Fracking in the dark: biological fall out of shale-gas production still largely unknown

With unconventional gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority. Image of Wyoming’s Jonah Field, an extreme example of the impacts of fracking operations on landscapes. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

For salamanders and other freshwater animals in Appalachia, fracking could be the beginning of the end. Working with a group of 7 other conservation biologists, I tried to piece together exactly what we know about the dangers of fracking to wildlife. What we found will surprise you.

Shale gas production in the United States has increased by more than 700% since 2007, yet the effects of this industry on nature and wildlife are not well understood. In our study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on August 1, we found that determining the environmental impact of chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failure, and other accidents is a top research priority.

A major impediment to this research, however, is the lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal, and fracturing fluids. Of the 24 US states with active shale gas reservoirs, only five maintain public records of spills and accidents. In Pennsylvania, gas companies have failed to report over one third of spills in the last year. As my co-author Dr. Sara Souther pointed out, “How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections?”

The chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances, is often unknown. I reviewed chemical disclosure statements for three top gas-producing states and found that, on average, 2 out of 3 wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical. In fact, I found that some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals. This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.

Figure2_Souther

Each gas well can act as a source of air, water, noise and light pollution (above) that — individually and collectively — can interfere with wild animal health, habitats and reproduction. Of particular concern is the fluid and wastewater associated with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a technique that releases natural gas from shale by breaking the rock up with a high-pressure blend of water, sand and other chemicals. (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment)

One of the greatest threats to animal and plant-life identified in the study is the cumulative impact of rapid, widespread shale development, with each individual well contributing collectively to air, water, noise, and light pollution.

If you look down on a heavily fracked landscape, you see a web of well pads, access roads, and pipelines creating islands out of what was, in some cases, contiguous habitat. What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?

The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts. We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts.

Read the full study here.

Written by Kimberly Terrell

One comment

  1. […] Souther, S., M.W. Tingley, D.T.S. Hayman, V.D. Popescu,M.E. Ryan, T.A. Graves, B. Hartl, and K.A. Te… […]

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