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Fracking Your Water


ExxonMobil Chairman/CEO Rex Tillerson sounded very confident when he told a congressional hearing last year that extracting natural gas by the “hydraulically fractured” process has not led to even one “reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated.”

But drinking water supplies in Pavillion, Wyo., and Dimock, Pa., are suspected of contamination from such drilling and a study by Duke University researchers showed that methane can leak into drinking water near active fracking sites.

The oil companies are backing up their story with an effective ad campaign. Example: ExxonMobil’s ad in the Sept. 19th New Yorker claims existing gas buried deep beneath our water supplies could “meet our needs for over 100 years.”

Besides having “thousands of feet of protective rock between the natural gas deposit and any groundwater” drillers’ install “multiple layers of steel and cement” in shale gas wells to keep the gas “safely within the well,” the ad said. The slurry is made up of sand, water, and chemicals—but drillers don’t have to identify the chemicals.

That’s because in the 2005 energy bill, crafted in part by goodfella Vice-President Dick Cheney, “fracking was explicitly exempted from federal review under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in an incisive article in the December 5th “New Yorker.” This exemption, dubbed the “Halliburton Loophole,” does not require drillers to reveal which chemicals they use, so they could be carcinogens such as “benzene and formaldehyde.” Might this be why some irate homeowners say their tap water can be set on fire?

This hasn’t stopped more than 1,000 Pennsylvania and New York property owners from accepting up-front payments (with a pledge of future royalties) to allow drilling,

Even though “as much as forty per cent of (the water used in extraction) can come back up out of the gas wells, bringing with it corrosive salts, volatile organic compounds and radioactive elements, such as radium, ” Kolbert writes.

Pennsylvania has asked drillers to stop taking this flowback water to municipal treatment plants and New York State has ordered a moratorium on fracking permits. And it is seeking to ban fracking in New York City’s upstate watershed.

Says Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, “Once hydrofracturing begins in the (Delaware River) basin, the proverbial ‘faucet’ cannot be turned off, with any damage to our freshwater supplies likely requiring generations of effort to clean up.”

In a letter earlier this year, Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Assn., called upon the EPA to evaluate every pathway for drinking water contamination and asserted a new study is needed that will cover fracking’s impact on water supply.

“Impacts on existing water resources can only be ascertained by properly designed monitoring programs,” Curtis wrote. “Protecting drinking water should trump everything.”

Indeed. It’s past time for state governments to ban all fracking until additional research finds conclusively it is safe to continue the practice—if it does.

The oil firms are claiming natural gas can satisfy the nation’s energy wants for anywhere from a century to 250 years. No doubt. But wind power, by contrast, is a resource that lasts forever. What’s more, if harnessed,  there’s enough of it blowing in just a couple of Dakota counties to light up the entire USA year-round, and without polluting the water we drink and upon which all life depends.

Sherwood Ross is former administrative assistant to the Chicago Department of Water & Sewers and served as public relations director for the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Assn. His views do not necessarily represent those of AWWA. Reach him at

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