How Does Hydraulic Fracturing ("Fracking") Affect Fresh Water?




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A hydraulic fracturing rig in the Barnett Shale.


Hydraulic fracturing or ”fracking” is a drilling process by which natural gas and oil are mined from the earth. Manufacturers use hydraulic fracturing to stimulate wells and recover gas from sources such as coal beds and shale gas formations underground. The process requires some of the most advanced equipment in the production business to fracture, or crack (hence “fracking”), underground rock formations, aiding the flow of oil or natural gas in areas that would otherwise not easily produce resources. The natural gas and oil industry has been using hydraulic fracturing since the 1940s. Today hydraulic fracking is one of the primary ways manufacturers retrieve natural gas. Fracking is performed in nine out of ten of the country’s natural gas wells.

 Here is a graphic on the process produced by ProPublica:


Graphic by ProPublica/Creative Commons

How Hydraulic Fracturing Works

Controversy behind hydraulic fracking centers on the negative impact the process may have on groundwater. Fracking requires the mixing of numerous chemicals with sand and water to complete the fracking process. The Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns that some of these chemicals could contaminate drinking water and has launched an investigation into the issue. A report conducted by Cornell University concluded that hydraulic fracturing could potentially be worse for the environment than coal.

A bill passed by the Texas Senate in May 2011 requires oil and gas operators in the state to disclose the chemicals used in fracking on a website maintained by the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Operators must also file a list of chemicals used with the Railroad Commission of Texas.

July 3, 2013

From ProPublica: When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike. In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the [...]

June 27, 2013

A Tale of Two Counties: How Drilling Makes Some Flush With Cash

map of fracking

But for Those Outside the Boom, It’s Business as Usual It’s been over four years since a drilling company first drilled for (and hit) oil and gas in the Eagle Ford Shale. Since then, the region has become an economic engine for Texas , and to some degree, the country. While the region has seen several downsides to the [...]

June 13, 2013


Oil and gas and energy special interest groups outspent others by a large margin during the regular session of the Texas legislature this year. 19 cents of every dollar spent on lobbying belonged to the energy and natural resources industry, according to a new report by Texans for Public Justice, a state watchdog group. And [...]

June 10, 2013

Abandoned Oil Equipment Spurs Pollution Fears in Texas

Landowner Stuart Carter, in Central Texas near the town of Luling, has years of abandoned oil equipment on his property. Here, two oil wooden oil tanks that he says date to the 1920s.

From the Texas Tribune: LULING — Amid the dry weeds on a 470-acre ranch here, a rusted head of steel pokes up, a vestige of an oil well abandoned decades ago. Across the field stand two huge, old wooden oil tanks, one of them tilting like a smokestack on the Titanic. “Basically I get 61 acres [...]

June 4, 2013

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Increased use of natural gas to generate power in the U.S. is contributing to a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) out today. While coal still makes up a substantial percentage of the nation’s electricity, particularly when power demands rise in the [...]

May 24, 2013

Railroad Commission Adopts New Well Construction Rules

The lead oil and gas regulator in Texas passed new rules for fracking and drilling wells today. (Photo of a Cabot natural gas drill at a fracking site in Pennsylvania.)

The Texas Railroad Commission passed a long-awaited rule on Friday to strengthen the construction of oil and gas wells. The rule, known as the “well-integrity rule,” passed by a unanimous vote among the three commissioners. It will take effect next January, and will update the commission’s requirements for the process of drilling wells, putting pipe down [...]

Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras are seperated by the Rio Grande, and the international border. Neither barrier stops air pollution from traveling from one side to the other.

A natural gas export boom is already taking place right under our noses.

May 17, 2013

Under New Approval, More Natural Gas Will Be Sent Abroad From Texas

As a drilling boom continues in Texas and other states, the U.S. finds itself with so much natural gas that some companies now want to export domestic fuels abroad. Today, the federal Department of Energy (DOE) announced approval of a second facility, the Freeport LNG Terminal on Quintana Island , to export natural gas in liquid [...]

May 2, 2013

Each day, dozens of trucks hook up to the Gulf Coast-run fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, TX. A new bill would make it easier to transfer the wastewater by pipeline instead of by truck, potentially reducing roadway damage.

Update: The Senate unanimously approved SB 514 from the floor this afternoon, according to a representative from Sen. Davis’ office. Original Story: A bill that would reform how fracking wastewater moves to disposal wells could pass through the state Senate today. SB 514, introduced by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D- Fort Worth, would expand the [...]

April 30, 2013

Shale Boom Has Major Impact on Texas’ Budget

The lead oil and gas regulator in Texas passed new rules for fracking and drilling wells today. (Photo of a Cabot natural gas drill at a fracking site in Pennsylvania.)

From the Texas Tribune: The impact of the recent boom in shale drilling is hard to miss in some remote Texas towns, where hotels and homebuilders scramble to keep up with the influx of oil and gas workers. But the most significant effect from the boom may be seen in the state’s coffers. Taxes on oil [...]


Groundwater Contamination Higher Near North Texas Gas Wells

by Published on

Groundwater Contamination Higher Near North Texas Gas Wells

by Forrest Wilder Published on
Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in private drinking water wells near natural gas wells in North Texas ’ Barnett Shale. The scientists analyzed samples from 100 wells, both inside and outside of the Barnett Shale. Their results were published online today in Environmental Science & Technology.

Some wells were near to natural gas production sites; some were not. Although arsenic was found in 99 of the 100 wells, levels were “significantly higher in active [gas] extraction areas.” Twenty-nine of the wells registered arsenic concentrations above levels that the EPA considers safe. One sample, near a natural gas site, was “almost 18 times higher” than levels found in the Barnett Shale prior to the tracking boom as well as the maximum arsenic concentration found in a well outside the active drilling zone.

The findings are likely to fuel continued debate over whether fracking is polluting drinking water. As the oldest major shale play, the Barnett Shale is of particular importance as scientists, regulators and citizens grapple with fracking’s impacts.

The authors, however, are careful to say that the cause of the contamination can’t be definitively pinpointed. Potential causes could include: mechanical failures such as faulty gas well casings or fluid spills; mechanical disturbances from drilling; or dropping water tables from overpumping and drought, (although aquifers in the area are currently rising and the historical data doesn’t show spikes in contaminant levels during past droughts). And like good scientists they call for more research.

“This study alone can’t conclusively identify the exact causes of elevated levels of contaminants in areas near natural gas drilling, but it does provide a powerful argument for continued research,” said Brian Fontenot, a UT Arlington graduate and lead author on the new paper.

The Texas oil and gas industry and politicians insist that groundwater pollution isn’t linked to fracking. There’s a grain of truth to this assertion. Despite an astonishing increase in fracking activity in Texas , research is sparse.

“Despite a number of recent investigations,” the authors note, “the impact of natural gas extraction on groundwater quality remains poorly understood.”


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