In the three years since a breakthrough in mining technology known as hydraulic fracturing—fracking—became commercially profitable, the Haynesville Shale play in northwest Louisiana has become the most productive natural gas field in the country.
With more than 1,000 wells already using the fracking technique, and nearly 1,000 more going through the permitting process or being drilled, the Haynesville Shale produces 5.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day. The total production accounts for about 9.6% of the country’s consumption.
At the same time that fracking is ushering in a modern bonanza in Louisiana and dozens of other states, environmentalists are concerned about toxic chemicals used in the process.
Fracking involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals—fracking fluid—deep into the shale, creating fissures that allow the gas to be released. Between one and eight million gallons of fracking fluid are used to drill a single well.
The chemicals account for less than 1% of the fluid, but they include known carcinogens and toxic substances. The chemicals are polluting the air and drinking water, environmentalists say, causing serious health problems for people living near drilling operations.
Wilma Subra, an environmentalist from New Iberia, claims to have received about 100 calls in recent years from landowners in the Haynesville Shale area, including some who say they are experiencing such health problems as headaches and skin rashes.
“It takes substantial exposure to see the most serious effects,” says Subra, who helped draft fracking guidelines as a member of the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulation, a nonprofit public, private and government collaboration, “so what we’re seeing now are the immediate effects.”
Subra suspects that fracking is causing the health problems, either directly from the chemicals in the fluid or the toxins released into the air during the drilling process. It’s also possible, she says, that the high number of wells being drilled is shaking the ground so much that it’s undermining the integrity of area water wells, enabling them to become polluted.
Industry leaders and regulators, however, adamantly deny such claims. They say the chemicals in the fracking fluid are too diluted and are being pumped too deeply into the ground—about 11,000 feet, or two miles, in the Haynesville Shale—to pose environmental or health concerns.
“We do not have knowledge of a single instance where the fracking process has damaged drinking water in Louisiana,” says Jim Welsh, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation, which oversees all oil and gas exploration and production.
The water table in the Haynesville Shale is about 400 feet deep—about two miles above where the fluid is pumped—making drinking water contamination from fracking “a total impossibility,” Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs says.
“That would be like you taking your water hose, pouring some water on the ground and thinking it’s going to get to 10,000 feet,” he says. “If I thought there was even the possibility of drinking water being contaminated, I would be on the other side of this debate.”
Subra, a 2011 Global Exchange Human Rights Award winner and 1999 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, is among environmentalists featured in a 2010 documentary called Gasland, which has increased media attention on fracking.
Filmmaker Josh Fox traveled across the country, documenting environmental atrocities and health problems that he, environmentalists and landowners attribute to fracking. People in the oil and gas industry have been pushing back, mounting a public relations campaign to contradict each of the film’s claims.
Welsh says his office has yet to receive calls similar to those that Subra claims to have received. She says people are too scared to file a report, fearing they’ll jeopardize the cash windfall they’re receiving from land leases and royalties.
“They want to talk about it very quietly,” Subra says. “You have to understand that the Haynesville Shale is in an area that is very poor. People are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid the resources will stop flowing. But they are very concerned.”
Marylee Orr, director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, says her organization is increasing its focus on fracking. Subra currently is working with LEAN to develop education and support programs for northwest Louisiana residents living in the Haynesville Shale area.
“We intend for this to be one of our major issues going forward,” Orr says. “The property owners are still a bit intimidated. They have not been as vocal as some of the other areas, but hopefully that’s going to change.”
Old method, new regulation
Fracking has been around for about 60 years. The increase in its use in recent years has been caused by advances in horizontal drilling, which have made fracking more effective than in vertical drills. Even with its history, there isn’t a lot of scientific data to support claims by either side of this debate.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency undertook a study of the potential impacts of fracking, revisiting a process it deemed safe in a 2004 report. The agency anticipates releasing its findings by the end of next year, with a subsequent report expected to follow in 2014.
In the meantime, increasing public concern has led a number of states, including Texas, to debate bills that would require companies to reveal the chemical makeup of fracking fluid. Most companies are beginning to volunteer that information, but others have been less forthcoming, claiming the chemical mixtures are proprietary.
A Maryland bill would place a moratorium on fracking until more studies are completed, and New Jersey is considering a bill that would outlaw the practice entirely.
No such bills have been filed in Louisiana, Welsh says, though his office plans to implement a more detailed permitting application that would require mining companies to include a list of chemicals used in fracking. Additionally, more information about the cement used to ensure that fracking fluid stays within the well bore also would be required. All of the information, he says, will be made public.
“It’s a reaction to the public interest,” Welsh says, adding the new application should be in place by the fall. “We’re not hiding anything at all, and if this would help the process, I certainly don’t have a problem with putting it in our rules, since the companies have the information and they’re reporting it anyway.”
On the federal level, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act would go one step further by placing fracking under the regulation of the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill, which twice has failed, was reintroduced in March and is being watched by industry leaders and environmentalists.
Between 85% and 95% of all oil and gas wells in the country use the fracking method, Briggs says, meaning the EPA would “literally be able to shut down the oil and gas industry as we know it” if the FRAC Act becomes law.
“That’s why we’re fighting this thing so hard in [Washington] D.C.,” he says. “The states need to regulate their own business, just like they’re doing right now.”
Welsh says it’s important to remember that the disposal of used fracking fluid has raised the most concern. He notes that methods for doing so vary greatly from one shale play to the next, which means that the potential environmental effects also differ by region.
Companies drilling in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast, for example, treat the used fluid and disperse it into streams and rivers, some of which are sources of drinking water. In Louisiana, however, most of the fluid is pumped back into the ground to be stored in injection wells. Some spent fluid also is shipped to Texas for disposal.
There are about 4,000 injection wells in Louisiana; most are about 3,000 feet deep. Well pressure constantly is monitored for leaks, and the EPA also conducts annual evaluations, on which “we always get good reports,” Welsh says.
“The public and media are lumping all fracking into one issue,” he says, “but most of the controversy is coming from the Northeast and the Marcellus Shale, where the safe practice of underground injection is simply not an option due to the region’s geology. So they have additional issues that we don’t have in the Haynesville Shale.”
The Haynesville Shale is estimated to have enough reserves to keep 10,000 wells busy over the next 30 years, five times the number dotting the landscape today.
Land leases also are taking place along the Tuscaloosa Trend in central Louisiana. LSU researchers say the play eventually could produce 7 billion barrels of oil. Welsh says any future drilling there undoubtedly would involve fracking.
“There are some in the public and the media who believe this is something new and strange and unproven, but it’s not. In fact, it’s like any other practice that evolves over the years and gets safer,” he says. “Hydraulic fracking has been around for a good long time, and it’s not going away.”