Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” has become widely discussed by the press and is a central focus among conservationists for a myriad of reasons. Fracking is the process of injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure deep into the earth’s crust. This process creates new fractures in bedrock, as well as increases the size and extent of existing fractures. These fissures in the bedrock allow for the collection of oil and natural gas that were inaccessible or uneconomical using previous collection methods.
This abundant supply of domestically-produced natural gas provides many Americans with energy and is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. Natural gas produces about one-half as many carbon dioxide emissions as other fossil fuel power options. Although natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel, there are significant environmental implications associated with fracking.
Scientists have named air pollution, waste disposal, fracking-induced seismic activity, and contamination of surface and groundwater as the primary environmental concerns associated with fracking. Fracking poses a threat to surface and ground water through consumption and contamination. Each fracking well uses on average anywhere from about 1.5 million to about 16 million gallons of water, which places an increased demand for water on already stressed watersheds.
For example, the Windy Gap Firming Project plans to build a diversion dam on the Upper Colorado River and divert almost 10 billion gallons of water to Front Range municipalities. Several of these municipalities have already sold water to fracking operations.
In addition to influencing water quantity, fracking operations possess the potential to influence water quality. The exact contents of many fracking solutions in the United States remains unknown because fracking solution is protected from disclosure under a trade secret clause. A study conducted by Stanford University has documented the occurrence of chemicals used in fracking solution in underground sources of drinking water.
In compliance with standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act, scientists from FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry have identified carcinogenic chemical compounds in fracking solutions used in the United States. However, oil and natural gas development is considered to be part of the United States’ strategic energy policy, making the oil and natural gas industry exempt from some federal regulations outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act. With few regulations in place, groundwater protection remains largely absent, and underground aquifers remain extremely vulnerable to contamination.
Contaminated groundwater, resulting from the incomplete recovery of fracking fluid and a lack of structural integrity in fracking wells, poses a significant environmental health risk. In many cases, more than 90% of the injected fracking solution is not recovered and remains underground where it threatens to contaminate aquifers.
Water contamination is not limited to groundwater—surface water can be contaminated as well from spillage of wastewater and improperly maintained waste pits. The potential ecological consequences associated with fracking are numerous and pose a significant threat to aquatic systems throughout Colorado.
Colorado sits atop four major shale formations, which serve as rich sources of natural gas that have become hot spots for fracking operations. Although fracking does not occur in Eagle County, the Piceance Basin is a major shale formation that extends into neighboring Garfield and Pitkin Counties and stretches into the counties of Delta, Gunnison, Mesa, Moffat, and Rio Blanco. Currently in Colorado, there are 60,516 active fracking wells and 40,000 inactive fracking wells. Exploration and drilling for natural gas in Colorado continues to increase as population and demand for natural gas continue to rise.
Fracking provides an environmental paradox—it’s a process that allows for the collection and consumption of a clean-burning fuel that produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions than its competition. However, the methodology used to extract this resource has the potential to harm aquatic systems throughout Colorado. In order to make an informed judgement, individuals can start by educating themselves on the issues associated with hydraulic fracturing, including the potential benefits and drawbacks. With many environmental issues at stake, the challenge lies in finding a balance between providing the resources that fuel our contemporary society and protecting resources and the natural world for future generations.
Michael Pleimling is the Habitat Restoration Intern for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on July 12, 2017.