Executive Summary from the Compendium of Fracking Risks
Three notable features:
First, the compendium is top-heavy with data from recent sources. That’s because, as we discovered in our research, science is now beginning to catch up to the last decade’s surge in unconventional oil and gas extraction. As stated in the introduction:
“A growing body of peer-reviewed studies, accident reports, and investigative articles is now confirming specific, quantifiable evidence of harm and has revealed fundamental problems with the drilling and fracking. Industry studies as well as independent analyses indicate inherent engineering problems including well casing and cement impairments that cannot be prevented.”
Indeed, more than half of the peer-reviewed papers in the medical and scientific literature on the health impacts of fracking have been published in the last 18 months.
Second, the compendium not only compiles findings from the medical and scientific literature but also includes evidence from other credible sources, including government reports, investigative reportage by news organizations, and Form 10-K reports that gas and oil companies use to disclose risks of their operations to their investors. We chose this tack because institutional secrecy, federal exemptions from key provisions of environmental laws, gag orders, and non-disclosure agreements between industry and landowners make population-based environmental health science research, as traditionally practiced, extremely challenging.
Third, the compendium is interdisciplinary. With an appreciation for the many social determinants of health, we looked at crime statistics, traffic accident rates, stress, noise and light pollution, and changing economic indicators, as well as more conventional environmental health issues, such air pollution and drinking water contamination.
Evidence of risks, harms, and associated trends demonstrated by this Compendium of Fracking Risks :
- Air pollution – Studies increasingly show that air pollution associated with drilling and fracking operations is a grave concern with a range of impacts. Researchers have documented dozens of air pollutants from drilling and fracking operations that pose serious health hazards. Areas with substantial drilling and fracking build-out show high levels of ozone, striking declines in air quality, and, in several cases, increased rates of health problems with known links to air pollution.
- Water contamination – The emerging science has significantly strengthened the case that drilling and fracking inherently threaten groundwater. A range of studies from across the United States present strong evidence that groundwater contamination occurs and is more likely to occur close to drilling sites. Likewise, the number of well blowouts, spills and cases of surface water contamination has steadily grown. Meanwhile, the gas industry’s use of “gag orders,” non-disclosure agreements and settlements impede scientific study and stifle public awareness of the extent of these problems.
- Inherent engineering problems that worsen with time – Studies and emerging data consistently show that oil and gas wells routinely leak, allowing for the migration of natural gas and potentially other substances into groundwater and the atmosphere. Leakage from faulty wells is an issue that the industry has identified and for which it has no solution. For instance, Schlumberger, one of the world’s largest companies specializing in fracking, published an article in its magazine in 2003 showing that about five percent of wells leak immediately, 50 percent leak after 15 years and 60 percent leak after 30 years. Data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also confirm these initial leakage rates, with a six percent structural integrity failure rate observed for shale gas wells drilled in 2010, 7.1 percent observed for wells drilled in 2011, and 8.9 percent observed for wells drilled in 2012. Leaks pose serious risks including potential loss of life or property from explosions and the migration of gas or other chemicals into drinking water supplies. Leaks also allow methane to escape into the atmosphere, where it acts as a powerful greenhouse gas. There is no evidence to suggest that the problem of cement and well casing impairment is abating. Indeed, a 2014 analysis of more than 75,000 compliance reports for more than 41,000 wells in Pennsylvania found that newer wells have higher leakage rates and that unconventional shale gas wells leak more than conventional wells drilled within the same time period. Industry has no solution for rectifying the chronic problem of well casing leakage.
- Radioactive releases – High levels of radiation documented in fracking wastewater raise special concerns in terms of impacts to groundwater and surface water. Studies have indicated that the Marcellus Shale is more radioactive than other shale formations. Measurements of radium in fracking wastewater in New York and Pennsylvania have been as high as 3,600 times the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) limit for drinking water. One recent study found toxic levels of radiation in a Pennsylvania waterway even after fracking wastewater was disposed of through an industrial wastewater treatment plant. In addition, the disposal of radioactive drill cuttings is a concern. Unsafe levels of radon and its decay products in natural gas produced from the Marcellus Shale, known to have particularly high radon content, may also contaminate pipelines and compressor stations, as well as pose risks to end-users when allowed to travel into homes.
- Occupational health and safety hazards – Fracking jobs are dangerous jobs. Occupational hazards include head injuries, traffic accidents, blunt trauma, burns, toxic chemical exposures, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and sleep deprivation. As a group, oil and gas industry workers have an on-the-job fatality rate seven times that of other industries. Exposure to silica dust, which is definitively linked to silicosis and lung cancer, was singled out by National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health as a particular threat to workers in fracking operations where silica sand is used. At the same time, research shows that many gas feild workers, despite these serious occupational hazards, are uninsured or underinsured and lack access to basic medical care.
- Noise pollution, light pollution and stress – Drilling and fracking operations and ancillary infrastructure expose workers and nearby residents to continuous noise and light pollution that is sustained for periods lasting many months. Chronic exposure to light at night is linked to adverse health effects, including breast cancer. Sources of fracking-related noise pollution include blasting, drilling, flaring, generators, compressor stations and truck traffic. Exposure to environmental noise pollution is linked to cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and sleep disturbance. Workers and residents whose homes, schools and workplaces are in close proximity to well sites are at risk from these exposures as well as from related stressors.
Earthquake and seismic activity – A growing body of evidence links fracking wastewater injection (disposal) wells to earthquakes of magnitudes as high as 5.7, in addition to “swarms” of minor earthquakes and fault slipping. In some cases, the fracking process itself has been linked to earthquakes and seismic activity, including instances in which gas corporations have acknowledged the connection. In New York, this issue is of particular concern to New York City’s aqueduct-dependent drinking water supply and watershed infrastructure, as the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP) has warned repeatedly, but similar concerns apply to all drinking water resources. The question of what to do with wastewater remains a problem with no viable, safe solution.
- Abandoned and active oil and natural gas wells (as pathways for gas and fluid migration) – Millions of abandoned and undocumented oil and gas wells exist across the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. All serve as potential pathways for pollution, heightening the risks of groundwater contamination and other problems when horizontal drilling and fracking operations intersect with pre-existing vertical channels leading through drinking water aquifers and to the atmosphere. Industry experts, consultants and government agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), Texas Department of Agriculture, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission have all warned about problems with abandoned wells due to the potential for pressurized fluids and gases to migrate through inactive and in some cases, active wells.
- Flood risks – Massive land clearing and forest fragmentation that necessarily accompany well site preparation increase erosion and risks for catastrophic flooding, as do access roads, pipeline easements and other related infrastructure. In addition, in some cases, operators choose to site well pads on flood-prone areas in order to have easy access to water for fracking, to abide by setback requirements intended to keep well pads away from inhabited buildings, or to avoid productive agricultural areas. In turn, flooding increases the dangers of unconventional gas extraction, resulting in the contamination of soils and water supplies, the overflow or breaching of containment ponds, and the escape of chemicals and hazardous materials. In at least six of the past ten years, New York State has experienced serious flooding in parts of the state targeted for drilling and fracking. Some of these areas have been hit with “100-year floods” in five or more of the past ten years. Gas companies acknowledge threats posed by flooding, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has recommended drilling be prohibited from 100-year flood areas; however, accelerating rates of extreme weather events make existing flood maps obsolete, making this approach insufficiently protective.
- Threats to agriculture and soil quality – Drilling and fracking pose risks to the agricultural industry. Studies and case reports from across the country have highlighted instances of deaths, neurological disorders, aborted pregnancies, and stillbirths in cattle and goats associated with livestock coming into contact with wastewater. Potential water and air contamination puts soil quality as well as livestock health at risk. Additionally, farmers have expressed concern that nearby fracking operations can hurt the perception of agricultural quality and nullify value-added organic certification.
- Threats to the climate system – A range of studies have shown high levels of methane leaks from gas drilling and fracking operations, undermining the notion that natural gas is a climate solution or a transition fuel. Major studies have concluded that early work by the EPA greatly underestimated the impacts of methane and natural gas drilling on the climate. Drilling, fracking and expanded use of natural gas threaten not only to exacerbate climate change but also to stifle investments in, and expansion of, renewable energy.
- Inaccurate jobs claims, increased crime rates, and threats to property value and mortgages – Experiences in various states and accompanying studies have shown that the oil and gas industry’s promises for job creation from drilling for natural gas have been greatly exaggerated and that many of the jobs are short-lived and/or have gone to out-of-area workers. With the arrival of drilling and fracking operations, communities have experienced steep increases in rates of crime – including sexual assault, drunk driving, drug abuse, and violent victimization, all of which carry public health consequences. Social costs include strain on municipal services and road damage. Economic analyses have found that drilling and fracking operations threaten property values. Additionally, gas drilling and fracking pose an inherent conflict with mortgages and property insurance due to the hazardous materials used and the associated risks.
- Inflated estimates of oil and gas reserves and profitability – Industry estimates of oil and gas reserves and profitability of drilling have proven unreliable, casting serious doubts on the bright economic prospects the industry has painted for the public, media and investors. Increasingly, well production has been short-lived, which has led companies to reduce the value of their assets by billions of dollars.
- Disclosure of serious risks to investors – Oil and gas companies are required to disclose risks to their investors in an annual Form 10-K. Those disclosures acknowledge the inherent dangers posed by gas drilling and fracking operations, including leaks, spills, explosions, blowouts, environmental damage, property damage, injury and death. Adequate protections have not kept pace with these documented dangers and inherent risks.
Medical and scientific calls for more study and more transparency – With increasing urgency, groups of medical professionals and scientists are issuing calls for comprehensive, long-term study of the full range of the potential health and ecosystem effects of drilling and fracking. These appeals underscore the accumulating evidence of harm, point to the major knowledge gaps that remain, and denounce the atmosphere of secrecy and intimidation that continues to impede the progress of scientific inquiry. Health professionals and scientists in the United States and around the world have urged tighter regulation of and in some cases, suspension of unconventional gas and oil extraction activities in order to limit, mitigate or eliminate its serious, adverse public health hazards.