Cornell University Outlines Environmental and Economic Concerns With Hydraulic Fracturing

Marcellus shale well. Courtesy New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Last month, researchers from Cornell University held a Congressional briefing and released a set of materials that helped shed new light on the potential risks of drilling for natural gas and hydraulic fracturing.

Speakers Dr. Susan Riha, a Cornell professor and Director of the New York State Water Resources Institute, and Rod Howe, Assistant Director for Community and Economic Vitality at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, focused on the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation containing natural gas that underlies a large area of the Northeastern U.S. The Marcellus is thought to contain one of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas, but extraction of gas from the Marcellus is difficult and hydraulic fracturing is needed to extract the gas.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an extraction process that uses thousands of gallons of water, mixed with chemicals and sand, to fracture fissures into the rock formation, allowing gas to flow. The practice has increasingly raised concerns of possible underground water contamination.

Adding to anxieties is the fact that fracking was exempted from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act by Congress in 2005, and companies are not required to disclose the chemical compounds they put underground. Legislation introduced in Congress would close the Safe Drinking Water act loophole, and require public disclosure of chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. In New York, though companies are required to disclose chemicals, this information is not necessarily available to the public. For more background information on fracking, see our set of background materials.

Over the course of the presentation, Dr. Riha called attention to the potential toxic chemicals and other fluids that make up fracking liquids. These liquids can be spilled into or contaminate both ground and surface waters, or released to landfills as solid waste. Though in New York the Marcellus Shale is located about 3,000 – 5,000 feet below the surface, there are fears that cracks in the rock may occur at depths of less than 500 feet, which could lead to contamination of drinking water.

Additionally, the presenters explained that more adequate controls on water withdrawals, controlled disposal of wastewater, and more thorough protections from surface runoff are needed in order to lessen the likelihood of water quality problems for citizens who depend on aquifers for drinking water near the drilling site. The speakers noted that more research is urgently needed to develop understanding on the potential dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

It is important to note that Cornell has placed a moratorium on considering natural gas leases on its property until guidelines on natural gas drilling are established that “conform to the high environmental standards the university holds for stewardship of its property.”

As Congress continues to debate drilling and whether or not to regulate hydraulic fracturing under on the Safe Drinking Water Act, it is important to rely on sound science when examining environmental risks. We congratulate Cornell for using its status as a land-grant university to research issues of public health and environmental safety.

photo: Marcellus shale well. Courtesy New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.