Fracking’s first wave also brought a wave of drilling-related accidents — 6,648 in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2014. A recent study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Public Solutions analyzed the spill data; the Science for Nature and People Partnership mapped the incidents, the materials spilled and if it affected the water.
Fracking, acclaimed as a way to reach previously unreachable natural gas, carries significant risks of accidents, as well as methane leaks. Nearly 10 percent of the 6,648 spills affected groundwater. Pollutants included fracking chemicals, crude oil, diesel, saltwater and drilling waste.
But according to Duke University researcher Lauren Patterson, a water policy specialist, inconsistencies in state reporting requirements make it difficult to pinpoint the number of spills and amount of gallons involved.
For example, North Dakota requires spills of 42 gallons or more to be reported, the study found. That could explain why that state had the greatest number of spills. Meanwhile, the reporting threshold was higher in Colorado and New Mexico: 210 gallons.
Imposing uniformity on reporting and data requirements could help scientists, energy companies and state and federal regulators identify accident hotspots.
The data does show that newly drilled wells are more vulnerable to accidents than older ones. More than three-quarters of the spills occurred at wells that were less than three years old. Half the spills occurred in tanks, pits and flow lines. Corrosion, human error, even lightning contributed to these equipment failures.
The lack of data is not surprising. Energy companies long fought to keep secret the chemicals used in fracking fluid, citing that information as proprietary; some of that data is still out of public reach. FracFocus is a chemical disclosure registry, but it’s industry-driven and only voluntary. Nonetheless, the chemicals that are listed include antifreeze and naphthalene, the latter of which is thought to cause cancer.
Although fracking has been legalized in North Carolina, no wells have been drilled. The amount of obtainable gas in Chatham and Lee counties is unknown, making exploration financially risky for energy companies.