Hydraulic Fracturing and the Impacts on Water Quality: Efforts by the Department of Energy to Find Answers


Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” is a process used in gas mining, where large amounts of water and some chemicals are pumped into shale rock formations in order to break the shale and release trapped gas. Throughout the past decade, industry has increasingly used fracking in gas production in the United States. Anthony Cugini, Director of National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”), estimates that gas production from fracking operations will grow almost fourfold between 2009 and 2035. Currently, several states have gas mining operations that utilize fracking technology, with many more states preparing for future fracking operations. Along with the economic opportunities and the new-found supply of gas, there are increasing concerns about the many impacts of fracking operations. DOE recognized that an increase in fracking brings with it concerns about impacts on both air quality and water quality. DOE has documented five stages where fracking impacts water and water quality: 1) water acquisition; 2) the actual drilling and fracking; 3) collecting the water after it has been used; 4) storing and processing used water; and 5) treatment and disposal. Of particular concern, to many private citizens, is the possible pollution of lakes, streams, and especially drinking water, as a result of fracking operations.

Efforts to Find Water Quality Impacts

In 2011, researchers from Duke University published a peer-reviewed study that linked fracking operations in Pennsylvania to increased methane contamination of drinking water. The study speculated as to three possible reasons for the increased methane contamination: 1) it is the result of natural processes; 2) fracking is releasing methane through the new cracks produced in shale formations; or 3) problems exist with either the equipment used or the procedures followed in the fracking operation. The study suggested that additional research should be conducted to gain a better understanding of the relationship between fracking and water contamination. In addition to a better knowledge of the process, the study suggested that there may be a need for future regulations to govern the fracking process in a way that protects water resources.

In March 2011, at the direction of President Obama, DOE formed a subcommittee of the advisory board on natural gas to examine environmental issues associated with fracking. Five months later, in August 2011, the subcommittee released its initial ninety-day report explaining its findings. As part of the report, the subcommittee presented recommendations that, if implemented, would reduce the environmental impacts from shale gas production. The subcommittee recommended that, in light of the methane contamination study, additional studies be done to establish the validity of the initial study and the degree to which fracking can contaminate drinking water. Additionally, the subcommittee recommended that fracking operations should adopt best practices in development and construction and that measurements and data regarding water use should be publicly reported. Moreover, the initial ninety-day report suggested that agencies should use regulatory authority to inspect and enforce development requirements and to create rules protecting drinking water. Finally, the report recommended that fracking operations be required to disclose what chemicals operators add to the water to make up the fracking fluid.

In its second, and final, ninety-day report, released in November 2011, the subcommittee acknowledged that some of its recommendations, from the previous report, could be immediately implemented while others required more effort before they could be achieved. The subcommittee recognized that both requirements for publicly reported water usage and best practices in development and construction were recommendations that state governments would largely implement. Conversely, the subcommittee explained in its final report that federal agencies should be the primary point of implementation for regulating the disclosure of fracturing fluid composition and for ensuring the completion of new water quality impact studies. As such, DOE initiated a new study to examine whether or not fracking fluids can contaminate drinking water. In the Duke study, researchers found some methane contamination; however, they did not record any fracking fluid contamination of drinking water. A new DOE case study, taking place in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, is being performed to ascertain whether or not other contaminates, besides methane, are migrating from fracking operations to drinking water. This study will entail adding trace elements to fracking fluids and then, through follow-up monitoring, determining where those fluids move once they are in the ground. Once the case study is completed, DOE will have a better idea of the degree to which hydraulic fracturing can impact water quality.


The DOE subcommittee astutely recognized the need for additional information and studies regarding water quality impacts as a result of fracking. As fracking operations continue to multiply as estimated, it will compound any impacts on water quality. As such, it is imperative that agencies, operators, and citizens understand the implications of fracking operations on water supplies. The DOE is not the only agency trying to better understand the effects of fracking on water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a study to “assess the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources and to identify the driving factors that affect the severity and frequency of any impacts.” Ultimately, studies such as those conducted by DOE and other agencies will prove invaluable in future attempts to regulate fracking and gas production operations in order to protect the nation’s water resources.