A poisoned well? Fracking studies stir doubts

A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012.
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Updated 5:48 p.m. Eastern Time

On Monday, protesters poured into a hearing room in Albany, New York to make the case that the state should not lift a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing - better known as "fracking" - later this month. Their overriding message: There is no evidence that fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil and natural gas from huge underground rock formations, is safe.

"As of yet, there has been no study that satisfies any of the concerns that people have in New York," said Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates of New York. "We have no answers here in New York on the public health, economic or environmental impacts."

That isn't to say, of course, that there haven't been studies done on the issue. But in the fraught debate over fracking, it isn't always easy to decide which ones to trust, and how much to trust them.

In May, the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo released a research report that used data from Pennsylvania to argue that fracking had become increasingly safe. "[T]his study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice," said the study, which was released just one month after the institute was founded. 

The release prompted an outcry from professors and students at the university as well as a response from a Buffalo-based nonprofit called the Public Accountability Initiative. The group found that data in the report contradicted its central claim, that the report had not been adequately peer reviewed (despite a press release claiming otherwise), that the methodology was flawed and the language was biased toward industry. It also pointed out that the authors of the report as well as the co-directors of the institute had close ties to the oil and gas industry, including as consultants or employees for oil and gas companies.

Six months later, SUNY Buffalo announced that it wasn't just pulling back the report - it was closing the Shale Resources and Society Institute altogether. University President Satish K. Tripathi pointed to a lack of "sufficient faculty presence in fields associated with energy production," inconsistent disclosure of financial conflicts of interest, and "actual and perceived" conflicts "between sources of research funding and expectations of independence."

On Tuesday, meanwhile, New York state officials revealed to Bloomberg that they had hired longtime SUNY Buffalo professor Robert Jacobi to study the links between fracking and earthquakes. Jacobi, a former director of the Shale Resources and Society Institute, has worked as an advisor to gas drillers for nearly two decades. His research will be included in an environmental review study out next week that will help decide whether the state's fracking moratorium is lifted. 

Amid fracking boom, research questions

America is in the middle of a fracking boom, one driven by advances in technology (most notably horizontal drilling) and the discovery that the United States is home to previously unimaginable stores of untapped oil and natural gas.

In 2007, Penn State Professor Terry Engelder calculated that there were 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which runs for about square 95,000 miles underneath Pennsylvania, New York and four other states. (The US Geological Survey had previously estimated the shale held just 2 trillion cubic feet.) Engelder's discovery and others around the country revealed that America's shale held "the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil," as Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon put it.

The discovery has had a transformative effect on the American energy economy. It means the United States is becoming less reliant on foreign energy sources; some proponents say it will eventually mean energy independence. For struggling Midwest towns like Youngstown, Ohio, which saw its fortunes fall with the steel industry's decline, fracking represents an economic lifeline. Over the past five years or so, fracking projects have transformed communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere in the country, sometimes turning residents who sell their land rights into millionaires - or "shaleionares."

Natural gas burns cleaner than the coal it has begun to replace as an energy source. But, environmentalists say, it also carries with it a host of as-yet-understood risks. They argue that the boom is outpacing the science - that states and local communities, desperate for the money and jobs that fracking can bring, have been ignoring the costs, both present and future. As the debate has raged, the industry has turned to academia to calm concerns. It got what appeared to be a piece of good news last February, when the University of Texas at Austin released a study that found there is no evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater.