While the production of oil from shale rock formations using unconventional recovery processes - including hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- may well be the key to the United States achieving oil independence, the health and environment risks involved remain largely unknown, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Background: What are 'Unconventional' Processes?
Conventional oil production is relatively simple: You find a pool of oil underground, dig a hole down to it and pump it out. Unfortunately, much of that oil in the United States has already been harvested. As a result, the focus of U.S. petroleum production has shifted to recovery of extensive quantities oil and gas trapped in the seams of shale rock and sand formations. Before this so-called "shale oil" can be pumped out of the ground, it must be freed and allowed flow by using a process of hydraulic fracturing - or "fracking" -- the rock formations.
Used since the 1940s, the process of fracking involves injecting a combination of water, sand, and chemical additives into the earth under high pressure in order to fracture the rock formations and release the oil and gas.
While petroleum companies have always employed varying degrees of safety measures during and after the fracking process, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May 2012, proposed the creation and enforcement of federal regulations specifically to address hydraulic fracturing. Since then, fracking continues to be blamed with a variety of environmental ills from ground water contamination to actually causing earthquakes.
How Important is Shale Oil?
In 2008, the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) set aside almost 2 million acres of publicly-owned lands in the states of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming for production of oil from oil shale and tar sands. According to BLM estimates, tar sand and shale deposits in the three states alone hold the equivalent of 800 billion barrels of oil, enough to meet the nation's current demand for imported oil for the next 110 years. However, recovering most, if not all of that oil will require the use of fracking.
What the GAO Found
In its report, GAO-12-732, the GAO told Congress that while all methods of oil and gas production pose environmental and public health risks, the extent of those risks associated with shale oil and gas development in general and hydraulic fracturing specifically remains largely unknown. As the GAO noted, few studies on shale oil production consider potential long-term effects of fracking. Indeed, it is often necessary to repeat the fracking process throughout the producing life of the well.
According to the GAO, the primary risks posed by the fracking process are to air and water quality.
Air Quality: The GAO determined that the two greatest risks to air quality are engine exhaust from increased truck traffic to and from the well site, and emissions from diesel powered pumps used in the fracking process. For example, the GAO cited a 2008 National Park Service report showing that an average shale oil well using fracking can require as many as 1,365 truckloads of water, chemicals and heavy machinery, like bulldozers needed for fracking and drilling. "The increased traffic creates a risk to air quality as engine exhaust that contains air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that affect public health and the environment are released into the atmosphere," noted the GAO report.In addition, the GAO cited research showing that surface and ground water - drinking water - can be contaminated by accidental spills and unavoidable releases of water mixed with chemicals used in the fracking process. Soil erosion, as well as migration of oil, gas and chemicals into underground aquifers are other possible risks.
Water Quality: Fracking requires copious quantities of water. Whenever possible, well managers use water from nearby lakes, rivers and streams. Often, several wells will take water from the same local sources. For its report, the GAO reviewed and cited several studies showing that "withdrawing water from streams, lakes, and aquifers for drilling and hydraulic fracturing could adversely affect water sources."
Fracking in Congress
So far, only two bills dealing fracking have been introduced in the 112th Congress, both with very different purposes.
Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct 2005), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is give no regulatory authority over some of the practices and process involved in fracking.
Also See: DOI-EPA Propose Oilfield Fracking RulesThe proposed FRAC Act - the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (H.R. 1084), sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), would give the EPA extensive jurisdiction over fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
On the other hand, the FRESH Act - the Fracturing Regulations are Effective in State Hands Act (H.R. 4322), sponsored by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), would specify that jurisdiction over fracking remain with the various states.
So far, neither bill has been debated in Congress.