The Effect of Hydraulic Fracturing on Groundwater Quality

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has recently become one of the most talked-about resource recovery methods in the country. Fracking involves fracturing rock formations to stimulate the flow of natural gas or oil to the surface. In order to fracture a rock formation, large quantities of fluids are pumped down a well at high pressure and into the formation that contains the desired mineral. After the process is completed and the resource extracted, fluid, called “flowback,” returns to the surface because of the internal pressure of the rock formation. This fluid may contain injected chemicals in additions to natural materials like metals and hydrocarbons. This flowback is either stored, or more commonly, injected underground through an injection well.


Lately, fracking has been criticized as being the cause of groundwater contamination. Possibly one of the most shocking results of contamination is groundwater that has become flammable. Residents of states where hydraulic fracturing is common, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, have brought suit claiming fracking has caused groundwater wells to become contaminated with combustible gas, dissolved methane, and elevated levels of natural gas.  However, despite the claims and evidence, natural gas companies either deny or skirt the issue of blame.

Hydraulic fracturing is both a public health and environmental health issue. Water quality directly affects human health and quality of life, which links this issue to environmental health per Johnson’s definition.  In fact, one of the most common indicators of countries with low quality of life is the lack of access to uncontaminated water sources.  Fracking is also a public health issue because it has the potential to affect the water supplies of entire communities.  In line with Johnson’s definition of public health (the process of mobilizing local, state, national, and international resources to solve the major health problems affecting communities), many local groups and some state governments have begun attempts to address these risks.

This past November, many health experts in New York launched an initiative called “Concerned Health Professionals of New York.” The purpose of the initiative is to outline all health risks of fracking and to call for an independent, comprehensive Health Impact Assessment. Sandra Steingraber (at the podium below) was among the experts who spoke at the press event surrounding the new initiative.[3]

The additives in fracking fluids are highly poisonous and carcinogenic. Some, such as formaldehyde and benzene (contained in diesel fuel), have even been discussed in Living Downstream. Other chemicals include toluene, naphthalene, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and many others.

Applicable Laws

There is very little federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) does regulate, among other things, the injection of fluids whose injection may result in contamination of underground sources of drinking water.  However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 amended the SDWA, among many other environmental statutes, to exclude fracking chemicals, except diesel fuels, from regulation.

Because of the lack of federal regulation, some states have taken it upon themselves to pass laws concerning fracking. For example, Texas became the first major gas-producing state to require oil companies to disclose chemicals they use on every hydraulic fracturing job, and Wyoming and Arkansas have since passed similar laws. Without these disclosure laws, energy companies engaged in fracking may be less than forthcoming about the chemicals involved, much like the pesticide companies in Living Downstream, who claimed trade secrets when faced with the possibility of having to reveal what was really in their product.

Haynes and Boone, LLP, a large firm with experience in the field of oil and gas exploration and production, analyzed different state approaches to regulating fracking operations.  “A common arrangement . . . is to have one state agency regulate oil and gas conservation and development, but to have limited environmental regulatory oversight, and to have a second state agency regulate environmental issues without considering oil and gas development except for downstream effects.” Haynes and Boone conclude that if a gap exists between the coverage of these two agencies, issues may go unaddressed.


The very broad issue that arises in light of fracking’s recent expansion is: what is to be done about the resulting negative effects on groundwater resources?  In order to answer this question, a study must first be conducted to conclusively prove that hydraulic fracturing is the cause is groundwater contamination.  While no such study currently exists, the EPA has one in the works that will be published and open for comments in 2014.  The next issue, assuming fracking is found to be the cause of contamination, is: what is the appropriate regulatory mechanism to address the effects of fracking?  Is it better to have unified, overarching federal regulations? Or should the issue be left to the individual states, as it seems to be presently?

At least one major problem can be found with the present system of state-by-state regulation. That is, if fracking operations in one state negatively impact groundwater resources in a neighboring state, how is the conflict to be resolved? If no uniform regulations are put in place, the issue will inevitably need to be resolved in courts, creating potentially conflicting common law across the circuits.


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