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What is Fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing (also known “hydraulic fracking” or simply "fracking") is the process of drilling and injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to recover gas and oil from shale rock. This process can be carried out vertically or by drilling horizontally to create new pathways or extend existing channels to release gas. Most fracking wells in use today employ a combination of hydraulic fracturing, which has been in use since the 1940s, and horizontal drilling, a more recent technique that became widespread during the 1990s.
The Fracking Boom
There were about 276,000 natural gas wells in the U.S. in 2000, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). That number nearly doubled to 510,000 by 2010, and each year since then about 13,000 new wells have been drilled. A 2014 study  found that more than 15 million Americans have lived within a mile of a fracking well that has been drilled since 2000.
What’s the Problem?
The fracking process involves mixing enormous amounts of water with various toxic chemicals to produce frack fluid, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. This substance is further contaminated by heavy metals and radioactive elements contained in shale. A large portion of the frack fluid returns to ground level, where it can spill into rivers and other naturally-occurring water sources. Underground water supplies can also be contaminated by fracking through migration of gas and frack fluid underground.
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Dangers of Fracking
Environmental problems associated with hydraulic fracking include:
- Air pollution
- Contaminated drinking water
- Contaminated ground water
- Depletion of fresh water
- Toxic sludge and waste
- Animal deaths
- Industrial disasters
- Machinery accidents
- Well explosions
- Earth tremors
- Chemical spills
- Noise pollution
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- Neurological damage
- Sore throats
- Breathing problems
- And more
Hydraulic fracking has been linked to many environmental problems, but the most pressing ecological concern associated with this type of drilling is methane migration. This occurs when methane seeps into the water supply, and is often caused by gas companies’ negligent drilling practices, according to StateImpact .
Drilling companies often try to deny responsibility for methane migration, noting that underground methane naturally travels to the surface over time. However, this normally takes hundreds or even thousands of years. Fracking accelerates this process by creating a path for the methane to escape from underground.
Feds Sued Over California Offshore Fracking
Two Santa Barbara environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) attempting to block the agency from issuing new permits for offshore fracking in Southern California, according to the Santa Barbara Independent . According to the lawsuit, an environmental analysis by BSEE concluded falsely that hydraulic fracking poses no significant impact to the environment in terms of air quality, water quality, or endangered species.
North Texas Earthquakes Linked to Fracking, EPA Finds
Federal regulators believe “there is a significant possibility” that recent earthquakes in North Texas are linked to the hydraulic fracturing industry, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“In light of findings from several researchers, its own analysis of some cases and the fact that earthquakes diminished in some areas following shut-in or reduced injection volume of targeted wells, EPA believes there is a significant possibility that North Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells,” the agency said.
Fracking May Worsen Asthma, JAMA Study Finds
Hydraulic fracking may worsen asthma in children and adults who live near sites where the oil and gas drilling method is used, according to a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine . The study found that asthma treatments were up to 4 times higher in patients living closer to areas with more or bigger active wells compared to those living far away. Sara Rasmussen, the study's lead author and a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said pollution and stress from the noise caused by fracking might explain the results.
New Mexico Fracking Explosion Highlights Dangers of Fossil Fuel Industry
A hydraulic fracking site in San Juan County, New Mexico, erupted into flames this week, causing 36 oil tanks to catch fire and the evacuation of 55 local residents.
The fire broke out around 10:15 PM at a fracking site owned by WPX Energy, setting off several explosions and forcing the closure of highway 550. The site -- known as the “550 Corridor” located in the Mancos shale deposit -- contains 6 new oil wells and 30 storage tanks that hold either oil or produced water. All 36 tanks caught fire and burned, according to EcoWatch .
The company stopped drilling for natural gas and oil in the 550 Corridor last May, and had been producing for about a week before the fire occurred.
The cause of the incident is still being investigated. Environmentalists are speaking out against the fracking explosion.
"The site that exploded is a brand new facility that consists of six wells drilled to shale formations that have never been adequately analyzed for impacts and safety concerns," said Mike Eisenfeld, the Energy and Climate Program manager at the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
WPX was given approval to develop the 550 Corridor from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division in September, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office gave final approval to drill the site in December.
"This highlights the failure to have adequate safeguards in place to protect local communities and also raises serious questions about chemicals and toxicity associated with the explosion,” Eisenfeld said. “Emergency response for this explosion was hours away. A thorough investigation is necessary. There should be a moratorium on these new wells until BLM completes a legally proficient Resource Management Plan Amendment/Environmental Impact Statement for the Mancos Shale/Gallup formations."
Study Finds Fracking Chemicals in California Groundwater Supply
In California's agricultural heartland, up to 1 in 5 oil and gas hydraulic fracking projects occurs in underground sources of fresh water, according to a new study.
The study, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), looked at the amount of groundwater that could be used for irrigation and drinking supplies in 5 California Central Valley counties, as well as in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura. Researchers estimated that drought-plagued California could have nearly 3 times as much fresh groundwater as previously estimated.
However, the study also found that oil and gas activity occurred in underground freshwater formations in 7 of the 8 counties assessed. Most of the activity was minor, but in Kern County, the hub of California's oil industry, 15-19% of oil and gas activity occurs in freshwater zones, according to the researchers.
The encroachment of oil and gas development on underground freshwater formations highlights the vulnerability of California's groundwater, and the need for strict monitoring of it, the study’s authors said.
"We don't know what effect oil and gas activity has had on groundwater resources, and one reason to highlight this intersection is to consider if we need additional safeguards on this water," said Robert B. Jackson, professor of environment and energy at Stanford University and co-author of the study.
The new research comes amid California’s struggle to deal with the impact of past oil and gas activity on its groundwater resources, and its attempt to develop new fossil fuel reservoirs through the fracking process. In 2014, state officials admitted that for years they had allowed oil and gas companies to pump billions of gallons of wastewater into over 2,000 wells located in federally protected aquifers. Last year, Kern County officials found hundreds of unlined, unregulated wastewater pits, many near farm fields. Oil and gas wastewater is highly saline and contains toxic substances such as benzene.
Environmental groups pointed to the study as another reason to ban fracking in California. The state instead chose to allow fracking, adopting the new SB 4 law, which is among the strictest in the U.S. to govern the industry, requiring drilling companies to test groundwater before and after fracking, as well as to disclose all chemicals used in fracking fluid.
Fracking Ban in Germany
Germany's coalition government has agreed to outlaw hydraulic fracking for shale gas in the country following years of debate, but environmental groups have said the ban does not go far enough.
Per the new agreement, test drilling will be allowed but only with the permission of the respective state government, according to Reuters . A segment of the German coalition government wants to keep a door open to the fracking industry, arguing it could lower energy costs, but opposition is strong in the country, where an influential green lobby has warned about potential drinking water contamination and other environmental risks.
If the measure is passed, Germany will follow France, which has already outlawed fracking , whereas Britain allows it per strict environmental and safety restrictions.
Germany was close to a vote that would ban fracking a year ago, but negotiations stalled amid disagreements between the country’s conservative Christian Democrats and left Social Democrats.
The 2 parties agreed last week to an indefinite ban on the hydraulic fracturing industry, but the legislation requires that parliament reassess whether the decision is still valid in 2021, according to Thomas Oppermann, Chairman of the Social Democrats' parliamentary group.
Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND)  criticized the measure, saying that by setting a date for reassessment, parliament had basically agreed to allow fracking in 5 years.
"The coalition's agreement on a fracking permission law is hair-raising,” said Hubert Weiger, head of BUND. “The law must be stopped and replaced with a true fracking ban."
Additional details of the legislation have not been made available. Current German law permits unconventional fracking, but virtually no drilling permits have been approved to date.
Fracking Ban Proposed in California
Several environmental groups have proposed a ban on fracking in California, according to Politico . The groups scored a victory this week in Butte County, where a ballot ban on hydraulic fracturing passed with over 70% of the vote.
“It’s been really a community organizing triumph as much as anything else,” said Ken Fleming said, an organizer with Frack-Free Butte County. “The message was pretty clear: Do you wanna trust the oil companies, or do you wanna make sure to continue to have clean water? I think that question was a pretty clear result.”
California Anti-Fracking Group Wants Oil Wells Sealed Permanently
Protect Monterey County, a grassroots environmental organization, wants oil wells in the community of Monterey, California, to be closed off permanently. The group has received attention from former presidential contender Bernie Sanders, who traveled to Monterey in order to speak out against hydraulic fracking.
“California is in a midst of a five-year drought. Cities and towns around the state have been required to reduce their consumption of water by 25%,” Sanders said. “In my view, it makes zero sense to talk about the urgent need to conserve water on one hand and then give big gas companies a green light to use huge amounts of water through hydraulic fracking on the other hand. I hope very much that Monterey County continue[s] the momentum and makes it clear that fracking is not safe and not what we need for our people.”
California has a history of oil and gas extraction going back to the late 1800s. Although the industry declined in the 1980s, new techniques like hydraulic fracturing started being implemented which made unrecoverable oil deposits easier to extract. However, with these advanced techniques came new regulations and push-back from many California residents who want to stop fracking altogether.
Massachusetts Senate Proposes Moratorium on Fracking
The Massachusetts Senate is backing a 10-year moratorium on fracking in the state, according to CBS News . The bill, which was unanimously approved last week, would also bar the disposal of wastewater from fracking.
There are currently no fracking operations underway in Massachusetts; however, critics hope to ensure that no drilling occurs around the Hartford basin, a rock formation in the Connecticut River Valley that may contain shale gas and/or oil deposits.
EPA Releases "First-Ever" Rules on Methane Emissions
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released the final version of a “first-ever” set of federal regulations intended to curb emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas released during the fracking process.
EPA said the new regulations (PDF) are part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to live up to the president’s vow to reduce methane emissions by 40-45% from 2012 levels by 2025.
Until now, methane emissions have been unregulated by the federal government, according to EcoWatch . This is especially troubling considering America’s increasing reliance on natural gas to produce electricity, which has resulted in skyrocketing methane levels in the air and water.
Methane emissions are still far lower than carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and methane dissipates in the environment after a relatively short period of time. However, methane traps heat much more effectively than CO2, which makes it a significant threat to climate change.
“When unburned methane leaks into the atmosphere, it can help cause dramatic warming in a relatively short period of time,” according to Mother Jones . “The natural gas system produces methane emissions at nearly every step of the process, from the well itself to the pipe that carries gas into your home.”
The lack of methane regulations is one of the main reasons why some environmental groups have frowned on Obama’s climate strategy. These same environmentalists view the new regulations as a crucial first step, since they only apply to new and modified natural gas infrastructure, not existing systems. And by some analysts' calculations, over 70% of gas-sector methane emissions from now until 2025 will come from preexisting infrastructure.
The new regulations seek to cut gas-sector methane emissions 40 to 45% below 2012 levels by 2025 by restricting emissions from pumps, compressors, wells and other systems; requiring more frequent surveying for gas leaks; and implementing a data-gathering survey that will provide a more comprehensive understanding of how much methane leakage really occurs. EPA expects the new regulations to cost approximately $530 million, but should produce $690 million in environmental benefits.
$4.2 Million Verdict in Pennsylvania Water Contamination Lawsuit
In March 2016, a Pennsylvania jury handed down a $4.24 million verdict in a lawsuit filed over water contamination from shale gas drilling by Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The jury ordered Cabot to pay plaintiffs Nolen Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely $1.3 million each, and an additional $150,000 for their 3 children, and to pay Ray and Victoria Hubert each $720,000, plus an additional $50,000 for their child.
Because the scope of the complaint was dramatically narrowed before trial, the plaintiffs were unable to pursue Cabot for any harms done to their health - only for property damage and the personal nuisance that the water contamination caused.
“This is a huge victory for the people of Dimock, but it’s also a sharp rebuke to the Obama administration for failing to fully investigate threats posed by fracking and dangerous drilling to water supplies in Pennsylvania and across the country,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Because of the EPA’s disturbing history of delay and denial, it took a federal jury to set the record straight about the natural gas industry’s toxic threat to our water.”
In 2012, Cabot reached a settlement with roughly 40 other Dimock residents, but the terms of that agreement were never made public and included a “non-disparagement” clause that prevents those who settled from speaking publicly about their experiences.
Millions at Risk for Man-Made Earthquakes, USGS Finds
Hydraulic fracturing has only been known to rarely cause earthquakes; however, the disposal of drilling wastewater used during this process has been scientifically linked to frequent earthquakes.
On March 28, 2016, the U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS) published an earthquake hazard map of both natural and "induced" quake sites. The map and an accompanying report show that portions of the central U.S. now face a risk of temblors equal to that of California.
About 7 million people live in places vulnerable to fracking-induced earthquakes, according to the study. States at the highest risk include Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio and Alabama. Most of the quakes attributed to fracking wastewater are relatively small, around magnitude 3, but some have been far more powerful, including a 2011 magnitude 5.6 temblor in Oklahoma that was found to be caused by wastewater injection.
It is still unknown how powerful or frequent fracking quakes could potentially be, or whether the new research will change industry practices. In Oklahoma, for example, earthquakes naturally occur at a rate of 1-2 per year, but over the last decade there have been hundreds since fracking and horizontal drilling have became widespread in the state.
"By including human-induced events, our assessment of earthquake hazards has significantly increased in parts of the U.S.,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project.
The study is based on extremely recent seismic activity, only representing a 1-year hazard assessment, and scientists cautioned that what has happened in the recent past with man-made quakes will likely continue in the future.
Previous hazard maps didn't include temblors linked to fracking or other human activities. In 2014, for example, the USGS seismic hazard map showed negligible risk for natural earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but with the inclusion of man-made events added to the new map, the risk increased 10-fold.
Do I Need a Fracking Lawyer?
The Workplace & Environmental Litigation Group at our law firm is an experienced team of trial lawyers that focus on the representation of plaintiffs in fracking lawsuits. We are handling individual litigation nationwide and currently investigating potential settlements in all 50 states.
Again, if you or a loved one has been the victim of water or air contamination caused by fracking, you should contact our law firm immediately. You may be entitled to compensation by filing a suit and our lawyers can help.