In Depth issued a paper claiming to "debunk" the film's documentary evidence. Kevin Grandia, former editor of DeSmogBlog, in an article written on the Huffington Post titled "Who are the spin doctors behind the attack on Gasland?," stated "[I]t looks like Gasland is starting to get under the skin of the oil and gas industry. I guess the dinosaurs in the dirty fuel lobby don't like videos of people who can light their tap water on fire after their wells are contaminated with methane gas."
Energy in Depth (EID) is a pro-oil-and-gas drilling industry front group formed by the American Petroleum Institute, the Petroleum Association of America and dozens of additional industry organizations for the purpose of denouncing the FRAC Act proposed by Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette to regulate underground fracking fluids. They have crafted an entire campaign to delegitimize Fox's film, coining itself "Debunking Gasland." Many Facebook and Google users have even reported "Debunking Gasland" ads popping up on those respective websites. Josh Fox has responded to these claims in a piece titled "Affirming Gasland." The 41-page report was co-written with Weston Wilson of the Environmental Protection Agency, Professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, and Barbara Arrindell of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, among others. The document addresses industry smear campaign talking points. seen here.
The film has played an instrumental role in fueling activism against fracking, which has even been acknowledged by the gas industry. In September 2011, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association Tisha Conoly-Schuller said she hates to credit the film, but notes that Gasland has played a key role growing opposition to the practice: "These nuts make up 90 percent of our population so we can't call them nuts any more." She then advised the industry to make fracking "hipper" to appeal to young people and reframe the debate in terms of jobs and the economy.
Fox is currently filming a follow-up to Gasland. Fox told the Center for Media and Democracy that this film will focus on the "pollution in our government," rather than the pollution in our ground. "The gas industry has been successful in purchasing our government and has bought its way into conversations on energy, drowning out voices of citizens," he said. "It's shameful and its criminal."
For his latest project, Fox looked at the hazards of fracking not only in the U.S., but globally. It will include footage from drilling sites in Europe, Africa, and Australia. While producing the film, he discovered that the outrage against hydraulic fracturing is global. France has banned fracking, there is a moratorium in South Africa against it and growing opposition in places like the United Kingdom and Canada.
Fox released a short film in June 2012 targeting New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for his plan to open up certain parts of the state to hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." The 18-minute film calls out Cuomo on recent revelations that his administration plans to open up a few counties in the state to be fracked -- which critics say targets economically distressed parts of the states. The film also exposes oil and gas industry internal documents which detail concerns about well safety and water contamination.
Learn more about Gasland on its website, Facebook and Twitter account.
Another film changing the terms of the debate on fracking is called "Split Estate."
is the director of the groundbreaking documentary Gasland
. In the film, Fox unmasks shocking revelations--water that can be lit on fire from the sink faucet, chronically ill residents of drilling areas from disparate locations in the U.S. all with the same mysterious symptoms, huge pools of toxic waste that kill cattle and vegetation well blowouts, and huge gas explosions consistently covered up by state and federal regulatory agencies. More information on Josh can be seen on the Gasland website
is an investigative reporter for Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism news organization. Lustgarten's reporting on fracking has been instrumental in uncovering a plethora of information about "natural" gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
His work on the issue has been compared to that of journalist Jeremy Scahill
on the wrongdoings of Blackwater
. Lustgarten was a 2009 recipient of a George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting for documenting the deadly side effects of hydrofracking
. Lustgarten's reporting on the Marcellus Shale
can be seen on the Pro Publica site
. He can be followed on Twitter at @AbrahamL
is an outspoken anti-drilling activist, as well as an actor, most famous for his roles in the movies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Zodiac, Shutter Island, The Kids Are All Right, Just Like Heaven, Rumor Has It
and You Can Count On Me.
As an activist, he has been noted for his tenacity in fighting against fracking in the Marcellus Shale. As a result, Ruffalo was placed on a terrorist watch list by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security after showing a screening of the movie Gasland at a public forum in Pennsylvania. This was reported by both the San Francisco Chronicle
and Time Magazine
. Many of his articles in opposition to fracking can be seen on the Huffington Post website
. He can be followed on Twitter at @mruff221
Sandra Steingraber is an acclaimed ecologist and author of “Raising Elijah” -- a book on how to raise a child in an age of environmental hazards. In 2011, the author won a Heinz award -- which recognizes individuals for their contributions in areas including the environment -- for her work on environmental toxins. She dedicated the $100,000 prize to the fight against fracking. In response to receiving the award, Steingraber describes why the fight against fracking is a top priority: "Fracking turns fresh water into poison. It fills our air with smog, our roadways with eighteen-wheelers hauling hazardous materials, and our fields and pastures with pipelines and toxic pits... The bodies of my children are the rearranged molecules of the air, water, and food streaming through them. As their mother, there is no more important investment that I could make right now than to support the fight for the integrity of the ecological system that makes their lives possible."
: In 2005, the U.S. Congress exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Water Drinking Act, in what is known as the "Halliburton Loophole." This move was widely perceived as having been pushed forth by Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force. Cheney is the former CEO of Halliburton
, a Houston-based oilfield services company.
T. Boone Pickens
: In 2011, Texas oil industry figure T Boone Pickens pushed his Pickens Plan
to the National Press Club. His plan was to have U.S. taxpayers pay for billions in government subsidies for vehicles that run on "natural" gas. Launched in July 2008, the plan
promotes "energy independence" in the name of "national security." Originally a combination of the promotion of shale gas drilling and wind energy, the plan has transformed into the promotion of gas drilling exclusively. Pickens was influential in the introduction of the 2011 NAT GAS Act
. Pickens is also a big proponent of water privitization and owns Mesa Water
. He is the owner of the energy hedge fund BP Capital
and the author of two autobiographies.
is the CEO of Chesapeake Energy
. He is also in the chair of the board of directors of the front group American Clean Skies Foundation
. The channel produces what is notoriously known as Branded News
. He is also a Managing Partner and Founder of Deep Fork Capital. He has been a Director of Chesapeake Energy Corp. since 1989. At the 2011 winter meeting for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, McClendon stated
that Chesapeake planned on investing some $40-50 billion in methane gas drilling in West Virginia in the next few decades. He also stated that Chesapeake had already spent some $600 million in capital investment since 2008 in the state. McClendon received a salary of $21 million in 2010.
: Kathryn Klaber
is the President and Executive Director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (and the former Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Economy League). The coalition fights against environmental protections of areas impacted by shale gas and oil drilling. It is engaged in extensive state and federal lobbying campaigns to protect the financial interests of its corporate members. In an interview
with the "Clean Skies TV Network," a channel affiliated with the American Clean Skies Foundation
(which is largely funded from profits from gas drilling), Klaber stated that claims of toxins entering peoples' oil wells from fracking are unfounded. This comment was made despite the fact that investigative journalists and scientists have documented the contamination. Klaber also stated that the FRAC Act was unnecessary because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
already has regulations in place to protect the environment. She neglected to mention that the chemicals used in shale oil and gas drilling are not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, as a result of the Halliburton
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett
: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett reportedly
roped in nearly $1 million from the oil and gas industry during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He has since pushed for the expansion of drilling in the state, including a recent effort to push neighboring states to open up the Delaware River basin to fracking, which was thwarted by Delaware Governor Jack Markell in November who said the plan did not address public health protections. Tom Corbett’s first major political appointment after his election in November 2010 was to name C. Alan Walker, an energy company executive, to head the Department of Community and Economic Development. Corbett also repealed environmental assessments of gas wells in state parks. Within the budget bill, Corbett authorized Walker to “expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.” In early February 2012, the Pennsylvania House and Senate approved a plan (Act 13
) for a "local impact fee" on natural gas drillers, which Gov. Corbett signed into law on February 14. Corbett had refused to impose a "severance tax" on drillers, arguing that it would hinder the industry's presence in the state, so instead the "impact fee" was created. The compromise calls for a fee that would fluctuate with the price of natural gas and, starting in 2013, the rate of inflation.