A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examines the relative risks of shale development and hydraulic fracturing, using existing research as its guide. Unfortunately for opponents who have invested so much time stating otherwise, GAO finds no evidence of hydraulic fracturing fluids migrating from depth up into groundwater.
Granted, GAO wasn’t conducting an original investigative report, but rather aggregating research that’s been done to date. For that reason, the report did not make conclusions or recommendations on the topics it examined. Nonetheless, its findings are instructive in the broader discussion about hydraulic fracturing, specifically as it pertains to groundwater.
Here are a few excerpts worth highlighting:
- “The risk of contamination from improper casing and cementing is not unique to the development of shale formations.” (GAO, p. 45)
- “Fractures created during the hydraulic fracturing process are generally unable to span the distance between the targeted shale formation and freshwater bearing zones.” (GAO, p. 46)
- “When a fracture grows, it conforms to a general direction set by the stresses in the rock, following what is called fracture direction or orientation. The fractures are most commonly vertical and may extend laterally several hundred feet away from the well, usually growing upward until they intersect with a rock of different structure, texture, or strength. These are referred to as seals or barriers and stop the fracture’s upward or downward growth.” (GAO, p. 47)
- “In addition, regulatory officials we met with from eight states—Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas—told us that, based on state investigations, the hydraulic fracturing process has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination within their states.” (GAO, p. 49)
GAO even listed studies in relation to the “HF causes water contamination” claim: one from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (no impact, more on that study here), the infamous Duke University report (methane found in water wells [more on that here], but GAO rightly noted the researchers’ conclusion that there was “no evidence” of fracturing fluid in their samples), and findings from the Ground Water Protection Council (no contamination examples in 16,000 wells).
In other words: another governmental report, another nail in the coffin for the claim that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater.
Another topic GAO examined was the issue of seismicity. As we know the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Research Council have studied that topic and determined there is no link between major earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing. Thus, unsurprisingly, here’s what GAO found:
- “According to several studies and publications we reviewed, the hydraulic fracturing process releases energy deep beneath the surface to break rock but the energy released is not large enough to trigger a seismic event that could be felt on the surface.” (GAO, p. 52)
To recap, the Government Accountability Office has examined the studies and investigations conducted to date and determined that (1) the risk of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids migrating from depth is not only extremely low, but state regulators and other experts have even said there’s no evidence of that ever happening; (2) the amount of rock separating shale formations from drinking water supplies is often thousands of feet, and the fractures created during hydraulic fracturing are not large enough to connect them; and (3) hydraulic fracturing is not causing major earthquakes.
Confirming the facts may not make great headlines, but the truth is always worth mentioning.