On February 16, 2012, the University of Texas Energy Institute released a report titled “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.” Weighing in at over 400 pages, the report comprehensively examined hydraulic fracturing from a number of different perspectives, including: public perception of the issue; media coverage; environmental impacts from shale operations; and regulatory structure and enforcement at the federal and state levels. The report reached many key conclusions concerning environmental impacts, including the following:
- No instances were identified in which hydraulic fracturing itself caused groundwater contamination.
- The presence of methane in groundwater near shale gas operations cannot reasonably be linked to those operations, because at many of these sites methane occurs in groundwater naturally (either due to geological conditions or from historic well activity that caused methane to leak from shallower levels).
- Often methane is not detected beforehand because baseline (pre-drilling) sampling or monitoring was not conducted.
- “[M]any of the water quality changes observed in water wells in a similar time frame as shale gas operations may be due to [agitation and] mobilization of constituents that were already present in the wells by energy (vibrations and pressure pulses) put into the ground during drilling and other operations rather than by hydraulic fracturing fluids or leakage from the well casing.”
- The risks of using hydraulic fracturing fluid with chemical additives are mitigated by the depth at which the fluids are injected and the chemicals’ generally high biodegradability. And claims of migration of hydraulic fracturing fluids from the shale zone to aquifers have not been confirmed.
- “Chemical additives may pose a higher risk in their concentrated form while being transported or stored on-site than when they are injected into the subsurface for hydraulic fracturing.”
- The pathway with the greatest potential for impacts from shale gas wells involves failures in well integrity, which can lead to leakages in aquifers.
- Conventional well drilling regulations address most issues as to blowouts and other subsurface gas releases. But some states may need to upgrade their existing regulations to address the added step in shale gas development of hydraulic fracturing through the use of high well pressures. Ohio is one such state, and Ohio DNR is in the process of updating its drilling regulations.
UPDATE: Additional studies that were released after the University of Texas Energy Institute report are confirming many of these conclusions.