Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in the United States

The development and coming of age of the natural gas industry has come suddenly and swiftly into the backyards of United States citizens in the past few decades. Literally, thousands of unconventional natural gas wells have begun to sprout over massive shale gas plays across the United States and brought with them a multitude of positivity and controversy as well. These new natural gas shale plays such as the Barnett and Marcellus Shale bring a massive opportunity for the future of energy in the United States. It is proven that natural gas a cleaner burning fuel compared with coal and oil, and there also massive reserves located domestically across the contiguous United States. However, the methods of acquiring the shale gas are somewhat controversial environmentally and legislatively. The lack of federal and, in some cases, state legislation monitoring hydraulic fracturing leaves large loopholes that can be exploited by energy companies. In order for hydraulic fracturing to be a beneficial method of extracting unconventional natural gas, the federal and state governments need to enact legislation regulating and acknowledging the environmental concerns associated with this particular method of natural gas extraction. Without these regulations put in place to monitor the production of the wells, the environmental impact can be costly for the people of the United States. Until this happens, we cannot seamlessly transition into the next generation of cleaner burning fossil fuels.

It was not until quite recently that hydraulic fracturing was so prevalently used in the oil and gas industry. Although the method had been discovered around the year 1948, the technology was not yet in place to make this a viable and economic option for the extraction of unconventional natural gas reserves. Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling a vertical well down several thousand meters into a shale formation that is low in permeability and porosity. Because of the formation’s low permeability and porosity, the natural gas cannot move easily through the formation and up into the well bore. Operators are then forced to pump a combination of sand, water, and chemicals deep into the formation to fracture the rock and open up spaces where the gas can more easily travel and be released. This combination of liquid is more generally referred to as “fracking fluid” and its disposal and storage methods are currently under the microscope. This fracking fluid requires massive amounts of water and each natural gas well uses anywhere from 2.4-7.8 million gallons of water in its lifetime. It is composed of around 99.2% water, while the other 0.79% is primarily chemicals and lubricants and those chemicals can be harmful when exposed to the groundwater. As hydraulic fracturing becomes more commonplace as we progress into the future, we must make regulations to deal with the disposal of this liquid, or suffer the consequences in the long run.

Dr. William Fisher, University of Texas at Austin Professor of Reservoir Geology, Bureau of Economic Geology; class presentation 2012 Northwestern University



Filed under energy

4 responses to “Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in the United States

  1. andreafalkofske

    I think that this is a really interesting and important issue that really needs to be addressed in the next few years. Environmental and energy groups can continue to squabble over whether fracking causes groundwater contamination, but the biggest concern to me is the huge amount of water required for the process. The EPA predicts that this year 36 states are expecting water shortages due to overconsumption, not just because of drought conditions. If we continue to harvest energy through methods that require such massive amounts of freshwater, the water problem will only get worse.

    • andreafalkofske

      Source: “US Water Supply.” US Environmental Protection Agency. Watersense, 7 July 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. .

  2. michaeldrummond1

    What are the specifics of the loopholes you mentioned? I am curious if they only apply to unconventional gas extraction, or if they also apply to conventional and oil.

  3. jppierre2013

    I agree. I think it is an unfortunate lack of foresight to not have more stringent regulation in place. As Dr. Webber often reminds us, yesterday’s solutions are today’s problem. However, it is easy to see how we have found ourselves as a society in this situation grappling with how to manage the plundering of our natural resources. As a nation we have put our wealth more on par with the rest of the world today than it has been for quite some time. An unfortunate aspect of having a citizenry struggling to maintain a little wealth and health is that it becomes more justifiable to put the stability of our ecosystem at risk. Imagine the progress we might have seen today if Reagan hadn’t taken down Carter’s solar panels. As the saying goes we too often take a step forward then two steps back.
    I believe the loopholes apply to all oil and gas exploration and extraction. The federal loopholes can be found here.
    The states for the most part are responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry. Each state is unique in its own regulatory requirements. Some are more stringent than others. The fracking industry is in its infancy. We should be proceeding with caution. Here is a good debate between advocates and opponents of the fracking practice. The debate is centered around NY’s moratorium on fracking the Marcellus shale.
    I also agree we should be concerned with water quality when considering whether to frack or not to frack. The amount of water consumed in fracking does sound like an enormous quantity, but is actually less than 1% of total consumption caused by human activity in TX [6].
    My concern with water use in fracking is not so much how much is being used, but how the water is being redistributed and potentially contaminated. It is true that the amount of chemicals added to the fracking solutions may be a small percentage, however, without regulation to make record keeping public knowledge we may not have the data bases in the future to diagnose what we’ve done to the environment. Additionally, when you consider the fact that many retired oil fields are now being revisited to extract the remaining precious liquids or gas through hydrofracking it becomes a concern with respect to existing abandoned wells in the area. Peckham and Ashworth (1993) discuss in their report of the Edwards Trinity High Plains Aquifer the possibility of cross formation communication to occur due the enormous amount of abandoned shotholes from oil and gas exploration [7]. When you couple underground uncertainties such as this with the fact that these underground formations are being abnormally pressurized in the fracking process, one would think that states would proceed with trepidation. We can further complicate this idea when we acknowledge that each shale play is its own beast in itself and has its own geologic features that must be taken into consideration. In other words, a fracking recipe for Texas may not be suitable for Pennsylvania, New York, and North Dakota.
    In some ways I feel the discussion of fracking and groundwater quality has evolved into a distraction employed to take away attention from what is going on above ground.
    A multitude of recent studies has found that the hydraulic fracturing process itself has had very little impact on environmental quality and most incidences of contamination occurred on the surface [3]. Researchers in Pennsylvania have begun to analyze early trends of land cover change in the Marcellus Shale and preliminary results have indicated the importance of choosing the location of well pads and support infrastructure to minimize soil erosion, stream sedimentation and alteration in stream flow rates, and forest fragmentation [1,2]. Their work is preliminary, yet it shows how exploration can be done with reduced above-ground impact. Very little, if any, research has examined the land fragmentation effects of the recent shale boom in the semi-arid climate of Texas, where reduced rainfall rates could substantially lengthen landscape reclamation following drilling and fracturing. It is generally regarded that above-ground issues in unconventional energy will remain important for some time, perhaps throughout the life of the play. And, given that above-ground conditions also play a role in groundwater quality (i.e. through recharge processes), an analysis as to how potential surface disruptions may affect landscape quality in order to identify activities to reduce these disruptions is necessary.
    Currently the industry follows a voluntary guideline created by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) called Reasonable and Prudent Practices for Stabilization (RAPPS). Information regarding this can be found here:

    Research should done to outline measures to better site drilling pads and other infrastructure to mitigate fragmentation impacts from exploration and drilling operations. Regulation should be adopted that follows the recommendation of this research. Many countries in semi-arid climates with existing water scarcity have been identified as having large shale reserves. Quantifying existing and future landscape fragmentation should be a necessary preliminary step to an infrastructure development guide. Semi-arid regions are reliant on soil moisture infiltration through effective porosity because of a high evaporation rate. Fragmentation of landscapes has been observed to reduce porosity and water infiltration, particularly when soil resources are mishandled during excavation [2]. Demographic processes such as seed germination, establishment, and maturation have been observed to be affected by the herbaceous to woody species ratio as well as density of colony patches. A research gap has existed in understanding semi-arid landscape fragmentation for some time. As Levin’s (1974) work observed in semi-arid fragmented landscapes, habitat subdivision was highly complicated by shrub-grass competition/facilitation [5]. Increased homogeneity in vegetation is a result of the reduction of minority cover species. These disturbances on a local level can manifest themselves into changes at the regional biome level in the context of regional climate change and water stresses [4]. At least in Texas, the practice of hydraulic fracturing may be advancing desertification at a rate we don’t completely understand yet.

    [1] Drohan, P.J., and Brittingham, M., 2012, Topographic and soil constraints to shale-gas development in the North central Appalachians: Soil Science Society of America Journal, p. 11.
    [2] Drohan, P.J., Brittingham, M., Bishop, J., and Yoder, K., 2012, Early trends in landcover change and forest fragmentation due to shale-gas development in Pennsylvania: a potential outcome for the North central Appalachians: Environmental Management, v. 49, p. 1061–1075.
    [3] Duncan, I., 2012, Fact-based regulation for environmental protection in shale gas resource development: The energy Institute, The University of Texas atAustin. p. 127.
    [4] John, R., Chen, J., Lu, N., and Wilske, B., 2009, Land cover/land use change in semi-arid Inner Mongolia: 1992-2004: Environmental Research Letters, v. 4, p. 9.

    [5] Levin, S.A., 1974, Dispersion and population interaction: American Naturalist, v. 108, p. 207–228.
    [6] Mills, W., Gabriel, A., Gabriel, D., 2012, Variabilty and Impacts of Implementing Various Power Plant Cooling Technologies in Texas. EPRI, Palo Alto, CA: 2012. 1026728
    [7] Peckham, D.S., and Ashworth, J.B., 1993, The High Plains Aquifer System of Texas, 1980 to 1990 Overview and Projections: Texas Water Development Board Report 341,, p. 37.

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