Journalism in the Public Interest

Natural Gas Drilling Is at a Crucial Turning Point

The natural gas industry must develop regulations that scale up drilling safely and learn from the mistakes made in the United States.


A drilling rig in Wyoming. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

ProPublica has been covering gas drilling since 2008. When The Guardian asked us to participate in a series it is running about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas, we wrote this analysis of how Europe might learn from the problems we’ve uncovered in the United States.

First, a wave of new natural gas drilling swept across the United States. Mountain and pastoral landscapes were transformed into landscape-scale factories that optimistically promised a century's worth of clean-burning fuel and a risk-free solution to dependence on imported oil. In 2008, it seemed the ultimate win-win in an era of hard choices.

Later, more sobering facts began to complicate things. The drilling relies on an invasive process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that uses brute force and dangerous chemicals to crack open the Earth and extract the gas from previously unreachable deep deposits.

Where the drilling and fracturing happened, water wells sometimes became contaminated. Waste pits leaked into aquifers. Large quantities of fresh water were used. Mountain glaciers and Wyoming valleys became shrouded in smog. Reports began to emerge that natural gas might cause almost as much greenhouse gas pollution as coal.

Now the industry is at a crucial point. Even as the hard lessons have come into focus, the myriad opportunities presented by this vast fuel source have made its development inevitable.

In the United States, President Barack Obama stands firmly behind expanded natural gas use and the local economic development it brings. In the next 10 years, the United States will use the fracturing technology to drill hundreds of thousands of wells in cities, rivers and watersheds. Drilling – along with fracking – is fast expanding across Europe, South Africa and Russia. And it will not stop while oil prices are at record highs, the Middle East is in turmoil and nuclear energy is bogged down by global distrust after the Fukushima crisis.

The industry and governments need to figure out how to scale up gas drilling safely and how to learn from the mistakes in the United States where the fracturing technology was first put to commercial use. The problem is that despite their head start, U.S. scientists and regulators have not answered crucial questions about the risks.

Where will the vast amounts of water for fracturing come from, and how will the waste water be safely disposed of?

Are regulations in place to make sure the industry extracts the gas as safely as possible and that underground sources of drinking water are protected?

And what, exactly, happens when bedrock is shattered and filled with chemicals deep underground?

It remains unclear, for example, how far the tiny fissures that radiate through the bedrock from hydraulic fracturing might reach.

Or whether they can connect underground passageways or open cracks into groundwater aquifers that could allow the chemical solution to escape into drinking water, as methane from these wells has been proven to have done.

And it is not certain that the chemicals – some, such as benzene, are known to cause cancer – are adequately contained by either the well structure beneath the Earth or by the people, pipelines and trucks that handle it on the surface. Almost no research exists into these issues.

Rather than learning from the environmental problems, the drilling industry has insisted they are not its fault. It maintains the fracturing happens thousands of feet from water supplies and below layers of impenetrable rock that seal the world above from what happens down below. There is no reason for concern, they say.

Yet there is. And the frequent cases of contamination and well control problems across the United States that have come to light through several ProPublica investigations prove it. Even if layers of rock can seal water supplies from the layer where fluid is injected, the gas well itself creates an opening in that layer.

The well bore is supposed to be surrounded by cement, but often there are large empty pockets or the cement cracks under pressure. In many instances, the high pressure of the fluids being injected into the ground has created leaks of gas – and sometimes fluids – into surrounding water supplies..

This is partly why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has undertaken a nationwide study into the lifecycle impacts of fracking, for the first time. The next step will be to use the findings to inform a rigorous system of oversight so drilling happens in the best, most technologically advanced and safest way possible.

In the United States that is going to be tough, because the federal government does not regulate hydraulic fracturing. Oversight is left to states where regulations vary widely. Europe, where disparate governments oversee a shared continuous natural landscape, may face similar challenges.The energy industry already knows how to prevent water pollution and how to sharply reduce toxic air emissions, for example. Drilling companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals, so it can enclose wastewater. In the US, legislators are considering a baseline set of rules with higher standards which would make fracturing slightly more expensive than the industry has wanted, but also offer an opportunity for consistency, predictability and the streamlining of operations.

For places already coping with the environmental consequences of drilling, that will boost confidence that natural gas can be harvested safely. It will also lead to political and regulatory stability that will end up saving the industry money. And only then can drilling for gas be the win-win it was promised to be.

The industry controls the republican party and thus the U S House of Representatives. We had better all hope that the GOP never gets control of the U S Senate because this industry and its lackeys don’t believe in the value of clean water that is safe to drink.

I agree with the article that better regulations are needed in the USA but the gas industry should not be expanding to countries that do not have the resources to monitor the industry. They are hampering the transition to low carbon energy which is a lose lose for the global climate. The cradle to grave carbon emissions are not yet quantified properly and will exceed that of coal. Innovation and employment in the renewable energy sector will be hampered as the gas industry monopolises the energy market. Decentralised micro generation would be a win win as many of the worlds population is in fuel poverty spending more than 1/4 of their salary on energy costs. No thank you to fracing. Not in SA/UK/France. The energy industry has no right to the water and to compromise the integrity of the environment which belongs to the people.


April 21, 2011, 7:31 p.m.

“the myriad opportunities presented by this vast fuel source have made its development inevitable”

Dear Abrahm,

This sentence is grounded in the kinds of assumptions that lead journalists to wonder how they could have missed… the Egypt story, for example.

I am not saying that your assumption is incorrect, I am saying that who are you or I to know, based on the information available to us at this moment in history? Are you not therefore arrogating unto yourself a view that history may not bear out? Are not history’s actors on this issue composed of a large aggregation of cohorts unrepresented by this assumption and who could possibly be in possession of the political, organizational and creative will to thwart this outcome?

Could it be that your assumption likely taints your subsequent analysis?

As a journalist, you have chosen for yourself the role of witness, and in the future I wish you would be more mindful of that choice, even when - and especially when - you do analysis.

I am looking forward to better thinking.

Yes, the Middle East is in turmoil, but oil prices are not based solely on ME stability.  Lack of regulation, in NG, oil, and finance, all lead to the same end;  Less left for the rest of us, and what is left is contaminated. 

Do a search of ‘Shale Rock’ and you find what every seventh grader learns; the nature of shale is “fissility”. The “tiny” fisures that are refered to above are not tiny at all.  If they were it wouldn’t release enough NG to make drilling (to meet a large populations needs) worthwhile. All I need to make that leap is to look at the gas-line on my dryer. When an area is emptied of one substance, something else has to fill its place.  Water, it was said in a previous artlcle in this series, is not fully recovered in the fracing process.  Has anyone seen how small a space water can move through when under pressure?

Why do we have to argue every little point for our right (God Given, man taketh away) to be free? I am including freedom of lung, genes, and freedom from over-all internal Chemical counts above 100.

Leaving waste where it can, even possibly, enter our consumption sources is something even animals don’t do. You don’t poop where you eat.

It is just too saddening to think of the big picture.  Maybe that’s why we have to waste our common sense arguing the tiny stuff.

Susan Sullivan

April 21, 2011, 8:25 p.m.

Seven families have just been evacuated from their homes in Bradford County, PA.  Chesapeake Energy lost control of a well, thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals started spilling on Tues night, and continued through Wed into Thurs morning.  Those of us who live in the rural highlands of Pennsylvania and New York live in watersheds.  Bradford County is in the Susquehanna Watershed.  I live in the Delaware River watershed, which provides drinking water for 15 million people, give or take.  Yet you say continued hydrofracking for natural gas is inevitable, and President Obama supports it.  What about the people who live above the Marcellus, and do not support it?  Since when are communities who do not want their water contaminated by virtually unregulated heavy industrial activity in their town ignored?  It is most certainly not a win/win.  Those seven families may have lost everything, as did the 15 families in Dimock, PA.  How is it a win, given the potential loss of the Delaware/Hudson watershed?  New York City has done a peer reviewed cumulative impact study (google Hazen and Sawyer, NYCDEP) that clearly state the risks, and the City won’t tolerate fracking in their watershed.  I have followed your coverage of this story with great admiration and respect.  The conclusions you, of all people reach in this article, completely miss some critical points.  Water is more valuable than gas.  People have Constitutional rights to clean water and air, and government has the duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.

Like some of the commenters above, I have been disappointed to find that Mr. Lustgarten is a much better reporter than analyst.  Not only here but elsewhere, he has opined that shale development is inevitable, and he has also suggested that its horrifying environmental consequences can be rectified through regulation and Best Management Practices.  What is odd is that his own reporting, including this very article, provides nothing to suggest that this is true. 

For example, as he rightly says above, no research has been done to show that the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater to be left underground at each of hundreds of thousands of wells can be prevented from commingling with fresh water supplies.

We don’t know how far the fissures created by fracking will extend, and cannot know how they will link up with existing joints in the bedrock to allow such migration.

Our wellbores, made of concrete and steel, will last for decades, and yet the threat posed by the toxins left underground will last forever—another problem of which Mr. Lustgarten is aware and for which no credible answer has yet been presented by government or industry.

Regarding the reduction of air pollution:  Mr. Lustgarten’s own reporting shows that, while the technology indeed exists to reduce it sharply, as he puts it, actual reductions have been slow enough in coming to suggest they may never actually arrive.  Moreover, it is important to remember that shale gas in particular is now estimated by the EPA to release 9000 times more methane than it had previously thought, so even a sharp reduction in emissions of that scale would not be sufficient to make it greener than coal.  (And I refer here not to natural gas generally but to shale gas in particular, the expansion of which is the real issue.  Lapsing into general discussions of natural gas—as lesser reporters do even more frequently than Mr. Lustgarten—is nearly useless and serves only to obfuscate the real issues presented by the novel and destructive production of gas from shale.)

Pro Publica’s reporting, and Mr. Lustgarten’s in particular, have been crucial in getting the truth about this story into the public eye.  Too bad he feels the need to stray from the facts and into the realm of poorly supported editorial comment.

Had another thought I wanted to share before bedtime…

Are we going to become dependent on foriegn water?

Sweet Dreams…

Life is not easy for Hydraulic Fracturing in Europe. France is preparing a ban on horizontal drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing. More than 200.000 People signed a petiton for this ban.

In Germany, ExxonMobile tried to start drilling in Nordwalde. A small village in the northern part of germany. After a cititzens movement has started to inform the politicans about the potential risks, the approval process is now on hold.

Last Week, citizens movements from all over europe had a meeting at the european parliament. Together with NGOs and politicans from the green party, they signed a request for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.

Protests will continue. Many big companies have asked for drilling permits all over europe.

I applaud Abrahm Lustgartens’  ability, objectivity, accomplishments and persistence as an investigative reporter on the issue of hydrofracking in the Marcellus. Nevertheless, he has crossed the line from investigator to commentator with his latest piece, ” the myriad opportunities presented by this vast fuel source have made its development inevitable.” In the 1963 classic film, ” Lawrence of Arabia “, Lawrence scolds his defeatist Arab allies for their fatalistic philosophy. Lawrence asserts, ” Nothing is written, nothing is inevitable. “
Yet, if you’re going to insist that something is inevitable let’s speculate on NYS’s hydrofracking future. NYS cannot regulate this inherently dangerous drilling process regardless of the most restrictive regulations. Budgeted to the bone, DEC has 19 staff to supervise the tens of thousands of wells likely to be located in NYS. There are currently no wastewater treatment facilities in NYS capable of handling the radon, radium laden, inherently dangerous ” produced water ” and the prohibitively costly construction of these facilities could take many years.
Developing an abundant supply of a fossil fuel whose carbon intensity could be as great as the fossil fuels we’re seeking to replace is like treating a hangover with more of the hair of the dog that bit us in the first place. In effect, we are providing a certified alcoholic with the key to the wine cellar in exchange for a solemn promise to drink responsibly.
If Mr. Lustgarten has a yen for speculating, he might better dedicate more of this proclivity to conservation and efficiency in the use of fossil fuels and the spectacular growth and performance of the wind and solar energy industry which is growing annually at 30% and 40% respectively. While no fossil fuel use grows beyond the low single digits.
Finally, a growing number of NYS townships have exercised their right of home rule by zoning out hydrofracking or beginning the process of zoning it out. You see, nothing is written or inevitable.

The belief that the industry controls the republican party is true, however they also control the democrat party all the way to President Obama.

Art Seigel:
Your statement of a 30% to 40% annual growth and performance of Wind and Solar inspires my following comment.  It may seem slightly off topic to some, but touches on some things we tend to side-step in our build up and attendant propaganda concerning pollution-free sources.
  The necessity for today’s fine propublica report (to which we append our comments) is simply the culmination of a hundred years of secrecy, greed, corruption, duplicity, and callous progression of the world petroleum industry leadership.  Many people regard the situation as hopeless, and it is not easy to persuade otherwise.  There are current propublica investigations into such things as dangerous abandoned well holes, atmospheric and oceanic pollution, unethical handling of insurance claims, and price gouging.
  Now, when we go about touting our pollution free alternatives, we must tell the whole truth, not just the rosy half-truth.  If we are evasive or silent about the down sides, we will end up in exactly the same situation as petroleum, the government, and the financial system is in today.  If we are forthright, we will not be questioned by the public as to the ancillary concerns, for we will already have been out front about them, and they will have the whole picture on which to base their choices and investments.
  Of course there will be pollution –in the materials of manufacturing panels and blades, for instance.-  We must be clear about these things, in great detail.  Land must be condemned for installation and maintenance of the installations.  The installations are visible, and many people do not want the view ruined.  Well, a windmill is no worse than a power line, but it is “new” and the local property owner has a right to his concerns.
  If we are honest and up front about all this, people will come forward with solutions for problems of pollution, manufacture, etc., (problems not nearly as serious as those attending petroleum).  If we are silent about the downsides we will end up being distrusted, hated, and will be controlled by the same bastards who have us in the position we are in today with petroleum.  We must take the lead in recognizing our pollution and other inconveniences and in finding people to solve them.    Skartishu, Granby MO


The well bore is supposed to be surrounded by cement, but often there are large empty pockets or the cement cracks under pressure. In many instances, the high pressure of the fluids being injected into the ground has created leaks of gas – and sometimes fluids – into surrounding water supplies.

Mr Lustgarten, you know damn well that’s a lie. There has not been one single reported case of a well casing leaking either fracking fluid or produced water into groundwater. The Ohio DEP’s report on Bainbridge Township, whose conclusions you never mention, confirmed this.

Even your statement from your August 2nd, 2010 article confirm this:

The question of whether hydraulic fracturing is responsible for this contamination, and whether it is causing other contamination, remains unanswered. Neither our articles, nor anyone we have spoken with [3], has claimed to have reached a conclusion on that point.

What happened? Did you change your mind? Nothing in your subsequent reporting would seem to suggest that. Did you find some new key piece of information? Once again, nothing in your subsequent reporting would seem to suggest that either. Is your story changing to fit the narrative you have been constructing these past 2 years?

I think we pay dirt with that last explanation.

Surpirsed to find words so supportive of hydrofracturing coming from Abraham Lustgarden.  EPA data shows upwards of 200K O&G wells nationally are leaking contents due to cement and casing failures.  Groundwater contamination is inevitable. 

Do we need now to wonder where ProPublica is getting its money?

We do not “need” to figure out how to scale up gas drilling “safely,” assuming such a thing is even possible. But we do have a desperate need to stop grasping at this dangerous shale gas straw and instead focus our efforts on learning how to use less energy, how to use it more wisely, and how to get it from safe, renewable sources.

Even if safety were not an issue—and it is a huge issue—shale gas would not be some sort of miracle answer to our energy problems. The quite possibly overly-optimistic estimate is that the U.S. may have about 100 years’ worth of natural gas (with shale gas being about 1/3 of that estimate), assuming we do not increase our natural gas consumption but instead continue consuming natural gas at the current rate. Since natural gas accounts for only about 1/4 of our energy use, 3/4 of our energy would still have to come from other energy sources. Natural gas will not replace coal or oil.

Moreover, it would take many decades, a massive drilling campaign (hundreds of thousands of wells), and a very, very large amount of money to get the shale gas out of the ground. And because drilling is NOT safe, the damage to the environment and to public health would also be massive and costly. Further, recent research suggests that rather than helping to curb global warming, shale gas might make the problem worse.

Fossil fuels are becoming more and more difficult to extract because we have already burned through a lot of the easy-to-extract fuel. I have searched and searched for the energy-invested-to-energy-recovered ratio for shale gas, and I cannot find this number anywhere. I suspect it may not be very favorable, particularly in cases where large quantities of waste fluid must be treated, as is the case in the Northeast.

We, as a nation, need to stop acting like a bunch of strung-out fossil-fuel junkies and start acting like responsible adults who place the best interests of future generations ahead of selfish, short-term desires.

Patrick Walker

April 22, 2011, 6:03 p.m.

Unconventional gas drilling is clearly invasive and dangerous enough that strong arguments, based on a scientific side-by-side comparison of energy options, are needed to justify its place, if it has one, in the energy mix. If we can do without, or do with little of it, that seems the best option,If we can’t, we should still limit it—and its environmental impacts—as much as feasible.

A problem no one’s even trying to solve, related to shale drilling’s invasiveness, is its radically unjust distribution of costs and benefits. Many unleased or unleasable people, with no say in the matter, are being robbed of their quality of life without compensation while some of their neighbors by the sheer luck of having gas under the land (and in the case of some large landowners, accompanied by the considerable demerit of callousness toward their communities) are substantially enriched (at least monetarily). As if the dubious environmental soundness of drilling weren’t already a significant barrier to buy-in, this unjust imposition of losses on not simply the unconsenting—but the not-even-asked—is a huge obstacle, once people wake up to the community impacts.

It’s no wonder that the notorious Certus Strategies document advises the state and the gas industry on “outrage management planning”—the reasons for being outraged, economic and quality-of-life ones, not just environmental—are very real.

And to those like Terry Engelder, who would talk of “patriotic sacrifice,” they need to be reminded that patriotic sacrifice has to be for something that’s clearly, provably good (the jury on extensive shale gas development is still out), that the sacrifice has to be voluntary, and that the sacrifice must be fairly shared. Defeating Hitler in WWII (where even the rich paid today-unthinkable taxes) pretty clearly meets these tests; shale gas drilling as currently practiced isn’t even a candidate.


  As the author was writing this article, South Africa put in place a moratorium on shale gas development - the application to explore by Shell had seemed all but inevitable a few weeks before.

  A forum I attended a few weeks ago in upstate New York, attended by major figures in the energy and environment field, opened with the unfortunately misinformed statement by the organizer: ” For the tours, we have for the very first time clean buses.”  Honestly , I thought she meant that the conference budget was such that the contractors had been upgraded. Nope. She meant that the buses ran on natural gas.

  Sadly she didnt seem to recognize that natural gas is just one more dirty fossil fuel. It doesnt look dirty, as coal does, but, as Professor Howarth et al have made abundently clear, in the one way that matters to all of us - carbon, and thus Greenhouse Gas, it is as dirty as former “King Coal.”

  I guess she had been seduced into the inevitability PR spin. And the conference was about reducing our carbon footprint. Sigh. The masters of deceit have just about convinced everyone that this shale gas thing is inevitable. Not one of the prestigious conference presenters bothered to note and correct that hugely erroneous opening pronouncement.

  You know the truth - really. Death is inevitable. That’s it. I fear that that inevitability will descend quicker on our world if we believe that the energy industry’s business plan is an appropriate and inevitable energy policy.

Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Binghamton, NY

I live above the Marcellus shale field, although concentrated drilling close to me is probably a few years off, even at the recent pace.  Wind power companies covet the ridges that, for the most part, are some of the last contiguous forests (albeit new growth since the lumbering era) in the state. I cannot imagine a worse fate for northcentral Pennsylvania if this plundering continues.  So much of what I enjoy in this area is likely to disappear if the Marcellus is wholly developed and the goal of “renewable energy” production is achieved.  Forests will be fragmented significantly, with hundreds of thousands of acres of new open land due to well pads, wind turbine installations, access roads, pipeline corridors, electric transmission line corridors, compressor stations and other development to support gas production and wind “energy”.  Less forest translates to more stormwater runoff and lower stream and river base flows.  Less tree canopy will tend to warm the waters.  Many trout streams will be degraded or fail to hold trout.  Pennsylvania’s breeding birds will be fewer and more vulnerable to nest parasitism.  The abundant white-tailed deer population will explode with more grass-covered lands becoming available as pipelines are completed and well sites, turbine installations and access roads are revegetated.  Birds and bats will died from turbine blade impacts.  Some scenic vistas will disappear. 

As we read the ProPublica articles and the many informed comments, ones gets the overall distinct impression that those in the position to make important decisions affecting our quality of life do not know, for certain, the short and long-term impacts of hydraulic fracturing of deep shales.  Presently only a small fraction of Marcellus flowback is discharged to surface waters, and the PA DEP now is calling a halt to even this small amount due to water supply contamination concerns.  The threat is so great that even the remotest possibility of migration of “frak” fluids should give one pause to consider the risk.  Yes, these are complicated issues, and Mr. Lustgarten even gets things screwed up from one article to the next.  So the smart choice, for me at least, is to slow down.  Consider a moratorium in Pennsylvania.  Push EPA to do a thorough study of hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus (and Utica, et al.) shale.  Avoid drilling activities in some areas.  Pass a resource severance tax that restores the immediate local impacts, provides money for the environment, and banks some money for potential future impacts.  There are alternatives, and doom and gloom are not inevitable.

Carlos Briones

April 25, 2011, 9:32 a.m.

From the comments above, it seems that the only solution is coal.  And liquefied natural gas from Papua New Guinea.

We should also encourage the EPA to do studies of other new technologies.  Did anyone ever think to study the total lifecycle impact of the Ipad?  What about the Prius? It might be a good use of federal authority to subject every new technology to a “cradle to grave” environmental review before permitting the private sector to engage in economic activities.

Likewise - It may be a good idea create a permitting process for energy consumption.  Maybe we should submit out vacation plans to the EPA to ensure that they constitute responsible uses of energy.

James B Storer

April 25, 2011, 1:47 p.m.

For asserting my opinion of the state of our democracy today I borrow loosely from the old curmudgeon:  “Never Are So Many Losing So Much to So Few.”
  In August ’08 candidate Obama met with T. Boone Pickens to discuss Pickens’ much publicized energy proposal.  Before the meeting, he is asked how he felt meeting with the man who gave three million dollars to the unscrupulous “Swift Boat Campaign” against the Senator Kerry ’04 presidential run.
  “Ah, he’s got a longer track record than that,” Obama said.  “He’s been doing, ah, he’s a legendary entrepreneur, and you know, one of the things I think we have to unify the country around is having an intelligent energy policy.”
  Pickens also gave 2.5 million dollars to the Karl Rove-linked 527 Progress for America.  There is also his plan to sell a large quantity of precious Ogallala Aquifer water under his large land holdings in the southwest to Dallas via a large pipeline.  Water is quite fungible, and I am guessing it can then be sold back to irrigators for a very high price, often without ever traveling to Dallas.
  I suspect that the word “intelligent” in the above Obama quote will really end up meaning creating vast profits for T. Boone Pickens, and not much else.  He is already in the natural gas branch of petroleum.  I am not particularly in disagreement with conversions to natural in some cases, but I hope you who are familiar with these sorts of agreements read this proposal very carefully and explain it to the rest of us.
  A good quick read for us who are not so talented I found in Reuters, 12 April, “A New Pickens Plan:  Good for the U.S., Or Just for T. Boone?”
Skartishu, Granby MO

It’s gonna’ be one hell of a job relocating the 8 million, give or take a million people and their pets once New York City’s water supply is
fucked up, sorry I meant to write fracked up!

Two problems can be dramatically mitigated, if not eliminated, but they do cut into drillers profits, which is why I expect they do not do them.

One is due to failures of well casings or the surrounding cement that have led to water contamination. Here, drillers could put in a second casing and a second layer of cement. Now, failures would have to occur with all four layers to contaminate underwater aquifers. At least one company has done this in Texas.

The second is due to heavy water use and contaminated water wastes. Here, the drillers would be responsible for complete waste water treatment and reuse of this water. It could often be done on site or possibly on a site to which several wells pipe their wastes and receive treated water. This too has been done in Texas.

Regulators could require both. I would want to know details about the earlier experiences to make sure that these extra costs are warranted, but they appear to be.

Further, as a condition for drilling, regulations could presume that any contamination of aquifers that have no history of contamination prior to drilling is due to drilling, and therefore, drillers must pay for all economic damages to those hurt. This significantly lowers the costs of civil suits, which would be the ultimate backstop protecting us from harm. It also provides stronger incentives for the drillers to prevent contamination in the first place, which is our goal all along.

The only other potentially big problem talked about is any harm that might come from the chemicals left in the ground, but as I understand it geology prevents it, as the chemicals are injected into shale that is separated from the aquifer by solid bedrock hundreds, and usually thousands, of feet thick. If this is not the case for some wells, then this concern must be investigated further, but in most cases geology does not allow a problem here.

If the drilling industry and regulators agreed to these three regulations, they could be putting drillers in the field rather than lawyers into the courtroom over the next couple years and get on with it.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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