What the frack is the matter with the gas industry?

marcellus shaleThe Oscar nominated documentary “Gasland” has riled the gas industry. An industry group even appealed to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to disqualify the documentary by claiming that “Gasland” is filled with “errors, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods.” So what is the frack is this all about?

Unconventional natural gas development uses hydraulic fracturing – also called fracking – to extract natural gas from shale formations, such as the Marcellus shale. This process fractures the shale with high-pressure water and chemicals and releases the gas. The Marcellus shale formation, which underlays southern New York and most of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is by no means the only reservoir of unconventional natural gas. Over 800,000 wells have been drilled and fracked in shale formations covering 34 states.

As documented in “Gasland,” environmental groups and local citizens are becoming increasingly concerned about groundwater contamination resulting from the fracking process. In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, so the onus is on the states to regulate fracking. Recently Wyoming – the home state of Dick Cheney – was the first state to pass legislation that requires gas companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking.

Claims by industry that fracking has not caused water contamination is, however, strictly speaking true . The cases of water contamination documented so far are due to surface spills, leaking impoundments, or improperly cased wells that allowed gas migration. Gas migration, which can make drinking water flammable, and these other problems were risks of gas development long before current hydraulic fracturing techniques were developed.

What is different is the scale and size of this development. A single pad consumes five acres, and each well requires two to five million gallons of water for fracking. And Pennsylvania has issued hundreds of well permits the last couple of years. The hottest area of drilling– where the Marcellus shale is thickest and most productive – includes the Pennsylvania Wilds, some of the “most beautiful undisturbed and undiscovered lands in the East.”

And the fracking process is not the only risk posed by this boom in natural gas exploration. Other problems include stream contamination, forest fragmentation, water withdrawal, brine disposal, and increased heavy truck traffic and other community impacts.

Of course, the benefits of this boom should not be overlooked. It provides much needed energy security, made all the more important by the recent spiking of oil prices, as well as economic development in a region long plague by high unemployment.

Even so, strict oversight and controls are needed to ensure that irreplaceable water and wildlife resources aren’t destroyed in the rush to extract unconventional natural gas. If “Gasland” – and industry’s objections to it – raises people’s awareness on these issues, it will be a winner no matter who takes home the statue for best documentary.