How does fracking work? Click on the diagram above for a visual explainer.
Want a piece of neighborly advice?
Keep the frack out.
That’s the word from Québecois residents who support Vermont’s possible three-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — a controversial method of drilling for natural gas more colloquially known as fracking.
The proposed moratorium earned approval from the Vermont House of Representatives last week but likely won’t head to the Senate until early March. Meanwhile, some lobbyists are pushing for an even tougher rule: an outright ban on fracking in Vermont.
It’s a preemptive strike. While fracking along the gas-rich Marcellus Shale has been making headlines in Pennsylvania and New York, Vermont hasn’t attracted this kind of natural gas development.
Not yet, anyway. The Utica Shale — located in the northwest corner of Vermont — may be a place where natural gas is trapped in the soft and finely stratified sedimentary rock formed from mud or clay.
A test well drilled under similar geologic conditions in Québec turned out to be commercially viable.
Richelieu resident Johanne Dion remembers when she first saw the notice in the business pages of French-language newspapers that oil companies had discovered shale gas in Québec. It was hailed as good news, a boon for the local economy, but Dion had already started reading about fracking in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“Alarm bells began to ring in my head,” says Dion.
With hydraulic fracturing, drillers bore a vertical well that then turns and moves horizontally into the shale formation. They pump the well full of a mix of highly pressurized water, chemicals and gritty proppants. The water creates fractures in the shale, and the particulate matter in the proppant flows into the cracks and props open the fissures. Gas can then trickle out of the shale, into the well and up to the surface.
In Québec, the French-language press initially wrote little about environmental concerns associated with the extraction method. Chief among those is water contamination. At the time, oil companies had already set up leases with local farmers. “Thumper trucks” rolled into nearby towns to conduct seismic testing. A well went in about 10 miles south of where Dion was living in 2008.
Then, in early 2011, came this news: Nineteen of 31 wells inspected by Québec’s environmental ministry were leaking gas on lowlands along the St. Lawrence River. Gas leaks don’t necessarily amount to water contamination, but Dion — who publishes a daily news digest of fracking-related reports — says this is par for the course in the industry. She says she regularly reads about accidents, failed well casings and fracking fluid spills, and is translating these reports for a French-speaking audience in Québec.
With residents clamoring for a closer look at the situation, the province is currently conducting an environmental inquiry into fracking. That means drilling has stopped for the time being, but Dion says there are rumors it might start up again in the spring. If so, she and many fellow activists trained in nonviolent protest techniques are ready to mobilize.
An organized bus tour brought local Québec citizens and officials to fracking country in Pennsylvania, Dion reports. “When they came back, they said, ‘We must not go into this. We saw it with our own eyes,’” she says.
Vermont officials also point to Pennsylvania as justification for a moratorium.
“They’ve allowed fracking, and they’ve encountered a lot of problems,” says Cindy Parks, an environmental analyst with the Underground Injection Control program in Vermont’s wastewater management division.
Her view is: It’s too early to know just what the exact public health and environmental impacts of fracking might be in Vermont. What is certain is that future fracking would require a huge amount of water — anywhere from two to eight million gallons of water per horizontal well. When that water flows back out of a well, it contains heavy metals and salt picked up underground — and could, in Vermont, contain some of the naturally occurring radioactive materials found in subsurface geology.
Dealing with that water has been one of the biggest concerns in Québec. The flowback needs to be treated, but Dion says the region’s municipal water-treatment plants don’t have the capacity to handle the wastewater.
“We already have a hard time treating our wastewater,” she says. “I can’t imagine what the fracking water will do.”
Another concern is drinking-water contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency launched a study last fall to determine the danger to drinking-water supplies — the most commonly cited concern about fracking — and Parks is waiting for results.
“I think we need to define what the impacts are and do it in an unemotional way,” she says.
But “unemotional” is a hard balance to strike in the debate about fracking. Ken Smith directs the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Chenango County, N.Y. — “ground zero” for the Marcellus Shale, according to Joe Choquette, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute in Vermont. New York currently has a de facto moratorium on fracking while the state considers environmental regulations.
Smith says that there are legitimate concerns about fracking — but also thinks there is “extreme fearmongering” going on that spreads misinformation. What’s certain is this: In his region of New York, it’s a touchy topic.
“It is the most polarized issue here since Vietnam,” Smith says. “You have neighbor against neighbor. … There are very clear winners and losers … and many people stand to have life-altering amounts of money.”
So far, no one really knows if fracking would be feasible, or profitable, in Vermont.
“The shale is there,” says state geologist Laurence Becker. “But we just don’t know what its capability is to produce gas.”
Choquette wants to find that out first before the state considers an outright fracking ban. “If there is a viable resource, provided we can get the proper regulatory framework in place, it may have some value to Vermonters,” Choquette says.
Avoiding that kind of situation — where oil companies might go to homeowners with contracts and money — is another reason to be proactive about fracking, says Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
“That’s not the best position for states to be in,” he says. “You don’t want it to be influenced so much by money.”
So far, he says, legislators are listening.
“We’ve made the case to legislators that there is reason to be concerned about this practice in Vermont,” says Burns, citing water, air and soil contamination as some of his biggest worries. “Legislators here were convinced that it makes sense to put the brakes on this.”