This is a guest column by Colin Harris, an attorney with Bryan Cave LLP. Colin has 20 years of experience in matters pertaining to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
Mark Twain said “never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” A common hydraulic fracturing narrative is that the technology pollutes water supplies. The story goes that fracturing is a mysterious and untested practice, that fracturing fluids are a secret, “chemical cocktail,” that there are innumerable incidents of aquifer and drinking water contamination, resulting even in tap water catching fire, and that “Big Oil” has pressured Congress into exempting the technology from any environmental laws.
The truth is not as exciting. Hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of fluid consisting of approximately 99.5% water and sand (the rest consists of common industrial or even household chemicals or materials) through wells constructed with protective casing and cement, into producing shale formations. The formations are thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers, separated by impervious rock. While the technology has evolved and is used more frequently, fracturing is not new, is heavily regulated at the state level, and enjoys no blanket exemption from environmental laws. There is no credible data indicating that fracturing of shale formations has ever contaminated drinking water.
Fracturing proponents have struggled to gain the high ground in the debate on water quality, even as they debunked the myths time and again with facts and data. Fortunately, the groundwater issue may be losing traction, at least concerning some high-profile cases where the regulators recently have retracted allegations or reconsidered data.
This is why the thrust of the manufactured narrative that fracturing is a menace to the environment is now shifting to air quality. The time is now to separate fact from fiction in the public consciousness, and to demand transparency on the part of those who oppose fracturing and would have it banned or regulated into oblivion.