Across the U.S. and Canada, discussions about hydraulic fracturing – better known as fracking – often come with controversy. Opponents are quick to mention potential damage to the environment and public health, while supporters point to thousands of jobs being created across the U.S. and Canada, strengthening local economies and helping to meet ever-increasing demands for energy. These opposing views don’t often leave room for a middle ground, but a new outlook on fracking offers opportunities for both sides.
Early fracking was largely unregulated, yet as the industry has matured, a consensus has begun developing around what constitutes “responsible drilling” – a way of addressing and minimizing the risks associated with fracking. A study by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health found that fracking can be done safely if the proper precautions are taken.
Meanwhile, new regulations from the Department of the Interior (DOI) aim to ensure fracking is being done safely on federal lands. While one would hope the rule proposed by the DOI would usher in straightforward environmental health and safety practices for the entire industry, the vast majority of fracking occurs on private land. This means an industry consensus on what makes for “responsible drilling” is of even greater importance.
From the LHSFNA’s perspective, responsible drilling includes several components:
- Minimizing air and water pollution through promotion of industry best practices and compliance with federal, state and local regulations
- Responding to community concerns about noise, air and water quality and infrastructure disruptions
- Hiring local workers to allow communities to share in the benefits of fracking and ensure a common interest in safe extraction
During fracking, a combination of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the ground under high pressure to release natural gas or oil from shale rock. What is new since 1998 – and what has propelled the rapid expansion of fracking over the last decade – is horizontal drilling technology. With horizontal drilling, a single wellhead can drill deep into the ground before branching out in a wide underground circle.
Minimizing Air and Water Pollution
Most local communities’ primary concerns about fracking center on air and water pollution. Baseline monitoring of air and water before drilling starts, combined with continuous monitoring throughout the process, can help alert operators and the community to any problems that may arise and ensure that their impact is minimized.
The primary source of air pollution from fracking operations is caused by pollutants escaping from the wellhead and from waste flaring – the practice of burning off unusable natural gas through relief valves when pipelines and processing plants are not yet in place. Responsible drilling advocates support using emission controls at the wellhead, which have proven effective in reducing the amount of methane gas escaping from wells. Some states (e.g., Colorado) are now mandating wellhead controls and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering requiring wellhead controls nationally.
The primary source of water contamination on the surface and in below-ground aquifers and drinking wells comes from leaks in well casings. When constructed improperly, fluids can leak from the well, causing contamination of groundwater or underwater aquifers. These leaks can be prevented by improving assurances on well casing integrity to verify that fluids are not escaping. This would include the expectation that drilling would stop immediately upon detection of a leak and only resume after casings are fully repaired.
Fracking produces large amounts of wastewater which must be captured and disposed of properly. In the early days of fracking, companies would build large open evaporation pools near drilling sites. Responsible operators ensure that a water management plan is in place for handling fracturing fluids that flow back to the surface, including environmentally sound water capture, enclosure, storage and treatment.
Responding to Community Concerns
Fracking has brought prosperity to many communities, but the boom-like nature of the industry also produces rapid socioeconomic changes that can strain local services and infrastructure. These issues, which can include housing shortages, traffic congestion, road maintenance, light pollution and noise, are often ignored by small-time extractors intent on quickly tapping the gas and leaving the area soon after.
A more responsible approach involves large, corporate employers making a long-term commitment to working with local communities to mitigate these problems. Ways to minimize this impact include infrastructure improvements, housing accommodations for traveling workers and adding local enforcement staff to monitor environmental and safety regulations. Concerns over light pollution and noise, in particular, can be mitigated through the implementation of buffer zones between well-pads and residential areas.
Hiring Local Whenever Possible
The LHSFNA views local hiring as one of the best protections against ill-advised extraction. Workers with families and friends who live in the area have a powerful interest in making sure all drilling is safe for the environment and for workers. Union membership is vital to ensure that workers who raise concerns will not be threatened with discipline or the loss of their jobs.
Fracking involves a wide range of jobs for which LIUNA members are well-trained and experienced. Among these are site preparation, including road, well-pad construction and utility access; site maintenance; drilling; waste management, storage and transportation, including pipeline construction and maintenance, as well as site restoration after a wellhead closes.
Fracking is already a key component of North American energy production and it is very likely here to stay. However, fracking can be done in a manner that protects the environment, those living near fracking sites and workers. In future issues of Lifelines, we’ll examine in more detail how responsible drilling can address concerns over worker health and safety.
For more information about responsible drilling, order the Fund’s publication, Responsible Drilling: How Fracking Can Be Done Safely, by going to www.lhsfna.org and clicking on Publications.