How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science: Water Contamination

In the second installment of our series on opponents of shale development denying science (Part I is here), we tackle the issue of hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.

No single source of criticism of hydraulic fracturing is more pronounced than the claim that it pollutes groundwater. “Fracking,” according to the Sierra Club, is “known to contaminate drinking water.” Food & Water Watch says hydraulic fracturing “threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we love and the climate on which we all depend.” The Center for Biological Diversity begins its litany of criticisms of hydraulic fracturing with: “Contaminated water.” In his FAQ page, Gasland director Josh Fox says water contamination from fracking is “very serious.”

But when these same critics are asked to prove the claim, the evidence is far more elusive than their statements would suggest. At a major Senate hearing earlier this year, representatives from both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, when pressed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), could not name a single confirmed case of hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater.

Experts and regulators, meanwhile, have stated time and again that there is little to no evidence of “fracking” ever contaminating groundwater:

  • Ernest Moniz, Secretary of U.S. Dept. of Energy: “To my knowledge, I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.” (Aug. 2013)
  • U.S. Geological Survey: “This new study is important in terms of finding no significant effects on groundwater quality from shale gas development within the area of sampling.” (January 2013)
  • U.S. Govt. Accountability Office (GAO): “[R]egulatory 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.” (September 2012)
  • Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 2012)
    • Jackson: “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.” (May 2011)
  • Dr. Stephen Holditch, Dept. of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University; member of DOE’s SEAB Shale Gas Production Subcommittee: “I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers.” (October 2011)
  • Center for Rural Pennsylvania: “In this study, statistical analyses of post-drilling versus pre-drilling water chemistry did not suggest major influences from gas well drilling or hydrofracturing (fracking) on nearby water wells, when considering changes in potential pollutants that are most prominent in drilling waste fluids.” (October 2011)
  • Dr. Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University; member of DOE’s SEAB Shale Gas Production Subcommittee: “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” (August 2011)
  • State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc. (STRONGER): “Although an estimated 80,000 wells have been fractured in Ohio, state agencies have not identified a single instance where groundwater has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing operations.” (January 2011)
  • N.Y. Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS): “A supporting study for this dSGEIS concludes that it is highly unlikely that groundwater contamination would occur by fluids escaping from the wellbore for hydraulic fracturing. The 2009 dSGEIS further observes that regulatory officials from 15 states recently testified that groundwater contamination as a result of the hydraulic fracturing process in the tight formation itself has not occurred.” (2011)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “In the studies surveyed, no incidents are reported which conclusively demonstrate contamination of shallow water zones with fracture fluids.” (2010)
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council: “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.” (May 2009)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Although thousands of CBM wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells.” (2004)

Additionally, two recent peer-reviewed studies confirmed that water contamination from hydraulic fracturing is “not physically plausible.” State regulatory officials from across the country have similarly stated that there is no evidence to support the claim that hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater.

Critics have claimed, however, that “fracking” is not just the process of hydraulic fracturing, but rather the entire shale development process. The Sierra Club has even expanded “fracking” beyond development to include downstream processes such as exports.

More specifically, Gasland director Josh Fox has said:

“Fracking – when taken to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well – has conclusively been linked to water contamination by federal and state environmental authorities many times.”

But “the entire process of developing an oil or gas well” is not hydraulic fracturing. That’s not an opinion, either; it’s a fact. Fox’s redefinition is one of convenience, which allows him to use the word “fracking” to indict any part of oil and gas production.

Thomas Pyle from the Institute for Energy Research responded to Fox with a similar critique:

The problem is that you cannot take fracking “to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well” because that is not what fracking is.

Hydraulic fracturing is one step in the process of developing many wells, but certainly not all wells. As the Environmental Protection Agency explains, “Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources; including oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, and even water.”

While an important step indeed, fracking is one small part of the process – a well stimulation process. It is not the entire process of drilling, casing a well, and producing oil and natural gas. It is one step. It is dishonest to suggest that it is anything else.

Shale development entails risks, and there are specific and unique risks with each part of the overall process. Given the rules and regulations that apply to those specific processes, conflating one for the other could potentially result in disastrous public policies, including new rules or regulations that do not solve any legitimate problems.

What opponents of hydraulic fracturing have done, however, is taken a harsh sounding word (“fracking”) and redefined it to mean whatever they want. So when opponents claim “fracking” causes water contamination, in their minds they’re telling the truth. The problem is that the actual truth is something completely different.


  1. sheckyvegas says:

    “Experts and regulators, meanwhile, have stated time and again that there is little to no evidence of “fracking” ever contaminating groundwater…”

    I have to disagree. To wit:

    I don’t have to see a baby shoot out of it’s mama’s crotch to know where it came from. How much do the Koch Brothers pay you to post?

    • Steve Everley says:

      Thanks for reading, but unfortunately your sources don’t fit your claims.

      The authors of the Duke study you highlight stated explicitly that hydraulic fracturing was not the culprit, and that hydraulic fracturing fluids were not found in groundwater.

      The Texas study you mention was not only incredibly limited, but the authors were clear that hydraulic fracturing fluids had not been found in the water. Even the author of the Duke study that you cited acknowledged a significant limitation of the study, owing to its very small sample size.

      The ProPublica story on Wyoming? EPA’s draft report on water quality (on which that story is based) has since been abandoned by none other than the EPA itself, which announced recently it would not proceed with peer review. Why would you do that if you believed the data were sound and could withstand scrutiny? The answer is you wouldn’t. EPA’s report, by the way, received criticism from the Bureau of Land Management (which manages oil and gas production on federal lands), as well as state environmental regulators in Wyoming.

      The Huffington Post story is an attempt to re-litigate activist claims about Dimock, Pennsylvania. That situation has been resolved through both state and federal regulatory interventions, and just because an environmental group wants to manufacture another story about it doesn’t change the underlying facts — the EPA determined there was no need for further action.

      Finally, the Koch brothers are not members of Energy In Depth.

      Again, thank you for your comments. They provided us an opportunity to show once again that, despite opponents’ use of inflammatory talking points (even transparently false ones), the facts consistently tell a different story.

    • Steve M. says:
  2. Sorry Steve… you seem to be having a little amnesia. Or maybe Alzheimers? That’s OK, this should help re-orient you to the facts:

    1) Paradise Road, Terry Township PA: PA Courts determine Chesepeake Energy to blame for water contamination of 3 homes.

    2) 161 cases of water contamination determed by PA DEP as revealed by The Scranton Times-Tribune / Laura Legere

    3) DIMOCK CONTAMINATION determined by PA DEP to be caused by Cabot Oil & Gas in Consent Agreement signed by Cabot CEO Dan O. Dinges.

    Here’s a couple of photographs which provide evidence of water contamination from FRACKING ONLY (1: Iron in Gerri Kane’s water coincident with drilling activity in her area likely transported by fracking fluids. 2: Funky smelling gel coming out of Ray Kemble’s well just after fracking at the Gesford Well. PS: it was fracking at the Gesford well which apparently destroyed the Costello well right across from Ray Kemble’s house.

    • Steve Everley says:

      Hi William,

      There are risks with respect to shale development, but labeling each risk or incident ever recorded as “fracking” – merely because it’s convenient – doesn’t solve problems. That was part of the reason for this post.

      As for the 161 cases of contamination that you cite, would strongly recommend you read EID’s response to that report. We highlight some pretty important points that many opponents are either forgetting or conveniently ignoring:

  3. Adam Green says:

    Most of these sources of “evidence” are from US government departments; EPA, DoE etc. Are we really supposed to believe that they are commenting in an impartial manner? It is widely known that US government departments largely function for the benefit of industry.

    Also, what about this study;

    I’d be interested to hear your views on this.

    • Mark Rafael says:

      Well I’m not sure if you have looked any reports up done by universities, but ANY source for research COULD have the POTENTIAL to be biased, every single report from varying agencies and departments seems to lend more credibility to any researched findings.
      Also the link you provided, I had to stop after the first paragraph. The author of the article cites a PNAS JUNE 2013 #24. I looked that issue up and could not find any information relevant to what he says was found in the study. If you could help point me towards the actual research that he is talking about that would help a lot, otherwise this is just another anti-fracking piece with no real science to back it up.

      Looking forward to your reply.

  4. Troy H says:

    It’s obvious that this article was bought and paid for by the oil and gas industry, but if you take the time to look at the links at the end of each one of those points, they contradict what is stated in the article, or have been misquoted, or they prove that fracking has had a major negative impact. The articles that are linked to the original article does more to support anti-fracking activists than the pro side. Do your research.

  5. Mark says:

    I think the focal point to these activists is just that, a very very small blinders on tunnel vision outlook on fracking. Considering the amount of cases where fracking had taken place, even if there was one solid case clearly outlining contaminated water, we have 2million frack operations that have none. In the mining industry where I live we have had about 4 deaths underground, DEATHS!! But we aren’t out targeting the mining industry to SHUT DOWN all operations. We as progressing humans, and industry, investigate, reconcile, learn, and progress to better methods and conditions. The States, and other countries really need to crack down on activists. Where found that if there is even a minute amount of false to their proclamation, we should be able to heavily fine them for outwardly causing mass public panic for nothing.

  6. Benjamin says:

    Hi Steve,

    I think that you generally have the right of it, but one thing I’ve been curious about from the industry side is its view of hydraulic fracturing and the “smell test.” I’m thinking particular of EPA’s 2011 draft Pavillion, Wyo., report that did conclude there was a causal link between fracturing and local groundwater contamination. EPA eventually gave up and passed it on to the State of Wyoming, and apparently Wyoming is continuing the study with the support of Encana, the very company alleged to have polluted the wells. That doesn’t give me much confidence in the research that’s being done into possible externalities — to make a possibly unfair comparison, tobacco did a lot of its own “science.”

    So to what extent is industry really helping advance the state of knowledge about possible harms? I think most sensible people want hydraulic fracturing to succeed, but also want to make sure that if (when?) something goes wrong, we’ve got the scientific and regulatory tools to mount a robust response.


  7. Franklin Burns says:

    “Energy in Depth”: I suppose that sounds more palatable than “Lobbyists for the Petroleum Association.” Nice job naming your organization!

  8. John Doe says:

    This is a travesty. I am sure your “evidence” is from a lobbyist on capital hill with his hand int he energy departments back pocket. This was a complete waste of reading time and I am appalled that you think there is NO EVIDENCE. Government agencies will feed you whatever the public wants to hear. THEY HAVE MONEY!! Gas companies have fist fuels of cash to tell the government to tell the public what they want to hear. You sir need to do a good Ungovernmental fact check. You

  9. Nik says:

    This is actually funny given that just five days before you posted this article a little journal called Scientific American published an article titled ‘High Levels of Arsenic Found in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites’. “A new report finds poisonous arsenic contamination in Texas occurring in close proximity to natural gas extraction.”

    Why, if you take this seriously, would you not at least refute this research which couldn’t possibly be more in your face if you follow fracking. As someone has already pointed out, the vast majority of your resource links are from federal or state government bodies, who are under enormous pressure from oil and gas lobbyists, or from folks working for petroleum companies.

    As an editorial in the LA Times states, “We would have preferred a statewide moratorium on fracking, like the one in New York, until the studies were completed. Yes, fracking could create enormous numbers of jobs and billions in tax revenue, at least while the boom is on. But that would still be true in a couple of years, if the state ultimately determined the practice was safe. In the absence of a moratorium, the regulations should make clear that strict environmental scrutiny under CEQA is required before each fracking project begins.”,0,2575430.story#axzz2nNEFWzsp

  10. Sammy says:

    Steve Everley,

    There is one way you can convince me totally that fracking is safe and doesn’t contaminate wells.

    Drink the water from those wells.

    If you refuse to do that, then in reality, you do not really believe what you are posting.

    Its really that simple.

  11. acolvin says:

    Well, if Big OIL says there’s no link between fracking and water contamination, it must be true. Why else would they be so adamant about it? They MUST be telling the truth, right? So, I think we should put our sheckles together and collect a few dozen bottles worth of water from some of the places where the un-contaminated water is and send it off to some oil execs who I’m sure would have no trouble gulping it right down because it’s so, you know, clean and pure. No? Gee, can’t imagine why.

    • Tom Andersen says:

      I’ll drink water from them all. Stop thinking you know more than a geologist about the ground below your feet.

  12. Christian says:

    This is how we know fracking is safe – North Carolina GOP wants to jail anyone that discloses chemicals involved in fracking. Why on earth would politicians want to make it illegal to share that information if it is soooo safe? End.


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