A Poisoned Well? Fracking Studies Stir Doubts
On Monday, protesters poured into a hearing room in Albany, New York to make the case that the state should not lift a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing - better known as "fracking" - later this month. Their overriding message: There is no evidence that fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil and natural gas from huge underground rock formations, is safe.
"As of yet, there has been no study that satisfies any of the concerns that people have in New York," said Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates of New York. "We have no answers here in New York on the public health, economic or environmental impacts."
That isn't to say, of course, that there haven't been studies done on the issue. But in the fraught debate over fracking, it isn't always easy to decide which ones to trust, and how much to trust them.
In May, the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo released a research report that used data from Pennsylvania to argue that fracking had become increasingly safe. "[T]his study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice," said the study, which was released just one month after the institute was founded.
The release prompted an outcry from professors and students at the university as well as a response from a Buffalo-based nonprofit called the Public Accountability Initiative. The group found that data in the report contradicted its central claim, that the report had not been adequately peer reviewed (despite a press release claiming otherwise), that the methodology was flawed and the language was biased toward industry. It also pointed out that the authors of the report as well as the co-directors of the institute had close ties to the oil and gas industry, including as consultants or employees for oil and gas companies.
Six months later, SUNY Buffalo announced that it wasn't just pulling back the report - it was closing the Shale Resources and Society Institute altogether. University President Satish K. Tripathi pointed to a lack of "sufficient faculty presence in fields associated with energy production," inconsistent disclosure of financial conflicts of interest, and "actual and perceived" conflicts "between sources of research funding and expectations of independence."
Amid fracking boom, research questions
America is in the middle of a fracking boom, one driven by advances in technology (most notably horizontal drilling) and the discovery that the United States is home to previously unimaginable stores of untapped oil and natural gas.
In 2007, Penn State Professor Terry Engelder calculated that there were 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which runs for about square 95,000 miles underneath Pennsylvania, New York and four other states. (The US Geological Survey had previously estimated the shale held just 2 trillion cubic feet.) Engelder's discovery and others around the country revealed that America's shale held "the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil," as Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon put it.