What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” is a process of breaking up layers of rock to release the natural gas trapped inside. Sometimes fracking can be used to extract oil as well, but it is less common. This technique can be used on pre-existing wells which have been drilled for natural gas extraction but have lost their productivity, or it can be used on new wells for natural gas exploration. The wells are drilled down to a depth of between 6,000 and 10,000 feet (almost two miles) to reach the level of the rock layer containing the gas, then continue horizontally for about one mile. Although fracking began in the mid 1960s, it was not widely commercialized until the past decade.
Wells are most often drilled into shale rock formations which can be found all over the United States. The largest, most well-known, and most productive shale formation is the Marcellus Shale, which spreads across Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia. Other famous shale formations include the Barnett shale in Texas and the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which is fracked for oil.
After the well has been drilled, millions of gallons of fluid are pumped at high pressure into the deep horizontal wells. The fluid is made up of a variety of compounds. Anywhere between 98-99.5% of the fluid is composed of water and sand. The sand, called a “proppant,” is used so that when the fractures are created underground, sand will be forced by the pressure into the cracks to prevent them from closing.
In addition to water and sand, the fluid will contain a variety of chemical compounds. These may include biocides, which prevent bacterial buildup in the well, corrosion inhibitors, which keep the machinery from rusting, and gelling agents, which increases the fluid's viscosity and ability to carry the proppant (sand) into the fissures underground.
Once the pressurized fluid has fractured the rock, the gas then flows up and out of the wells to be captured for commercial use. In addition to gas, there is also “flowback,” which is the name for the fluid that returns to the surface after being pumped underground. About 20-40% of water injected into the earth comes back, while the remainder stays underground. The fluid that returns not only contains the original chemicals, but also salts from the layers of rock below. The water is then held in pits above ground until it can be treated.
Risks of Fracking
Within the past decade, the dangers of fracking have entered the public consciousness. Oil and gas companies will assert that there are no risks associated with the practice of fracking and that all environmental and public health concerns are “myths.” Unfortunately, not only does extensive scientific research refute this claim, but hundreds, if not thousands, of class action and personal injury lawsuits against fracking companies undermine any trust the community might have in these companies' word.
While many people frame fracking as a purely environmental issue, it is also a threat to public health. The most well-known consequence of fracking is that it can contaminate drinking water with undisclosed chemicals which get into the bloodstream of any animal (including humans) that may ingest the water. There have even been documented cases of tap water becoming flammable because it contains so much methane, released into the water from fracking operations.
Although fracking companies are quick to point out that only 0.05-2% of the volume of fracking fluid is made up of added chemicals, each time a well is fracked it uses 2-8 million gallons of water. This means that in a well fracked with 4 million gallons of water, 80 to 330 tons of chemical additives may be added to the water supply. Wells can be fracked multiple times, and there are almost 1.7 million active wells in the United States. This number is increasing quickly.
Chemical additives in fracking fluid may include heavy metals, radioactive materials, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and toxic pollutants which are released into the air. These chemicals have been shown to cause everything from nausea, skin allergies, dizziness, and birth defects, to neurological, brain, and blood disorders among many other symptoms. They can also contribute to the development of cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 692 distinct chemical compounds used in fracking fluid. Furthermore, gas and oil companies are not required to disclose 10% of these ingredients because they are considered proprietary. The millions of gallons of wastewater from well flowback are often treated improperly then dumped into public rivers and streams.
In 2014, the University of Missouri conducted a review of 150 studies concerning fracking and its effect on reproductive health. The study “concluded that exposure to air and water pollution caused by UOG [fracking] operations may be linked to health concerns including infertility, miscarriage, impaired fetal growth, birth defects and reduced semen quality.” Another more recent study, which compared the number of fracking operations in a certain zip code to the number of hospital visits, found that hospital visits for neurological and cardiological issues were statistically related to the number of wells in an area.
Not only does fracking pose obvious risks to an individual's health and well-being through contamination of the water supply, the environmental damage can cause massive economic loss. A poisoned aquifer means that personal water wells cannot be used to water animals and crops or to bathe with. Oftentimes people must import bottled water for consumption and commercial use after fracking has been implemented in their area.
In addition, an increase in fracking has been linked to increased seismic activity (earthquakes). This is most likely not from fracking itself, but because oil and gas companies will use wastewater injection wells to dispose of contaminated water from industrial operations such as fracking. Millions to billions of barrels of contaminated water can be injected into a wastewater injection well over its lifetime, pressurizing the rock underground and leading to an increase in earthquakes. An often-cited example of this increase is Oklahoma, where there has been a rapid upsurge of oil and gas drilling, and therefore more wastewater to dispose of. In 2014, the state had 109 earthquakes of a magnitude higher than 3, in 2015, they had 585, and in 2016, they had a record 907 earthquakes magnitude 3+.
Possible Fracking Claims
Because fracking is such an intensive procedure and affects so many aspects of a community, there have been a wide variety of lawsuits against oil and gas companies which utilize fracking.
One of the most common claims concerns the contamination of drinking water and the health problems that are associated with that contamination. Unfortunately, these lawsuits are almost always settled out of court and carry non-disclosure pacts, which means that the media does not have access to the records and the resident involved is not allowed to speak about the case. It is, therefore, difficult to even estimate the number of lawsuits that have been settled, although there are many instances of successful recorded litigation against fracking companies for health concerns.
For instance, in 2011, a Pennsylvania couple experiencing health issues such as headaches, burning eyes, and sore throats, received a $750,000 settlement from three fracking companies. More recently, in 2016, a family received $4.2 million when a jury ruled that the company Cabot Oil & Gas Co had contaminated their water through fracking operations.
In addition, claims can be brought for a decrease in property value associated with contaminated water and the infrastructure of fracking. A study released in January 2016 showed that the property value of Pennsylvania homes located near fracking operations had declined significantly. Often settlements claiming water contamination will add a decrease in property value to their lawsuit, such as in North Texas when a family was awarded $3 million for decreased property value and health issues. Another particular lawsuit made headlines in 2014 when Rex Tillerson, CEO of the company Exxon, which utilizes hydraulic fracturing, joined an anti-fracking lawsuit to block the construction of a well near his home to protect his property value.
Other forms of litigation which may involve fracking companies can include workers who are injured at unsafe job sites run by oil and gas companies exposed to toxic chemicals at the job site. Oil and gas wells have a history of dangerous work conditions. Between 2008 and 2012, 545 workers died in oil and gas field deaths as well drilling in the United States increased dramatically. In 2014 alone, 144 casualties occurred, the highest rate in over a decade. In addition, a recent study showed high levels of carcinogenic chemicals and dangerous air pollution at fracking sites which can cause long-term health problems for oil and gas field workers.
There have also been class action lawsuits against public pollution of water through spills and toxic runoff. For example, in Oklahoma, Bokoshe residents sued 50 oil and gas companies for contaminating their community's water with fracking wastewater.
How an Attorney Can Help
If you have experienced any of the health risks or economic damages associated with fracking, you may feel overwhelmed by the idea of facing a multi-national oil company. An experienced attorney can help fight for your rights and get you the compensation you deserve for your losses. Contact the law offices of Gilman and Bedigian today to let us review your case and begin the process of investigation.