Over the last several years, oil and natural gas companies have been challenged with the task of establishing energy independence. Political unrest in the oil-rich areas of the world has led to increased prices affecting everything from gasoline to home heating oil, heavily contributing to the fragile state of the world and U.S. economy. But for the first time in almost 20 years, the U.S. is close to achieving energy self-sufficiency. At the forefront of this surge is natural gas and oil exploration on native soil.
However, according to a Bloomberg report, the increase in exploration has led to several environmental challenges surrounding shale exploration and the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This process mixes water, sand and chemicals, blasting the solution through underground rock and releasing trapped fossil fuels.
Concerns over groundwater pollution
Many communities and government agencies are concerned with the impact that fracking and waste water disposal will have on local ground water sources and the drinking supply. According to Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and founder and of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, the process of fracking releases chemicals found deep within the earth. Toxic metals including lead and cadmium, along with carcinogenic elements such as arsenic are returned to the Earth’s surface in the waste water.
“It’s clear it’s seeping into the ground water. People have had their drinking water come up brown,” said Shaw. Some communities are having their drinking water shipped in by the gas companies, which she said is evidence the safety of the drinking water is in question. The problem is compounded, Shaw said, when farmers need water for their dairy herdsand are forced to continue using contaminated water.
Adding to the controversy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found low levels of hydrocarbons associated with a specific fracking process used in Pavilions, Wyoming. The EPA is quick to note that the drilling process used in Pavilions is different from the deeper drilling methods more commonly used elsewhere.
The findings may prove to be detrimental to the shale drilling industry, however. Many experts believe that more regulations and further testing is inevitable. Shaw is not convinced there is a safe way to extract the natural gas and the process should be halted until further evidence can be examined. She also believes that gas companies should be required to perform baseline tests on groundwater supplies prior to establishing a drilling site.
“Fracking is dangerous in its present form.” Shaw noted. “No way it can be done safely in its current
state without risking human health. From a public health standpoint this is dangerous.”
Environmental concerns and seismic activity linked to fracking
Many environmentalists are also raising concerns with the impact exploration could be having on the natural landscape in some regions. Deforestation, pollution and the overall impact drilling machinery has on the earth’s carbon footprint are all possible environmental impacts.
And the sheer volume of fresh water needed in the fracking process is also cause for concern. “Freshwater is not inexhaustible,” Shaw warned as many freshwater lakes, rivers basins, streams and ponds are being irrigated for the sole
purpose of fracking.
There has also been evidence that increased drilling activity may be leading to an increase in seismic activity as well. Fracking is one of the leading suspects in a series of earthquakes affecting the Youngstown, Ohio area in 2011. “Injecting the water into the wells has caused a change in the forces that keep the bedrock in place and resulted in hundreds of earthquakes,” said Shaw. The earthquakes linked to the drilling have been minor so far, although a more destructive quake can’t be ruled out. Shaw cannot predict if the continued activity will produce a more destructive quake but she is concerned that more earthquakes will occur.
So, what can oil and gas companies do to combat the challenges being levied by government agencies and concerned citizens? One way to overcome some of the hurdles is through transparent operations. Allowing a free-flow of information can help quell fears and build consumer trust. Total transparency means companies must disclose all pertinent information and take accountability when results or reactions are less than ideal. In addition, corporations must allow for further research to validate the safety and quantify the risks associated with exploration.
Angela Stringfellow is a PR and MarComm Consultant and Social Media Strategist offering full-circle marketing solutions to businesses. Angela blogs via Contently.com.