Scientists Can Finally Tell If Water Contamination Is Caused By Hydraulic Fracturing ("Fracking")

At last! Scientists can now positively identify if water contamination was caused specifically by the process of oil and natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

Hydraulic fracturing involves forcing large amounts of water into underground shale, releasing trapped oil or natural gas.

Until now, the downside of the effects of fracking was highly controversial and lacking in scientific evidence. The oil and gas industry has always said that hydraulic fracturing is harmless to the environment, while environmentalists were quick to identify a number of water contamination problems near fracking sites that soon led to claims that the process was highly dangerous to the environment and to creatures living in it.

The development of the new detection tool, which traces the “isotopic and geochemical fingerprints” generated and left behind by the hydraulic fracturing process, should remove all doubt and controversy about fracking and the risks it poses to the environment.

The process of fracking to extract underground oil and gas became prevalent in 2008, but it has always been difficult to prove that any contamination of water was due to the fracking process: the oil industry is not required to disclose what chemicals they use during the fracking process, claiming “trade secrets” as their cover. The team of scientists say that their new tool can positively identify if fracking was the cause of any water pollution without any prior knowledge of the chemicals used.

The team of scientists, led by Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh and comprised of researchers from Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and the French geological Survey, published their announcement on October 21, 2014, in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology”. The scientists say they can now positively identify pollution directly attributable to the fracking process by tracking the unique isotopic footprint left behind in the wastewater used in fracking. The scientists track the elements boron and lithium, which are naturally present in shale. The team says they can tell if the pollution was caused by other processes in the oil/gas extraction process over the last 20-30 years, or if it was caused by fracking.

The fracking process uses huge amounts of water to force oil and gas to the surface. When the waster rises to the surface, Dr. Vengosh says that the water has a unique isotopic footprint that is different form any other type of wastewater – even wastewater from regular oil and gas exploration. It is estimated that the oil industry generates 280 billion gallons of wastewater from fracking annually. Much of this water is dumped into rivers and streams, remaining untreated, and can easily get into our drinking water. The oil industry has persistently denied that fracking causes any environmental pollution or damage. The newly-developed tool will now be able to positively identify if fracking is or was the cause of any water pollution.

The process of fracking and the perceived dangers of the process have always been controversial. This new testing process should remove all doubt and controversy from the discussion about fracking, and it will be able to finally settle the issue of whether fracking is dangerous or not.