Fracking Needs More Transparency

One example of why transparency is needed in fracking: California's Central Valley is irrigated with produced water, which can contain unknown chemicals.

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a controversial method used to extract natural gas and oil from shale rock formations. It is controversial because it can cause big environmental problems, including poisoning local water wells. A new report looks at companies that use fracking.

The joint report by As You Sow and investment advisory firm Boston Common Asset Management reviewed the 30 biggest publicly traded producers of oil and gas in North America. What they found is that 21 of the 30 companies disclosed that they collect reports of close calls that did not result in leaks, spills, injuries, or any environmental harm.

Not everything they found is encouraging. Seventeen companies stated that their public disclosures of chemicals used for fracking do not include chemicals protected by trade secrecy claims. Sixteen companies discussed their practices for ensuring the operational integrity of their wells, while only 15 companies reported the percentage of the wastewater recycled and reused for fracturing more wells. Just one company disclosed its post-drilling monitoring practices, and only three companies disclosed their pre-drilling monitoring practices.

Environmental risks mean more transparency is needed

Both hydraulically fractured and horizontally drilled wells account for most new oil and natural gas drilled wells in the U.S. Both are linked to environmental concerns which include water risks and methane leaks. Both wells accounted for 69 percent new wells drilled in 2016. Coalitions of investors have been urging oil and gas producing companies since 2009 to be more transparent about how they manage and mitigate the environmental risks and community impacts of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

“As climate change increases water scarcity in certain regions, investors need assurance that companies are responsibly managing the amount of water they use to protect communities, the environment, and other water users,” said Danielle Fugere, president at As You Sow, in a statement.

Produced water is used on crops in portions of California

Millions of gallons of "produced water," along with tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals and much sand, is brought to the surface when a well is ready to be fractured. Produced water is present in the geological formation and it comes to the surface when oil and gas are produced. It can contain “fracturing fluid chemicals", chemicals naturally present in the formation being fractured, and new compounds created when the fracturing fluid interacts with the formation,” according to the report.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Valley Water Board created an expert advisory panel on food safety. The reason is that the San Joaquin Valley has allowed wastewater from oil and gas conventional wells to be used to irrigate crops. For over 30 years, crops in the areas east and north of Bakersfield in Kern County have used wastewater from conventional wells to irrigate crops. In 2017 alone, about 1.9 million barrels of water were produced from the production of about 131 million barrels of oil in the San Joaquin Valley. In Kern and Tulare Counties, around 39,000 acre-feet of produced water were used to irrigate 90,000 acres of crops.

The Board requires sampling of crops in irrigation districts that accept produced water for irrigation. The Board finds “no evidence has shown that irrigating food crops with produced water poses any threats to public health.” However, produced water from fracking is not allowed to irrigate crops.

The fact that produced water is allowed on some of the cropland in the San Joaquin Valley should be a concern for all Americans as half of all the nation’s produce comes from California, and a large part of it is from the Valley. That water contains chemicals and there is just not enough evidence that it poses no public health threats, despite the reassurances from the Central Valley Water Board. This is a good example of why reports like the one by As You Sow and Boston Common Asset Management are needed. There is simply not enough transparency in fracking operations.

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