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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Oil Drillers Reopen The Fracking Debate

The fracking debate reached its zenith a few years ago, with the industry largely winning the war over environmentalists. Since then, tens of thousands of wells have been drilled across the country. But the debate is not entirely dead—and even some oil companies are a little uneasy with the pace of drilling underway in certain parts of the country.

In Oklahoma—hardly a haven for hippy environmentalists—there’s some anxiety that the oil industry is drilling too much and too aggressively, and not just because of the spike in seismic activity that the state has seen in recent years. The concern is over groundwater, the same issue that has characterized the fracking debate for much of the last decade.

However, what makes Oklahoma interesting is that it isn’t just environmentalists raising questions about fracking. Some oil producers also warn that the shale industry’s slapdash approach to drilling is endangering groundwater resources.

The complaints come from some companies that drill vertical wells. Mike Majors, a small producer in Oklahoma, told E&E News that his operations have been impacted by other companies who have drilled horizontally close to his vertical wells. The high pressure from a hydraulic fracturing operation can result in frack fluids leaking far away from their intended location, potentially damaging other wells nearby. These so-called “frack hits,” Majors worries, are polluting groundwater.

That would be bad enough, but Majors worries that if the practice continues, the reckless drillers could ruin things for the entire oil industry if they provoke a public outcry and regulatory backlash. "I'm convinced we're impacting fresh water here," Majors told E&E News. "If they truly impact the groundwater, we can kiss hydraulic fracturing goodbye."

Related: Oil Refining Could Become Much Less Lucrative

Other small producers echoed this sentiment, arguing that larger shale companies are putting the entire industry at risk. "If it happens where farmers depend on groundwater, the entire industry will get blamed," Dewey Bartlett, a small producer, told E&E News. "That's scary."

The industry and the state’s regulators say there’s no evidence of groundwater contamination. But that won’t put the issue to rest—not after years and years of vociferous debate between the oil and gas industry on one side, and environmentalists and local communities on the other. The complaints from some oil producers about fracking adds another layer of complexity to this saga.

A comprehensive EPA study examining the links between fracking and water contamination intended to shine some light on the situation, but failed to put the issue to rest. A 2015 draft of the report had a key takeaway line that was hailed by the industry: “Hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

But that line sparked a ton of controversy from scientists, even from within the EPA, who argued that the agency didn’t have the data to come to that conclusion. After feedback, the agency removed that sentence from its final report, arguing that such a sweeping conclusion “could not be quantitatively supported.”

In short, the EPA said that fracking could indeed contaminate water in some cases, including situations in which well cases aren’t done right, fracking fluid is injected directly into groundwater, wastewater is spilled, or a company disposes of wastewater into unlined pits. Still, the EPA said it didn’t have enough data to calculate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water.

In other words, the debate rolls on.  

Related: Is Saudi Arabia Lying about Its Oil Inventories?

The problem for shale companies is that they’re used to drilling far beneath aquifers, to depths of 10,000 feet—a reason why they argued water resources weren’t in jeopardy. But companies are now focusing on shallower formations, and as E&E News points out, some wells only go as deep as 2,800 feet, putting them much closer to an aquifer, which typically sit at just a few hundred feet below the surface.

Small oil and gas producers in Oklahoma believe their larger peers are contaminating groundwater, so they got together and formed the Oklahoma Energy Producers Alliance (OEPA), and published a study that found that there have been at least 451 “frack hits” on vertical wells. Vertical drillers have to bear the cost of frack hits, which include replacing damaged equipment, cleaning out wellbores and cleaning up the impacted area.

The conflict between larger shale companies and small producers is already playing out in individual court cases, with small companies suing for damages.

But in such an oil-friendly state, rigorous regulation that would affect shale drillers doesn’t appear imminent. Shale companies have incredible political influence, particularly in states like Oklahoma.

Still, the fight over how fracking affects groundwater is far from dead.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Chester Fields on November 09 2017 said:
    If you implode the area underground it is going to contaminate. New Yorkers banned it and they are known for being highly unintelligent . But the scholars in Oklahoma and Texas have will sell out you out for a nickle. Who knows what they're pumping into the ground they are not required to tell you, I say if they can drink the chemicals they pump into the ground then the can use it. Otherwise they are poisoning all that drink well water in that area.
  • Lee James on November 09 2017 said:
    The contaminated groundwater issue reminds me a lot of the methane leakage issue. Vested interests deny; somebody else cleans up the mess and must live with it.
  • RD on November 13 2017 said:
    The real issue is with old wells that were drilled and plugged often with insufficient surface casing to protect fresh water zones or old cased wells not cased/cemented to withstand frac hits. That is the elephant in the room.

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