A Cornell University engineering professor argues that the scientific case against hydraulic fracturing – fracking – continues to get stronger.
Prof. Anthony Ingraffea cites three concerns with the oil and gas drilling technique: groundwater contamination, earthquake generation, and accidental methane gas emissions. In fracking, large quantities of water and chemicals are injected deep underground under pressure to break apart shale and release oil and natural gases. Ingraffea says, “there is now, in my opinion, scientific consensus that human-induced seismicity does occur” as a result of the disposal of chemical-laced fracking wastewater in underground injection wells, Mother Jones magazine reports.
In a study published last month in Science, researchers suggest that a dramatic increase in recent seismic activity in Oklahoma, including a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in 2011, is linked to the proliferation of wastewater wells. Ingraffea explains that the injected wastewater “lubricates” pre-existing stable faults and “changes the pressure on them,” which can result in seismic activity.
In an Inquiring Minds podcast, Ingraffea points to a potentially more serious issue with fracking: methane gas emissions. In 2011, Ingraffea and two other Cornell researchers published a much-discussed study in the journal Climatic Change. The authors said that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale drilling operations escapes into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming, according to Mother Jones. Methane, they explain, “is about 80 to 90 times . . . more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide” over a two-to-three-decade time period.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 found that the EPA underestimates methane emissions from the energy industry (including both conventional and shale gas drilling). A paper published in Science earlier this year also faulted EPA methane measurements, but nonetheless concluded that natural gas can still be part of a cleaner future if methane emissions are adequately controlled. A new EPA rule will require natural gas operators to capture volatile organic compounds on site rather than allowing them to escape to the atmosphere, Mother Jones reports. But Ingraffea says the new regulation is not strong enough because it applies only to new gas wells and does not apply to oil wells that also release methane.