Second of three parts
JACKSON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – For Lou Hancherick, who lives in the countryside amid picturesque hillside vistas and gas wells 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, the dangers of fracking came clear when the water didn’t.
Eighty miles to the south, Pam Judy turned against hydraulic fracturing when a natural gas compressor station moved in next to her hillside home, and the sore throats and headaches began.
And near Pennsylvania’s border with Ohio, Maggie Henry finds her organic farm pinched between a fracked gas well and a new cryogenic plant that processes the huge volume of gas being blasted from deep beneath the ground of western Pennsylvania.
“I wouldn’t have the nerve to tell my customers I am selling organic products with the amount of pollution that’s going to be in the air,” Henry said.
You frequently hear anecdotes such as these in the hilly country to the north and south of Pittsburgh, a productive part of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale – which Pennsylvania allows to be tapped, while New York does not.
Yet to many scientists studying whether it is safe to drill a mile or more underground and then blast open the shale rock with vast quantities of chemically treated water in order to free the gas that’s trapped there, those anecdotes are, well, just anecdotes.
The truth about fracking’s safety, they say, is far more complex – and, in many ways, the truth is still a mystery.
Scientists know that many homeowners complain that fracking has made their well water turn bad – but there is little proof that fracking is to blame.
Many researchers have long argued that fracking will help curb global warming as “clean” natural gas displaces coal as the fuel of choice for the nation’s power plants – but recent evidence indicates that methane leaks from natural gas facilities could undo all the good that the switch to gas will supposedly make.
And while few scientists worry that the chemicals left a mile underground in the fracking process will cause a chemical disaster anytime soon, they wonder what may happen decades from now.
Add it all up, and on the question of fracking, “the science is all over the place,” said Mark Lubell, director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California at Davis.
“Both sides can pick and choose the science that supports their position, which is then biased,” he said.
In other words, vast stretches of the nation – and the world – are increasingly being “fracked” without anyone being able to say for certain whether doing so will damage the water or the air, whether it will slow or hasten climate change or whether it will lead to environmental damage far in the future.
In Western Pennsylvania, though, Hancherick, Judy and Henry are among those who are certain that great damage already has been done.
Effect on water quality
Hancherick – who spent seven years of his youth in Buffalo and graduated from Riverside High School – now lives just up the hill from a rental property that he owns in Butler County, Pa., where the natural gas extraction practice known as hydraulic fracturing arrived in 2010.
A longtime “fractivist” who opposes the practice, Hancherick noted that the tap water at his rental property, drawn from a well a few miles from all the gas drilling, now runs in shifting hues.
“Sometimes it’s OK, sometimes it’s filled with brown stuff, sometimes it’s filled with black stuff,” he said. “It’s very unsettling.”
That’s nothing compared with the problems in the impoverished Woodland neighborhood, five miles away.
Rex Energy drilled about 15 gas wells near the Woodlands in 2010, and a year later, residents of the trailers and cabins of the Woodlands noticed their water changing. The water ran orange at some homes and brown at others.
When it was tested, the results varied, too. Many water wells contained elevated levels of iron and manganese. Some had high acid levels. Some had high alkaline levels. Eventually, about 50 of 150 families surveyed said they were affected, said John F. Stolz, director of the Duquesne University Center for Environmental Research in Pittsburgh, who has surveyed the residents.
But none of the well water contained the kinds of chemicals that are added to the water pumped a mile deep into the ground during the fracking process.
Instead, all the contaminants were naturally occurring in the mineral-rich bedrock of western Pennsylvania.
For that reason, the state of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency absolved Rex Energy of any responsibility for the water problems.
“At the Woodlands, the EPA did a follow-up investigation that concurrently concluded that the water supplies in this area were not affected by oil and gas activities,” said Amanda Witman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
The Woodlands, then, is a microcosm of the mysteries that researchers have found as they have delved deep into fracking’s impact on water quality.
Note the contrast between two recent studies on the topic.
The U.S. Geological Survey last year studied the groundwater near 127 fracked wells in Arkansas.
“We saw no effect from the gas drilling,” said Timothy M. Kresse, a water-quality specialist for the Geological Survey who was involved in the study.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington studied 100 groundwater wells in that state’s gas-rich Barnett Shale and found elevated levels of arsenic and other naturally occurring heavy metals that scientists believe may have been stirred up by the fracking process.
“It’s a cause for concern,” said Kevin A. Schug, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the university.
Scientists are less worried about the chemicals used in the fracking process than the disturbance the fracking process can have on the chemicals that occur naturally in the ground, including methane leakage.
That worry grows in areas such as Pennsylvania, where previous gas drilling and coal mining have combined with the geology to create potential pathways for naturally occurring chemicals to migrate, Stolz said.
“Place matters,” said Robert B. Jackson, professor of global environmental change at Duke University and one of the nation’s leading researchers on fracking. “In places that are riddled with cracks and fractures, you’re more likely to have trouble.”
Complicating matters further is the fact that Pennsylvania – unlike New York – does not regulate the construction of private water wells, meaning water-quality problems could be more related to the drilling of water wells rather than gas wells.
The residents of the Woodlands think otherwise, but they are now embroiled in a lawsuit against Rex Energy and no longer speaking to reporters. Yet people such as the Rev. Lee Dreyer are happy to speak for them.
Dreyer’s White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church in nearby Connoquenessing has been doing something the state, the EPA and Rex Energy will not. The church has been running a weekly water bank that serves about 35 families in the Woodlands who don’t dare drink their water.
“Every time I see one of those commercials for one of the energy companies, I think: Gee, couldn’t they put the money they put into that ad into helping these people at the Woodlands?” Dreyer said. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Noting that there’s “a lot of anger” among residents of the Woodlands, Dreyer said that he’s among those who turned against fracking because of what has happened locally.
“I want people to have jobs,” Dreyer said. “But at what cost?”
Air quality a mystery
Pam Judy, meanwhile, just wants clean air.
She thought she would have plenty of it when she and her husband built their dream home on their family property in Greene County, Pa., near the West Virginia border, in 2006. But that was before Energy Corp. of America built a gas compressor station less than 800 feet away from the Judy family homestead.
Since the compressor station opened a few years ago, Judy said she and her children have suffered severe headaches, sore throats and an assortment of other ailments.
“I wouldn’t know what it’s like to not have a sore throat,” she said.
Worse yet, air tests on the Judy family property, conducted by an anti-fracking group, found elevated levels of 10 cancer-causing chemicals.
“You live every day with that fear,” she said.
Yet Judy also lives with the knowledge that the state Department of Environmental Protection, as well as Energy Corp. of America, say the compressor station is not a health threat.
“At the request of Ms. Judy, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and other regulatory agencies have inspected the facility on numerous occasions,” said Jennifer Vieweg, a spokeswoman for Energy Corp. of America. “All of the DEP air-quality studies have determined no elevated levels of emissions around her property.”
Similar mysteries are playing out near other natural gas compressor stations, and they’re just a small part of a much larger question:
Is natural gas fracking producing a clean, low-carbon “bridge fuel” to a green energy future, or is it dirtying the air and warming the climate every bit as much as coal does?
Asked another way, that question could be: Is the conventional wisdom correct?
Methane leaks at issue
President Obama voiced the conventional wisdom in his State of the Union address last year.
“We produce more natural gas than ever before – and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it,” he said. “And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.”
The theory is that burning natural gas is much cleaner than burning coal. And it’s built on a scientifically established fact.
According to the EPA, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide and less than a third as much nitrous oxide as coal does, which is important, because those are two of the four main contributors to global warming.
But a third big greenhouse gas is methane, the main component in natural gas and a greenhouse gas that’s about 30 times as dangerous to the climate as is carbon dioxide.
So if too much methane leaks into the atmosphere from natural gas drilling sites, pipelines or other sources, natural gas could end up being as bad a planet-cooker as is coal.
For years, few scientists thought that was a possibility.
While methane leaks from gas wells all the time, “my look at the evidence to date suggests that this in no way eliminates the significant advantage of gas over coal,” said Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, the former head of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To prove that point, fracking supporters can point to a study completed last fall by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the Environmental Defense Fund. Studying 180 drilling sites nationwide, the researchers found that methane emissions were 97 percent lower than the EPA had estimated.
That’s largely because the emission controls gas drillers employed are “very effective,” said David T. Allen, a professor of chemical engineering who was the study’s main researcher.
But more recent research paints a different picture.
First, in February, researchers from Stanford, Harvard and several other institutions released research indicating the EPA has been underestimating the number of methane leaks by about 50 percent.
And two months later, scientists from Cornell and Purdue published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences based on methane measurements outside Pennsylvania fracking sites. The conclusion: Methane emissions are 100 to 1,000 times what the EPA has said.
That study appears to confirm early research by Anthony R. Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, and his Cornell colleague Robert W. Howarth.
“Our conclusion is that no, natural gas is not better than coal,” said Ingraffea, who acknowledged that the overall level of methane emissions is the most important environmental question surrounding fracking.
‘You just don’t know’
Of course, if you live near a well or a natural gas compressor station, you may have other concerns.
For Jerry Yeager, who lives near the West Virginia border about 20 miles southeast of Pam Judy, the most important environmental question is: What’s causing the skin rashes and the loss of the sense of smell and the other health problems he and his wife are experiencing?
Yeager is convinced it has something to do with the natural gas compressor station just down the road from his house. The station was built to process all the gas from fracked wells nearby.
Then again, neither he nor his doctor are sure.
“You just don’t know what’s going on,” Yeager said. “It can be so easily blamed on so many things.”
Health problems cited
A hundred or so miles to the northwest in North Beaver Township, Maggie Henry is experiencing similar symptoms and similar uncertainty.
After Shell Oil Co. fracked a well 4,100 feet from her property, “I got sick and was down for a week,” Henry said. “I was having trouble breathing.”
Henry’s asthma problems persist, making it increasingly hard for her to run her organic farm, where she raises chickens, turkeys and pigs along with cattle and dairy cows.
So what does her doctor say about her sense that the nearby well is making her sick?
“She literally doesn’t want to hear it,” said Henry, who noted that many people in the region have leased out their land for gas drilling.
You may notice a pattern here.
All across the country, in areas that have been fracked, some people complain of health problems.
And all across the country, the relationship between drilling and health is every bit as uncertain as fracking’s long-term environmental impact.
“The data and the research are still unfolding,” said Tanya Heikkila, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, who is studying the political landscape surrounding the fracking issue in New York, Texas and Colorado.
Some of the research gaps are surprising.
Four years after the film “Gasland” highlighted a homeowner whose tap water was so laden with methane that he could light it on fire, you would think we might know something about the health impacts of methane in drinking water.
“There’s not a single peer reviewed study examining the health consequences of small concentrations of methane in water supplies,” said Jackson, the Duke researcher.
Similarly, a long-awaited EPA study of fracking’s effect on ground water is, well, still long-awaited. It’s now on target for completion this year.
“We have an ongoing study that’s really 18 research projects all into one to look at all the water issues associated with fracking,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
In the absence of definitive research, anecdotes tend to dominate the fracking debate – whether or not they tell a larger story.
“It’s hard to get good field data, so the people who are against fracking have gotten very good at picking up on the anecdotal stories,” Heikkila said. “And they’re powerful stories. They’ve captured the public’s attention.”
So, too, are the stories about farmers who have gotten wealthy by leasing their land. But they, too, are just stories.
Both sides in the debate push misleading information on the public, Heikkila said.
“They say it’s either all fine or it’s all scary,” she said. “But if you talk to scientists, they tend to be more middle of the road.”
Take the differing views regarding the chemicals used in the fracking process, some of which remain a mile underground once the well is dug, prompting fears that they will migrate into the water supply someday.
“The more I found out about that, it’s scary,” said Lynette “Ping” Pirrung, a Butler County “fractivist.”
The American Petroleum Institute, meanwhile, says in its “fracking primer” that most of those frack fluids are recovered and recycled or disposed of under government regulation, which is true.
“Over the life of the well, some is left being and confined by thousands of feet of rock layers,” the energy industry lobbying group added.
The trouble is, nobody knows what will happen to those deeply buried chemicals decades from now.
While Jackson said it’s unlikely that frack fluids will ever contaminate water supplies, he added: “One of the things I ponder is that we don’t know how much legacy effect there is going to be 25, 50, 100 years from now by drilling all these wells.”
To hear the fractivists tell it, fracking’s legacy is already clear in places like the Woodlands, where Michael Bagdes-Canning, a retired teacher, has found what he calls “a second career” giving visiting journalists tours of the region.
Noting that residents of the Woodlands can’t shower with the bottled water they get from the water bank, and that local leaders have failed to agree on building a water pipeline to the area, Bagdes-Canning views the residents of the Woodlands as proof that fracking can come to no environmental good.
Driving through the neighborhood and noting the varying color of the tap water at various cabins and trailers, Bagdes-Canning said: “It’s horrible, what’s happened to these people.”