Ithaca, N.Y. – Hydraulic fracturing – the process of extracting natural gas from the ground using a mixture of water, sand and chemicals – has actually been used in New York for decades.
Why it’s so controversial now is the relatively new form of drilling that accompanies it.
In the past, gas companies would drill a well straight down, then frack.
Today, crews can drill down, then over, in a process called horizontal drilling.
This allows gas companies to access more gas from one drill pad.
It also requires much more of that mixture, also called frack fluid.
Where vertical fracking had used tens of thousands of gallons, horizontal uses millions.
“Risk is proportional to time on job,” said Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell professor who specializes in hydraulic fracturing.
He says horizontal drilling holds a risk of water contamination.
“It is possible that in the hydraulic fracturing process, the fracking fluids and any other contaminants that are already down there that are gathered by the fracking fluid could migrate upwards to an underground source of drinking water,” he said.
The gas industry is adamant this has never happened, but Ingraffea cites a 1987 EPA report that noted such an incident in West Virginia.
He also points to the EPA’s current investigation into a case in Wyoming.
What is more common is methane contamination.
If a well is drilled improperly it can cause methane that already exists underground to migrate into peoples’ drinking water.
This kind of contamination has been documented in Dimock, PA and pockets around Towanda.
Ingraffea also labels surface spills as a real risk.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is there’s no perfect industry,” says Don Siegel, a fracking expert at Syracuse University who has taken the stage with Ingraffea to argue the other side.
“I think horizontal hydrofracking is fundamentally a safe process if done by competent people,” he said. “If you look at all the wells drilled and the number of (methane contamination) in the American West and East, I think it’s an extremely low probability that (methane contamination) would happen.”
Global warming is also a concern.
Ingraffea says natural gas drilling feeds into our dependency on fuels that accelerate climate change.
Here, Siegel agrees, but says casting fracking as a danger to water to push renewables is disingenuous.