Hydraulic Fracturing and Groundwater

Michael Deane — BCT

Isabella Maloney — NRC

Chris Therrien — BCT

In most modern households, clean tap water is considered a commodity: a common good that requires very little thought other than remembering to the pay the bill at the end of each month. People often take things like this for granted, but for Jessica Ernst, clean tap water is more than just a passing thought. Jessica hails from a small Canadian town in Alberta that rests above both a shale rock depository, and the freshwater aquifer that provides the majority of water for her home. After working as a consultant in the oil and natural gas industry for close to 25 years, she was not particularly concerned when an international gas company, Encana, decided to harvest the natural gases trapped within the underlying shale, a sedimentary rock with large amounts of fossil fuel gases. They achieved this with a method known as hydraulic fracturing, which involves drilling into subterranean shale pumping in thousands of gallons of chemically infused hydraulic fracturing fluid, cracking the rock under pressure, and releasing the gases trapped inside. The gas is then collected and shipped around the country to be used as fuel for any number of things. This very complex procedure has yielded a momentary economic boom in the U.S., and has polarized the American public into dichotomy. In this small Alberta town, however, there was an interesting side effect.

Jessica was outraged when she discovered that the tap water in her home was literally flammable. Methane had seeped into her town’s freshwater aquifer, causing trace amounts to flow all the way into her home, and allowing her to ignite the tap water as it streamed out of the faucet. This drew considerable concern from Jessica and her community, eventually resulting in a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Encana and its, “[r]isky and experimental drilling program” (Belanger, 2013 p. 1). Jessica’s story, and others like it, sparked a call to action regarding hydraulic fracturing and its seemingly harmful effects on the hydrogeology of our precious groundwater. Despite the public’s immediate reaction to condemn hydraulic fracturing as the root of all issues, it cannot be stated with certainty whether or not hydraulic fracturing has negative impacts on groundwater. At this time, it is simply too difficult to obtain the information necessary to condemn it. Several organizations committed to the task of remedying this lack of crucial information are rallying; however, progress is slow and even the most current studies are often full of conflicting data and information.

If hydraulic fracturing is indeed polluting our groundwater with traces of natural gas and chemicals common in hydraulic fracturing fluid, it poses a considerable ecological threat. That being said, the issue stands that hydraulic fracturing has an evident and tremendous benefit in the American market, resulting in some of the lowest gas prices in recent memory. Do the obvious pros outweigh the unknown cons? Until this point, a scientific consensus has yet to be determined. Yet, enough information is available to urge the need for a better understanding for scientists and common people alike.

Like Jessica, the general public is often hasty to condemn hydraulic fracturing as an environmental hazard. It is popular opinion that there is, in fact, a sufficient amount of evidence to prove its negative impacts on natural systems. Average people, especially those new to the topic, are quick to believe the seemingly well-researched information frequently presented by non-credible sources. Hopke and Simis (2015) demonstrate this point through their case study on the views of hydraulic fracturing through the social media platform Twitter. “Public perceptions of [hydraulic fracturing] are not formed through knowledge of the technology, but rather through value predispositions as heuristics” (Hopke & Simis, 2015, p. 4). Throughout this case study, the authors show how inclined people are to be influenced by the connotation of a word, such as “hydraulic fracturing”, or its less attractive counterpart “fracking”. Under the #fracking hashtag, 76% took an anti-fracking standpoint, with 82% expressing certainty. On the other hand, a filter of the #shale hashtag yielded 69% pro-fracking tweets (Hopke & Simis, 2015, p. 8). It is easy to see how the connotation of a word can affect the uninformed, and influence solely based on their sound.

Public perception of the environment can also be molded by activism, especially when considering controversial topics like hydraulic fracturing. For example, the movie Gasland drew attention to the potential environmental dangers of hydraulic fracturing as the first major experience for this topic on the silver screen (Vasi, Walker, Johnson & Tan, 2015). The film uses cases from people like Jessica, who could literally light her faucet water on fire, to mobilize the public and spark public interest on a topic which was previously overlooked. Vasi et al. (2015) show how internet searches and trends were affected by the movie Gasland. During its release, as well as its Oscar nomination, Google searches and internet topics regarding hydraulic fracturing increased significantly, exhibiting the effect that popular culture has on public opinion of scientific topics (Vasi, Walker, Johnson & Tan, 2015). It is difficult for people to argue with the information that they acquire from big screen sources; if it comes from Hollywood, it must be true, right? Conveying the truth to a public that has already built an opinion based on propaganda or biased material has proved a daunting and troublesome task.

It is easy to see why the public jumps to these conclusions, but in making a wholesome decision, one must also consider the possible benefits of hydraulic fracturing. Even if the process is found to be a cause of groundwater pollution, it would need to foster significant damage in order to outweigh the economic benefits of natural gas drilling. This would be measured by the potability and salinity of drinking water post-hydraulic fracturing. Up until the point that an aquifer is rendered useless, the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing greatly overshadow the potential for environmental damage. “Although the average cost of shale gas production will vary from site to site, it tends to range from $2 to $3 per thousand cubic feet of gas, about 50–66 percent cheaper than production from new conventional gas wells” (Sovacool, 2014, pp. 252-253). Even with the addition of stricter regulations and environmental precautions, it is estimated that the economic impact would not be great enough to change any of this, raising the price by about one dollar (McMahon, 2012). Scientists will attest to the fact that there is a growing demand for energy and that this process may be one of the best ways to reach these ever expanding energy requirements.

Though they are still met with disapproval from the public, scientists have yet prove the negative impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment. Brantley, Pollak, and Vidic (2013) note that not enough is known presently about the quality of groundwater to make any assumptions. With dedicated research, our understanding of the potential risks of hydraulic fracturing will grow, and even help provide ways to prevent them (Brantley, Pollak & Vidic, 2013). To this point, most studies conducted on groundwater in potential risk areas have been retrospective, meaning there was not any sense of control in terms of variables. Myers (2012), presented some of the most in depth information on shale fluid flow patterns of any other notable source, yet it was mostly obtained from an advanced shale simulation software, and therefore subject to dispute. Similarly, Schwartz (2014) also conducted studies using simulation software. Both suggest hydraulic fracturing is exponentially increasing fluid flow through the semi-permeable shale to rates beyond what is considered a natural geological timeframe, which causes concern that harmful hydraulic fracturing fluid may begin to flow out of the shale and into our aquifers.

As previously mentioned, evidence from these studies must be taken with a grain of salt, for a number of reasons. A lack of documented controlled cases to this point reveals an overwhelming need for more empirical and theoretical research, as pointed out by Schwartz (2014). This need for information is further reinforced by Brantley et al. (2013) in their explanation of the work done by the Shale Network. A collaborative effort lead by researchers, engineers, geologists, and other qualified scientists, this group was formed in an attempt to gather reliable and valid data concerning groundwater quality. Their main work concerns the contamination of groundwater via hydraulic fracturing fluids. They have concluded that not enough is currently known regarding water quality to draw conclusions on any of the effects of hydraulic fracturing (Brantley, Pollack & Vidic, 2013). They go on to explain that with enough dedicated research and time, we may begin to accurately assess the potential pitfalls of hydraulic fracturing (Brantley, Pollak & Vidic, 2013). Vengosh (2014) adds that these studies must be placed over a longer time scale, in a much broader geographic area, and must be “systematic and component-specific” (p. 8344). We may never have conclusive proof concerning the dangers if these things do not happen; and, even if they do, we still may not know “because of [the] complicated and contested nature of hydraulic fracturing” (Sovacool, 2014, p. 262). Without a growth in available studies and access to pertinent facts and figures, the effects of the overly complex process of hydraulic fracturing and independent variables involved in the measurement of water quality will continue to evade our understanding.

In order to overcome this wall, variables must be controlled. This will prove paramount in determining the quality of groundwater and, more importantly, if hydraulic fracturing does indeed have adverse effects on that quality. There are several factors that can offset quality readings, even under optimal circumstances. “Another problem making it difficult to discern water quality impact is that even when pre-drilling data are available, the water quality prior to shale gas development was sometimes variable due to mine drainage, agricultural use, sewage infiltration, road deicing, and other human based phenomenon” (Brantley, Pollak & Vidic, 2013, p. 410). Deep drilling also increases the possibility of subsurface brines (salt water deposits) seeping into aquifers and affecting the salinity (salt water content) of the groundwater (Brantley, Pollak & Vidic, 2013). In addition, Brantley et al. (2013) point out that large volumes of water often tend to quickly dilute contaminants to below detectable levels. All of these variables serve to make the task of forming an accurate water quality database nearly impossible, which is a crucial brick that must be laid before cross referencing with post-drilling water data. Moreover, people like Jessica Ernst were certain that hydraulic fracturing caused her faucet to produce flaming water due to methane leakage; however, recent studies argue that hydraulic fracturing is not the cause of methane pollution. Hand (2015), indicates there have been cases of homeowners igniting their tap water ranging back as far as 20 years, all due to deposits of the gas and natural methane migration unrelated to hydraulic fracturing. In addition, dissolved methane is not toxic, and natural drinking sources often contain considerable background amounts of the gas (Hand, 2015). Deciphering the exact origin of pollution becomes increasingly more difficult as more and more alternative sources of pollution are discovered.

Due to a lack of conclusive evidence in the case of hydraulic fracturing as it pertains to groundwater contamination, we feel that there is a need for more untarnished data sourced from controlled experiments. In order to achieve this, strict governmental regulations must be put into effect, mandating multiple different types of testing and analyses in an attempt to eliminate variables and other causes for doubt in results. These surveys must be conducted by government agencies, entirely independent of the hydraulic fracturing companies and private sector sampling companies. This serves to prevent reporting of false data, collusion, and bribery between the companies. The first of the required tests would be a pre-drilling analysis of the surrounding areas and aquifers to establish a baseline level for chemicals in the area, including, but not limited to, an extensive groundwater quality examination (Vengosh, 2014). This is absolutely crucial, as it will reveal the true nature of the pollution, especially in terms of its timeframe. Regardless of whether or not the post-hydraulic fracturing survey returns positive pollution results, there would be no way to tell what was there to begin with were it not for this survey. The second set of tests would take place during the actual process itself, at benchmarks determined by date and in between important, high-risk processes (Vengosh, 2014). If there is some sort of contamination during the process, these tests will be able to show exactly when it occurred, and assist in pinpointing the problem. Finally, in accordance with Schwartz’s (2014) plan, a post-drilling survey of the area, including extensive groundwater quality testing, should be completed after the process has taken place. This should be compared against the initial surveys, in order to truly reveal if there was a change in the quantity of chemicals found in the groundwater. Vengosh (2014) also states that to further solidify this evidence, it is very important that greater variety of studies be conducted, amongst a broader geographical outlook. If an independent agency can perform these tests successfully, they would have the potential to condemn hydraulic fracturing or clear it of all speculation.

The Safe Drinking Water Act is the federal law which sets the standards for drinking water quality in the United States. This is mainly regulated by the Underground Injection Control Program, which inspects the subsurface injection of fluids (Environmental Protection Agency, 2015). However, this act specifically excludes hydraulic fracturing fluids from the definition of “underground injection”, pardoning hydraulic fracturing companies from being regulated by the government in their processes regarding drinking water quality. This is not the only law that overlooks hydraulic fracturing as a possible contaminant, adding weight to the argument that not enough caution is taken with the process of hydraulic fracturing. Amendments to existing laws, as well as new laws, are valuable additions to the regulation steps presented previously. And, with the addition of stricter pre-drilling and post-drilling tests this process would be more closely observed, giving the opportunity for deeper research and observation.

As has been discussed, it is near impossible to conclusively say whether or not hydraulic fracturing negatively impacts groundwater basins. The little we do know about hydraulic fracturing is not nearly enough to condemn it, but the information we do not know may be enough to denounce it if that information proves irrefutable once expanded on. The lack of data on both water quality and the specific hydrogeological effects of the hydraulic fracturing process is substantial. It is becoming more crucial by the minute for up to date information to be made readily available for use in the regulation and supervision of hydraulic fracturing projects. Our nation’s infrastructure may be heavily bolstered by the influx of natural gas resulting from hydraulic fracturing, however we cannot neglect the possibility that our environment is suffering at the behest of our economy. The only real solution is to continue conducting research on the topic in order to eliminate the uncertainty that is plaguing the scientific community.



Belanger, J., Pathberiya, S., Rumble, E. (November 1, 2013) Daring and dedicated: meet the scientists and organizers who are rewriting the rules. Alternatives Journal, 39(6)

Brantley, S. L., Pollak, J., Vidic, R. D. (2013). Project asks what’s in the water after hydraulic fracturing at depth. Earth & Space Science News, 94, (45), 409-411. doi: 10.1002/2013EO450002

Environmental Protection Agency (2015). Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Retrieved 27 November 2015, from http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/index.cfm

Hand, E. (2015) Methane in drinking water unrelated to hydraulic fracturing, study suggests. Science Insider. doi: 10.1126/science.aab0392

Hopke, J. E., Simis, M. (2015). Discourse over a contested technology on Twitter: A case study of hydraulic fracturing. Public Understanding of Science, 1-16. doi: 10.1177/0963662515607725

McMahon, J. (2012). Hydraulic fracturing gas is writing America’s energy policy. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2012/03/29/hydraulic fracturing-gas-is-writing-americas-energy-policy/

Myers, T. (2012). Potential contaminant pathways from hydraulically fractured shale to aquifers. Groundwater, 50, (6), 872-882. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6584.2012.00933.x

Schwartz, M. O. (2014). Modelling the hypothetical methane-leakage in a shale-gas project and the impact on groundwater quality. Environmental Earth Sciences, 73, (8), 4619-4632. doi: 10.1007/s12665-014-3787-3

Sovacool, B. K. (2014). Cornucopia or curse? Reviewing the costs and benefits of shale gas hydraulic fracturing (hydraulic fracturing). Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 37, 249-264. doi: http://10.1016/j.rser.2014.04.068

Vasi, I. B., Walker, E. T., Johnson, J. S., Tan, H. F. (2015). “No fracking way!” Documentary film, discursive opportunity, and local opposition against hydraulic fracturing in the United States, 2010 to 2013. American Sociological Review, 1-26. doi: 10.1177/0003122415598534

Vengosh, A., Jackson, R. B., Warner, N., Darrah, T. H., Kondash, A. (2014). A critical review of the risks to water resources from unconventional shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing in the United States. Environmental Science Technology, 48, (15), 8334-8348. doi: 10.1021/es405118y



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