The dispute over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, rages on with neither side giving much credence to the other. Proponents of the practice insist it is a safe and cost-effective way to unlock vast new supplies of oil and natural gas — billions and billions of gallons worth. Opponents argue that the millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals pumped deep into the ground to break apart the rock and unleash these untapped reserves is a recipe for ecological and environmental disaster. There is no lack of passion or rhetoric in this heated debate and no bridge in sight that might bring these two warring factions together any time soon.
That is why a recent study by a group of scientists out of the University of Texas is so refreshing in what it set out to do, and so compelling in what it found. These researchers — spanning the University’s biology, chemistry, biochemistry and environmental science departments — wanted to step outside the fracking firestorm and simply look to the science of whether fracking contaminates our water supply. They had no preconceived notions of what they might find and no hidden agenda of what they wanted to find. It was just about the science. And according to their results, which they readily acknowledge are far from conclusive, the science strongly suggests a direct link between fracking and bad water.
The study simply involved testing the private wells of about 100 homes that tap into the aquifers overlying the Barnett Shale formation in North Texas. This included as a point of reference samples taken both inside and outside the Barnett Shale where fracking has not occurred. According to an interview by ProPublica with Brian Fontenot, one of the study’s lead scientists, “our main intent was to bring an unbiased viewpoint here — to just look at the water, see if we could find anything, and report what we found.” And what Fontenot and his team found was troubling to say the least:
We found that there were actually quite a few examples of elevated constituents, such as heavy metals, the main players being arsenic, selenium and strontium. And we found each of those metals at levels that are above EPA’s maximum contaminate limit for drinking water. . . . Arsenic is a pretty well-known poison. . . . The levels that we found would not be a lethal dose, but they’re certainly levels that you would not want to be exposed to for any extended period of time.
Staying true to their attempt to let the science do the talking, the researchers disclaimed any notion that their testing provided “smoking gun” evidence of a direct link between fracking and tainted drinking water. At the same time, they found the likelihood of such a link inescapable. Their testing showed that the water contamination occurred in close proximity to fracking where no such contamination existed prior to the onset of fracking. Or in Fontenot’s own words, “[w]e noticed that when you’re closer to a [fracking] well, you’re more likely to have a problem, and that today’s samples have problems, while yesterday’s samples before the fracking showed up did not.” Their ultimate conclusion from all of this is that more research needs to be done on the subject.
The results of the Fontenot study are making headlines not only for the simplicity of the approach and the dispassionate manner in which it was carried out. It is also causing a stir because it was released on virtually the same day the LA Times reported the existence of an internal EPA PowerPoint presentation warning of contamination in several wells surrounding a fracking operation in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Apparently, the EPA ignored the presentation as well as the views of the local EPA staff that had sampled the water, and closed its Dimock investigation, declaring the water safe to drink. The Times report noted a string of other fracking investigations the EPA has recently closed suggesting the EPA’s seemingly lax policing in this area “fits a troubling pattern” and may be more about politics than science.
Which brings us back to the importance of the Fontenot study and why it stands out in providing an unadulterated perspective on the risks associated with Fracking. This is an area of study where neither politics nor rhetoric should play any part. Afterall, we’re talking about our drinking water. As Fontenot stressed about his research team, “we’re not anti-industry, we’re not pro-industry. We’re just here to finally get some scientific data on this subject.” And that is exactly what their study seemingly does. Hopefully, it will serve as a model for further study in this critically important area so we can push the rhetoric and politics to the side and finally get to the bottom of the great fracking debate.