- Hydraulic fracturing has been in use for decades but has come under fire recently due to fears of environmental and health risks, including chemical contamination and seismic activity.
- Regulations governing fracking vary from state to state, and the practice enjoys exemptions from several key federal regulations, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
- A interdisciplinary study by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin will examine environmental issues attributed to fracking and will conduct a comprehensive review of regulations relevant to the practice.
Growing controversy over the environmental ramifications of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has cast a cloud over that method of extracting natural gas from shale, causing potential problems for the companies using the process. Entities such as Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the state of New York, and Cornell University have all initiated studies about the practice and its effects on the environment.
Now the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin is joining the party with an interdisciplinary look at the environmental issues attributed to fracking, including claims of groundwater contamination, seismic events, air emissions, and other concerns. The team will also conduct the first comprehensive review of regulations relevant to the practice in an effort to determine whether they accurately reflect the science of fracking and its potential effects.
“What we’re trying to do is separate fact from fiction,” said Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Energy Institute, which is providing funding for the study. The stated goal of the project is to promote a fact-based approach to regulatory policies for shale gas development. Experts from the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology, LBJ School for Public Affairs, School of Law, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, and the College of Communications will be involved in the project.
Fracking — extracting natural gas from shale by forcing a proprietary cocktail of water, chemicals, and sand into deeply bored holes in rocky ground — has been in use for decades, but it has recently come under fire by environmental organizations, community groups, and politicians who fear it poses health risks from groundwater and surface contamination by chemicals used in the process. Others are concerned that the act of creating fractures in rock far below the surface may actually be triggering seismic activity.
“Some well-publicized incidents have created considerable concern about the use of fracking,” said Chip Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute and a geology professor, who’s leading the study. “Our focus will be on evaluating evidence that verifies or refutes claims of environmental damage from fracking, as well as identifying actual causes of problems.”
The study will also conduct the first comprehensive review of regulations relevant to fracking to determine whether regulations accurately reflect the science of fracking and its potential effects.
“At present, there’s no full regulatory picture of fracking,” Groat said. “We’re trying to fill in the gaps and predict the likely trajectory of future policy.”
To date, oil and gas regulators and other experts in groundwater protection have found little evidence of a direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination, but no comprehensive study of the technology and its effects has been conducted, according to the Energy Institute.
“Presumably we’ll have a much better picture of what the actual risks of fracturing are and we can separate the risks of the fracturing process from the risks of a bad well construction. If there are problems, address the actual problems, as opposed to throwing everything in there together and saying, ‘Let’s have no gas production or no fracking whatever,’” says David Spence, an associate professor of business law at the McCombs School of Business.
Doubts about fracking’s safety have led the state of New York and France to ban the practice outright, a move that proponents of domestic energy production see as too hasty. “Unlocking huge reserves of natural gas could be vital to our nation’s energy security. If proven to be safe and environmentally benign, fracking could unleash a bountiful supply of domestic energy for generations, if not centuries, to come,” Orbach said.
A multi-decade supply of natural gas, a fuel now considered by some to be a bridge to alternative energy sources due to its cleaner combustion than coal and lower cost than wind or solar, “changes the way we think about a lot of things,” from electricity production to powering transportation, says Sheridan Titman, professor of finance and director of the Energy Management and Innovation Center at the McCombs School of Business.
While environmental concerns about the practice have dominated the news of late, improvements in technology have allowed for a sharp increase in natural gas production through fracking, particularly in states that occupy the Barnett, Marcellus and Haynesville Shales, including Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. As extraction and production costs have decreased, natural gas prices have followed.
“Extraction [of shale gas] used to be expensive, but as the cost of fracking has gone down, resources are being spent to extract natural gas from regions in the U.S. that have not traditionally been oil and gas producers,” Titman says. “Whereas 10 years ago there was a shortage of natural gas, the supply is now abundant.”
“The availability of cheap gas is actually a really good thing in a sense because more and more electricity will be generated by gas instead of coal,” Spence says. “That’s a good thing because the pollution associated with coal is far worse than gas. But if gas was really expensive you’d see more coal plants built. Everything has an opportunity cost. Gas — at least until solar and wind get cheaper — is the marginal fuel right now for electricity generation.”
Investigations and media reports of possible contaminations — including the Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland” and a series of articles about gas drilling in the New York Times — have polarized public opinion on the issue. The Energy Institute’s study, along with the other inquiries under way, should help even the field in terms of scientific understanding about the effects of hydraulic fracturing.
“We’re seeing more attention to these issues, and my assumption is that’s going to result in a better balance between regulation and encouraging development,” Spence says. “Until these studies come back, it’s hard to say what exactly is going to happen, but I’m assuming these studies won’t say, ‘Oh my gosh, fracking is the worst thing in the world. We shouldn’t do it anymore.’ They’ll probably say, ‘Here are the areas where we need to beef up our regulatory environment,’ and let’s do that.”
Indeed, Groat acknowledges, “Our goal is to inject more science into the debate, so that policymakers have a sound foundation upon which to develop appropriate rules and regulations.”