Environmental Considerations Regarding Fracking

Extended Version of a Statement Given at the Oil and Gas Rights Public Forum at Ohio University, March 27, 2012

by Bernhard Debatin  

1. Introductory Remarks

Let me start with three introductory remarks before I get to the environmental considerations.

First, some definitions: When I say “fracking,” I mean the overall industrial process employed to conduct horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and gas from deep shale layers. This includes ancillary activities such as the transportation and delivery of water and fracking fluids, drilling muds, silica sands, solid and liquid wastes, and other chemicals to and from the drilling site. It also includes the technical infrastructure, such as the well pad and the drilling rig; the bore hole and the well casing; freshwater and wastewater tanks, pits, and sludge-ponds; compressors, tanks, and pipelines for the extracted gas and oil; as well as trucks and other equipment used in the process.

Second, we have recently learned from ODNR that Athens County seems to be outside of the productive part of the Utica Shale. This means that at least for now, the industry might not be too interested in drilling here. However, Athens County is still impacted by the issue of injection wells for toxic frack-water. Also, we should not forget that the ODNR map is based on rough estimates, which in this industry are wildly variable. Moreover, the map reflects the status quo of what is currently estimated as profitably recoverable. With constantly improving technology (“super fracking”) and rising energy prices, we’ll probably see the industry return to Athens County in the not so far future.[1]

Third, fracking is often presented as an economic blessing in the media and by politicians and the industry. However studies that stress the economic benefits associated with fracking have not been, for the most part, peer-reviewed and have been shown to overestimate the expected impact on local economic development. Moreover, they also mostly look at short-term benefits and tend to overlook the long-term impact. Therefore, these long-term costs are usually simply externalized and ignored in the cost/benefit analysis.[2]

2. Environmental Concerns

Fracking, in short, means horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and gas trapped in deep shale layers. This is not your grandparents’ little rocking horse oil well; it is a large-scale industry, a noisy, smelly, and dangerous workplace with a 24/7 frenzy of activity—and it is also toxic. Over 600 chemicals are used in drilling muds and fracking fluids, many of which are known to cause severe health problems, including cancer and chronic diseases. The most dangerous among them are benzenes and other volatile organic compounds.[3]

Proponents of fracking will tell you that this is merely a question of dilution: The chemicals make up only 1.5 to 4 percent of the fracking fluid, so they won’t hurt you. That sounds convincing until you realize that we’re talking about insanely large quantities. Depending on the site, a single fracking event requires somewhere between two and eight million gallons of water. For an average five million gallon frack job, we’d look at 100,000 gallons of chemicals. That’s about 14 tank trucks full of toxic chemicals that need to be trucked to the fracking site, in addition to over 700 tank trucks of water. Residents in areas with fracking sites, such as Wetzel County, WV, learned the hard way that this not only takes a toll on roads and bridges, it also creates frequent traffic congestion and a heightened risk of accidents and spills. [4]

In addition to the transportation of water, chemicals, drilling muds, silica sands, and toxic wastewater, this industry also includes large, failure-prone technical apparatuses, such as the well pad and the drilling rig; the bore hole and well casing; freshwater and wastewater impoundments; and compressors, tanks, and pipelines for the extracted gas and oil. Spills, leaks, rig fires and explosions of tanks, pipelines or compressor station are not unusual, although they are rarely as dramatic as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig blaze in the Gulf of Mexico.

Based on previous experiences with leaks, spills, and accidents in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas, it is safe to say that the most common dangers of fracking are water and air contamination. If OU were to allow drilling under the Ridges or a fracking company were to drill near University Estates (both options have been publicly discussed recently), our main drinking water source from the aquifers below the Hocking River would be in the immediate vicinity of the fracking wells. According to Anthony Ingraffea, a rock fracturing expert from Cornell University, cracked well casings are the most common culprit in aquifer contamination—and once the groundwater is polluted, it can’t be cleaned up.[5]

Given our typical weather patterns, the Athens Campus of Ohio University would be downwind of these fracking sites. We would get an unhealthy mix of fugitive natural gas, volatile organic compounds, and diesel fumes, forming a dangerous ground-level ozone cloud. Researchers in Colorado found that these airborne toxic chemicals are emitted during all stages of the fracking process even under failure-free operation.[6]

Trucks would constantly drive back and forth, plugging up the freeway and State Route 682. In addition, the drilling and fracking operations would create a fair amount of noise and light pollution. “You can’t sugar-coat it …you’re going to see about an 80-foot derrick, it’s lit up like a Christmas tree, it operates 24 hours a day, and there’s noise,“ said Ohio Oil Council director Terry Fleming during a “Newswatch” discussion at the local WOUB station on February 28, 2012.[7]

3. Categories and Dimensions of the Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of fracking falls into two main categories, namely

(1) the environmental impact during the normal, failure-free fracking process, and

(2)  the environmental impact due to accidents, spills, and leaks, caused by material failure, human error, a combination of both, or by illegal activities.

The environmental impact has two main dimensions:

(a) the impact on the environment in general, that is, changes and damage to or actual contamination of air, soil, surface water, underground water, and the ecosystems and the organisms that depend on them, and

(b)  the impact on human health and well-being due to fracking-related activities under normal circumstances and in cases of accidents.

This allows us to look at the environmental impact in terms of a four-dimensional matrix:


(Impact on) 

1. Normal operation

2. Failures and accidents

a)  General Environment

(1 a)

(2 a)

b)  Human Health

(1 b)

(2 b)

Table 1: Categories and Dimensions of the Environmental Impact

The following table provides a detailed breakdown of the different types of environmental impact by category and dimension (click on table to enlarge).

Table 2: Environmental Impact by Category and Dimension

4. Specific Effects of Fracking Chemicals on Human Health:

According to Colborn et al.,[8] many fracking chemicals can affect the skin and sensory organs, the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system and liver, and the brain and nervous system. Symptoms include eye and skin irritation, nausea and vomiting, asthma, coughing, sore throat, flulike symptoms, tingling, dizziness, headaches, weakness, fainting, numbness in extremities, and convulsions.

Fracking chemicals can also lead to chronic and long term organ and system damage of the immune system, kidneys, and cardiovascular system. The can cause cancer, mutation and disruption of normal reproduction and development. Other effects include damage of teeth and bones, change in weight and also sudden death. Additionally, the researchers also found strong ecological effects, particularly on aquatic and other wildlife.

These findings were corroborated by a recent study, showing that fracking fluids, methane gas exposure, and other gas-drilling related contamination can have a serious impact on the health of both humans and animals. The study, conducted by private practice veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald of the Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University, investigated 24 different sites with gas wells, 18 of which were horizontal hydro-fractured wells. The researchers observed and documented severe changes in health of both humans and animals living close to these sites.[9]

5. Conclusions

The potential negative impact of fracking leaves us wondering how attractive Ohio University would be for students, faculty, and staff if we would have to live with the unintended consequences of this industry. It is difficult to put a price tag on the environment, on the destruction of natural beauty, on reduced quality of life, on community disruption, and on lost opportunities. But these issues are likely to translate into increased health care expenses, lower enrollment due to reduced attractiveness, fewer long-term jobs at Ohio University, and other damage to the local economy. It thus seems obvious that the short-term benefits of fracking would be easily outweighed by the long-term costs it creates. Therefore, the following conclusions should be kept in mind when considering leasing Ohio University-owned land:

1.   Fracking endangers the natural beauty of the campuses and the surrounding areas, it put the safety of our water, air, and soil at risk, and it poses a considerable risk to human health

2.  If at all, Ohio University should only enter into non-drilling leases to minimize potential surface and groundwater contamiation

3. All lease contracts Ohio University make should include the minimum precautions as outlined in Appendix 1 of Faculty Senate Resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing, March 12, 2012.


[1]     See, for instance: G. Allen Brooks, “Musings: Are The Shale Resource Estimates Realistic Or Fantasy?,” Rigzone, March 29, 2012, http://www.rigzone.com/news/article.asp?hpf=1&a_id=105581.

[2]     Thomas C. Kinnaman, “The Economic Impact of Shale Gas Extraction: A Review of Existing Studies,” Ecological Economics, 70 (2011): 1243-1249; see also: Amanda L. Weinstein and Mark D. Partridge, The Economic Value of Shale Natural Gas in Ohio (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy Summary, 2011), http://go.osu.edu/shalejobs.

[3]     Michael Kelley, “The 10 Scariest Chemicals Used In Hydraulic Fracking,” Business Insider, March 16, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/scary-chemicals-used-in-hydraulic-fracking-2012-3; see also U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing, April 2011, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Hydraulic%20Fracturing%20Report%204.18.11.pdf.

[4]     Al Blacevicius et al., “Fracking Experiences from ‘Victory Field’, Wetzel County, WV,” Slow Down Fracking in Athens County, January 31, 2012, http://slowdownfracking.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/fracking-experiences-wetzel/.

[5]     Chris Mooney, “The Truth About Fracking,” Scientific American, October 19, 2011, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-truth-about-fracking; Bernhard Debatin,” Cement Casing: The Weak Link of Fracking,” Slow Down Fracking in Athens County, November 28, 2011, http://slowdownfracking.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/cement-casing-the-weak-link-of-fracking/.

[6]     “…at each stage of production and delivery tons of toxic volatile compounds (VOCs), including BTEX, other hydrocarbons, and fugitive natural gas (methane), can escape and mix with nitrogen oxides (NOx) from the exhaust of diesel-fueled, mobile, and stationary equipment, to produce ground-level ozone.” (Theo Colborn et al., “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective,” International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, September 4, 2010, p. 4f.,  http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/files/NaturalGas ManuscriptPDF09_13_10.pdf)

[8]     Theo Colborn et al., “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective,” International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, September 4, 2010, http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/files/NaturalGas ManuscriptPDF09_13_10.pdf)

[9]     Michelle Bamberger & Robert E. Oswald, “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health,” New Solutions, Vol. 22(1) 2012, p. 51-77.

One response to “Environmental Considerations Regarding Fracking

  1. Fracking has been among the most hotly debated topics in the energy sector in recent years. Thanks for sharing some great points about it.
    Tank Liners

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