Scientific American raises serious questions about safety of fracking

The editors of Scientific American published an op-ed saying that the practice of hydrofracking has been adopted faster than questions about the safety of the procedure have been answered and that the states are “flying blind” in trying to regulate its effects.

Public fears are growing about contamination of drinking-water supplies from the chemicals used in fracking and from the methane gas itself. Field tests show that those worries are not unfounded. A Duke University study published in May found that methane levels in dozens of drinking-water wells within a kilometer (3,280 feet) of new fracking sites were 17 times higher than in wells farther away. Yet states have let companies proceed without adequate regulations. They must begin to provide more effective oversight, and the federal government should step in, too…

All these states are flying blind. A long list of technical questions remains unanswered about the ways the practice could contaminate drinking water, the extent to which it already has, and what the industry could do to reduce the risks. To fill this gap, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now conducting comprehensive field research. Preliminary results are due in late 2012. Until then, states should put the brakes on the drillers. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie set an example in August when he vetoed a bill that would permanently ban fracking, then approved a one-year moratorium so his state could consider the results of federal studies. The EPA, for its part, could speed up its work.

In addition to bringing some rigor to the debate over fracking, the federal government needs to establish common standards. Many in the gas industry say they are already sufficiently regulated by states, but this assurance is inadequate. For example, Pennsylvania regulators propose to extend a well operator’s liability for water quality out to 2,500 feet from a well, even though horizontal bores from the central well can stretch as far as 5,000 feet.

The op-ed also notes that fracking was exempted from coverage under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 at the request of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the former head of Halliburton, a company that makes a good deal of income from fracking.