I first heard about fracking (the drilling of natural-gas wells using a method known as hydraulic fracturing) in 2009 when environmental advocates charged that natural-gas drilling could endanger New York City's water resources. I lived in the city at that time, so the news that natural-gas drilling could threaten my drinking water was alarming.
Many other New Yorkers shared these concerns, and the question of whether or not to allow fracking in the state flared into an ongoing political battle, one being re-enacted across the 30 states where natural-gas drilling is occurring. Nearly half a million natural gas wells are operating across the country, with more than 313,000 in just six states: New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.
OMB Watch, a government accountability group I lead, recently published a new report on fracking, The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect, and what we found is troubling. Disclosure of chemicals used in fracking is spotty and incomplete. States have begun to respond to citizen complaints, but no state requires enough upfront collection of data and monitoring of drilling operations to ensure protection of local water supplies.
Here's how fracking works: a well is drilled thousands of feet vertically into the ground (through the water table). Then a horizontal hole is drilled into a shale bed, extending laterally from the first well bore. A "fracking" mixture comprised of thousands of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals is pumped into the well at extremely high pressure. This fractures the shale rock, which releases methane gas that is captured and sold. Once you visualize this process, the potential risks of contamination to water supplies are obvious.
You're probably thinking: isn't there a law against poisoning water? The answer is yes (the Safe Drinking Water Act) and no (a clause was inserted into the 2005 Energy Policy Act, exempting natural-gas drilling from that drinking water law). Just as hydraulic fracturing was getting cheaper and the demand and price for natural gas was rising, federal oversight was removed.
Our report examined actions state officials have or have not taken to require drillers to disclose chemicals used in fracking. Roughly a dozen states have passed a law or had agencies establish a rule requiring disclosure. But there are two gaping holes in these laws that render them essentially toothless.
First, owners and operators of natural-gas wells are not required to gather baseline information on sources and quality of water near their planned well sites before drilling. Without baseline water and air quality measurements, local communities can't test to see whether water sources are being contaminated. Measuring before drilling occurs is just common sense, but no state requires this. Only a few states even require companies to report the chemicals they'll use before fracking begins.
Second, there's a loophole built into most state disclosure laws. Gas companies claim that fracking chemicals are "trade secrets" and that releasing details about the chemicals would disadvantage them with their competitors. Pepsi and Coke publish the ingredients in their products on every can; producers of fracking chemicals can do the same.
Companies don't want to disclose the chemicals they use because some ingredients are known to cause cancer, and others cause long-term neurological and kidney disorders. Yet without details on the chemicals, authorities and average citizens don't know what to test for.
It's amazing that after at least a thousand documented cases of poisoned water, we still have so few protections for water supplies. The obvious and most effective solution is to put natural-gas fracking back under the oversight of the national Safe Drinking Water Act.
But the gas industry is powerful. We are subject to a constant barrage of commercials exalting natural gas as clean energy. Industry campaign contributions cross party lines. And the promise of cheap domestic energy and new jobs is seductive - especially in tough economic times. But citizens across the country are asking questions and organizing resistance.
America has been blessed with an abundant supply of water resources. As citizens, we have a right to know what chemicals are being pumped into the ground near our communities, and we have a right to demand that our government safeguard our health and welfare.
Water is a collective, public resource upon which we all rely. We can't allow the short-term quest for cheap energy to permanently damage one of the few elements we can't live without. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to demand more.
- Katherine McFate is president of OMB Watch, a non-profit research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting government openness and increasing citizen engagement.