fracking: the problem is not what you think

Researchers just published a paper that claims that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) poses a substantial risk to water pollution, but not how you might think.  Fracking, at this point, is viewed as an evil process that’s destroying America’s heartland and poisoning major water supplies.  Unfortunately, the public remains misinformed about actual threats to water supplies, and some widely popular “facts” claimed by fracking opponents turn out to be myths.  Apparently neither side of the fracking debate is doing a good job of using science rather than emotion.

Which brings me back to the paper that just came out.  The paper did not claim that fracking fluids would contaminate groundwater supplies, but rather stated that the risk from fracking wastewater is substantial to surface water bodies.  Most of the water that is injected for fracking comes back out of the wells with the natural gas, and has high concentrations of naturally occurring salts, trace metals, and radioactivity due to its contact with the shale rock at depth.  The large volumes of wastewater have the potential to overwhelm existing wastewater treatment plants (and downstream water treatment plants).  The authors suggest that regulators should consider mandating procedures and methods to reduce wastewater volumes, so as to mitigate the risk of accidental wastewater release.

Oddly enough, the extensive drought across the US is already encouraging drillers to recycle their fracking wastewater to be reused for injection elsewhere.  I’ve previously alluded to some of the research that’s being done to develop water reuse technologies for fracking, and now anti-fracking groups are pressing legislators to mandate water reuse and limit the amount of fresh water that can be used for fracking.  To me, this is eminently sensible – it would be very hard for an environmental group to stop fracking altogether at this point, but it should be possible to hold drilling companies accountable to today’s environmental standards.

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