A decade into America's oil and gas boom, and scientists still know very little about how hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale development affect wildlife, according to a recent scientific study.
The knowledge gap is particularly glaring when it comes to the ecosystem impacts of fracking fluid and wastewater spills.
Scientists cannot yet begin to draw simple conclusions about drilling's effects on animals, plants and habitats because "basic data is missing" on issues such as fracking fluid chemistry, and because of limited access to well sites, said Sara Souther, the study's lead author.
"We're creating this ecological experiment from shale development—but we're not taking the data."
Souther was a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's botany department when she published the study with seven other conservation biologists in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They were sponsored by the David H. Smith Fellowship program, which supports future leaders in conservation biology. Souther will join West Virginia Wesleyan College as a professor in September.
When residents of America's fracking communities want to know if a particular oil or gas well in their neighborhood has a good environmental track record, they usually face the cumbersome task of searching through state records, which can take hours.
Now, a new website called WellWiki is trying to eliminate that frustration by making user-friendly data just a click away. Created by Joel Gehman, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta's business school, WellWiki currently lists data on more than 250,000 oil and gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 1859.
But Pennsylvania is just the beginning. Gehman plans to expand the site, which was launched in March, to cover all North American wells drilled since 1859—about four million. He expects to add data about West Virignia, Ohio and New York by September.
The goal is for WellWiki to grow into "the Wikipedia of everything oil and gas-related," Gehman said.
This report is part of a joint project by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.
Like people in other regions transformed by the shale energy boom, residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and skin rashes. But because there are no comprehensive studies about the health impacts of natural gas drilling, it's hard to determine if their problems are linked to the gas wells and other production facilities that have sprung up around them.
A group of scientists from Pennsylvania and neighboring states have stepped in to fill this gap by forming a nonprofit—apparently the first of its kind in the United States—that provides free health consultations to local families near drilling sites. Instead of waiting years or even decades for long-term studies to emerge, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP) is using the best available science to help people deal with their ailments.
"As far as unconventional natural gas drilling goes, we are the public health service of the United States right now," said Michael Kelly, the media liaison for the EHP.
David Brown, a toxicologist and the group's co-founder, said government agencies haven't done enough to study, analyze and mitigate the risks people face from drilling.
In early July, a million gallons of salty drilling waste spilled from a pipeline onto a steep hillside in western North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation. The waste—a byproduct of oil and gas production—has now reached a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, which provides drinking water to the reservation.
The oil industry called the accident a "saltwater" spill. But the liquid that entered the lake bears little resemblance to what's found in the ocean.
The industry's wastewater is five to eight times saltier than seawater, said Bill Kappel, a hydrogeologist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey. It's salty enough to sting the human tongue, and contains heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards. The briny mix can also include radioactive material. Heavy metals and radioactive materials are toxic at certain concentrations.
"You don't want to be drinking this stuff," Kappel said.
As the shale gas boom was making its way into Ohio in 2012, University of Cincinnati scientist Amy Townsend-Small began testing private water wells in Carroll County, the epicenter of the Utica Shale. Her project, which includes samples of more than 100 wells, is one of the few sustained efforts in the nation to evaluate drinking water quality before, during and after gas drilling.
Although it will likely be another year before Townsend-Small releases the results, her work offers a template for other communities worried about how drilling, fracking and producing unconventional natural gas might contaminate groundwater supplies.
Most residents test their water only after they suspect it has been polluted; few have the resources or foresight to conduct baseline testing prior to the drilling.
Along with 17 other journalists, I spent much of last week at the Shale Country Institute hosted by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, which takes reporters into the field so they can better understand the subjects they're covering.
Fifteen years ago this month, gasoline from a burst pipeline spilled into a Bellingham, Wash. creek and exploded, killing three boys: ten-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, and 18-year-old Liam Wood. The tragedy opened the nation's eyes to dangers lurking in the labyrinth of pipelines underground and spurred Bellingham residents to launch SAFE Bellingham, a group that would later morph into America's first pipeline safety watchdog.
Front and center in the leadership of SAFE Bellingham was Carl Weimer. By 2003, when the Justice Department reached a settlement with Olympic Pipeline, Weimer had become so informed and passionate about pipeline safety that he was picked to lead the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally focused organization established with a $4 million endowment from the settlement.
At the time, the Trust's role in challenging the powerful oil and gas industry was described as "Bambi taking on Godzilla."
More than a decade later, the tiny Bellingham-based group still faces an uphill fight. But its influence is outsized and unmatched—especially as pipeline concerns move into the mainstream, partly due to the raging debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Weimer is now the go-to person to represent the public during Congressional hearings, industry conferences and meetings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
In an extensive interview, Weimer spoke with InsideClimate News about the 15-year anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy and his group's challenges and successes. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Public protests, legal tussles and delays have plagued the Keystone XL pipeline for years.
Now TransCanada, the company behind the project, faces another hurdle when the permit it needs to build in South Dakota expires on June 29.
The reapplication process will open the door for public comments and could lead to a hearing—adding further delays to the pipeline's review, now in its sixth year.
Much is up in the air, but pipeline opponents are cheering.
KARNES COUNTY, Texas—After 23 years living on the South Texas prairie, Lynn and Shelby Buehring are looking for a new home, far from the fumes, traffic and noise of the Eagle Ford Shale boom.
It will mean leaving the white house beneath the oak trees where they expected to live out their retirement. The decision, said Lynn, 58, was a measure of last resort, dictated by her deteriorating health and failed attempts to get help from state regulators.
"We're not anti-drilling at all," she said. "My complaint is they need to do it in a responsible way... It's just causing me a lot of medical issues, and I can't have it."
Buehring's symptoms began when the drilling rigs arrived in late 2011. Her asthma worsened from a seasonal nuisance to the point where she needed two rescue inhalers and made frequent use of a breathing machine. She also developed chest pains, dizziness, constant fatigue and extreme sensitivity to smells.
4/23/2014: An update has been added at the bottom of this story to include events at today’s AACOG meeting.
A few casual words and the early release of some scientific data have cost the San Antonio region much-needed state funds to battle its growing air pollution problem. The misstep, which appears to have been unintentional, highlights the sensitivity of studying oil and gas pollution in business-friendly Texas.
The dispute began after the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG)—a coalition that oversees 13 counties in the San Antonio region—launched a two-part study to determine how oil and gas drilling was affecting the city's air quality.
San Antonio's air quality has been deteriorating since 2008, the same year drilling began in the nearby Eagle Ford Shale, site of one of the nation's biggest energy booms. The air pollution is now so bad that metropolitan San Antonio could soon be declared in nonattainment with federal standards for ozone, the main component of smog. If that happens, it could be subject to sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including increased EPA oversight for new development projects.