When we look at the impacts of the oil boom on environment and health, it is important to note that the rise of fracking technology is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Bakken boom that so dominates the news today was just getting started ten short years ago. It takes time for the environmental outcomes to develop, and it takes time to study and measure what those outcomes are. As we study, the outcomes will begin to be known over time.
So we should take note that three separate studies released last week point to three very different dangers of oil and gas drilling. The first two have to do with the large quantities of poisons we are releasing into our air, water and earth; and the third, a review of peer-reviewed studies, concludes that fracking is just not safe.
The first report, released last Monday, delivers the disturbing news that natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated.
Scientists found that drilling activities at seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale formation emitted 34 grams of methane per second, on average. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that such drilling releases between 0.04 grams and 0.30 grams of methane per second.
The researchers point out that previous EPA research has largely been subject to the whims of the industry, which has a say over where and when the agency has access to drilling sites. The new report, from Purdue University, used a plane equipped with technology to measure greenhouse gas levels in the air above the sites..
The Los Angeles Times reports that “the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to a growing body of research that suggests the EPA is gravely underestimating methane emissions from oil and gas operations.”
On Tuesday, a detailed report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal backed by the National Institutes of Health, is particulary troubling for the Beartooth Front, which depends on a fragile ecosystem for its waters.
The study concludes that after a decade of fracking, oversight of the industry’s radioactive waste is so lacking that over half of the 280 billion gallons a year of radioactive waste water from fracking ends up in rivers and streams.
The most common form of radioactivity in shale waste comes from radium-226, which has a half-life of roughly 1,600 years, which means that we are creating a permanent radioactive emission problem.
What’s worse, the radium often winds up accumulating on the surfaces it comes into contact with – dirt, pipes and holding tanks. Combined with other elements like barium or strontium, the radium can form radioactive flakes on metal pipes used to transport the wastewater.
In filters, like the ones recently discovered illegally dumped in the Bakken, the radioactive materials can also start to build up.
This is a familiar story — the oil and gas industry is not being regulated and they’re doing what they can get away with.
The third study, released Wednesday, was conducted by the Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, who compiled “the first systematic literature review” of peer-reviewed studies on the effects of fracking on public health and found the majority of research points to dangerous risks to public health, with many opportunities for toxic exposure.
The study concluded that fracking likely produces public health risks and “elevated levels of toxic compounds in the environment” in nearly all stages of the process.
According to the “near exhaustive review” of fracking research, environmental pollution is found “in a number of places and through multiple processes in the lifecycle of shale gas development,” the report states. “These sources include the shale gas production and processing activities (i.e., drilling, hydraulic fracturing, hydrocarbon processing and production, wastewater disposal phases of development); the transmission and distribution of the gas to market (i.e., in transmission lines and distribution pipes); and the transportation of water, sand, chemicals, and wastewater before, during, and after hydraulic fracturing.”
“It’s clear that the closer you are [to a fracking site], the more elevated your risk,” said lead author Seth Shonkoff, from the University of California-Berkeley. “We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe.”
Drilling must be done responsibly or not at all
So there you have it. Three studies in three days. One says we’re releasing, by a factor of at least 100 times, more methane, a greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere, through oil and gas drilling. The second says that half of the radioactive waste produced in fracking winds up in our rivers and streams. The third says that fracking causes negative health effects at every stage of the process, and the closer you are to a fracking well, the greater your risk.
We have a responsibility to our community and our way of life to make sure that any drilling done in southern Montana is done responsibly. That is the bottom line. If that’s not possible, then our primary responsibility is to preserve our community.