Fracking rig

Fracking rig

Fracking media coverage is a confused mess. One day there’s a news story implying that fracking is causing earthquakes or groundwater contamination. The next day there’s a different story asserting there’s no clear connection.

No wonder the Gallup Polling Co. recently found that an equal number, 40 percent, supported and opposed fracking.

One problem is that people, and especially reporters, frequently confuse fracking with wastewater injection.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has been around for decades. It’s a process whereby water, mixed largely with sand and a small amount of chemicals, is forced into shale rock located miles underground.

The mixture breaks up the shale and allows the trapped oil and natural gas to be extracted. Drillers then recapture that wastewater mixture and dispose of it deep in the ground, sometimes in a previously existing well, known as wastewater injection wells.

Whenever an earthquake happens, the public and the media immediately want to blame fracking. But there is no evidence that fracking causes earthquakes. During a spate of relatively minor earthquakes in Irving, Texas last winter, the media and public immediately assumed fracking was to blame. Only there was no active fracking close by.

Moreover, fracking usually occurs at depths of 6,000 to 10,000 feet, while seismology tests conducted by federal agencies estimated the earthquakes’ origins at 18,000 feet deep or deeper.

Lately, some scientists have published a few studies suggesting that wastewater injection wells might have been the cause of some of the earthquakes in North Texas and other places.

The speculation is that wastewater injected near a fault line could cause the tectonic plates to slip resulting in a minor earthquake.

The media immediately published unhelpful stories claiming fracking caused the quakes.

But it appears these earthquakes are also originating 16,000 to 18,000 feet deep, and yet injection wells usually only go a third of that distance. So while you can’t rule out injection wells as the cause, they aren’t the most likely culprit.

The other issue that has captured headlines over the past several years is that fracking is contaminating drinking water. In response to these concerns, Congress required the Environmental Protection Agency to study the situation. After four years, the EPA just released its report, concluding:

“We did not find evidence that these mechanisms (fracking and other drilling processes) have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

The EPA’s finding makes perfect sense, although it upset many in the environmental community. Groundwater and aquifers tend to be a few hundred feet below the surface, while fracked and injection wells are thousands of feet deep — well below the bedrock that would keep chemicals from rising to groundwater levels.

There have been some examples of the cement casings that surround a well’s borehole leaking small amounts of oil, gas or chemicals. But as the EPA study indicates, those are isolated incidents and are easily fixed. Moreover, these are wellbore integrity and maintenance issues and are not limited to fracked wells.

Some environmentalists may not be happy with the science, but everyone else should be because it means that the energy boom that has spurred the U.S. economy for several years can and should proceed unhampered by erroneous attacks.

— Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.