The potential environmental damage, primarily groundwater contamination, from capturing natural gas through hydraulic fracturing (aka hydrofracking and fracking) has captured national media attention. Most of that attention has been focused on current events in Pennsylvania, although the Marcellus Shale present in Pennsylvania also extends under New York, Ohio and West Virginia. That being said, hydraulic fracturing was utilized previously in numerous other western states such as Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Now it appears that there is the potential for hydraulic fracing to occur in downstate Illinois where the New Albany shale formation is located as oil and gas companies are currently moving to secure mineral leases on properties over this formation.
Hydraulic fracturing utilizes custom blends of water and various chemicals, the exact formulation of which are closely guarded secrets. When injected under high pressure the fracking fluid cracks the bedrock such that otherwise trapped natural gas can escape and be collected. Environmental concerns have revolved primarily around groundwater contamination by the natural gas or the fracking fluid and the disposal of fracking fluid. One of the more notable claims of groundwater contamination was shown in the documentary Gasland in which tapwater was ignited. The exact source of the natural gas in well water can be difficult to determine. Shale and coal formulations can have naturally occuring methane (one only needs to consider the number of explosions in underground coal mines). Often the methane is produced by naturally occuring methanogen bacteria.
In 2005, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to exclude from regulation “the underground injuect of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.” However, the change in political climate as well as the extension of fracking to the eastern U.S. has put hydrofracking under renewed scrutiny. On the federal level, a US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority report released in April 2011, Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing, concluded that 650 of the fracking fluid products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants. US EPA is undertaking a scientific study with initial results in 2012 and an additional report due in 2014. Many state and local governments are not waiting for federal oversight. Instead, they are implementing their own statutes and regulations to ban or regulate the practice.
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