Fracking investigation finds toxic emissions at drill sites

There is new evidence that hydraulic fracturing poses a threat to air quality.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, conducted an infrared video investigation this spring of air pollution emitting from 15 hydraulic fracturing sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. The organization said it found emissions at 11 of the sites.

CBF said last week that it had sent the videos along with a letter, dated Nov. 29, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The letter laid out general and specific objections to how the EPA currently handles gas emissions and air pollution.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, releases natural gas from subsurface rock formations by drilling into the ground and pumping water and chemicals down to fracture the bedrock and release the gas. The Southern Tier sits on top of the Marcellus Shale, a formation of rock that stretches beneath several other nearby states that contains one of the country’s largest deposits of natural gas.

Tom Pelton, senior writer and investigative reporter for CBF, said his organization undertook the study to attempt to find answers to ongoing debates about air pollution caused by fracking.

“We decided to do our own examination and decided it seemed quite common,” Pelton said. “Methane emissions is quite a problem. We picked sites after we had become aware [that fracking causes air pollution] after a period of a couple years.”

CBF looked at 15 fracking sites and compressor stations, which pressurize gas during transport from one location to another. 13 of the sites are located in Pennsylvania, one is in Maryland and one is in West Virginia.

The sites CBF surveyed are operated by EOG Resources, Inc., Williams Production Appalachia LLC Hollenbeck, Cabot Oil & Gas, Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC and Texas Eastern Transmission LP, among others.

The companies were not aware that their sites were being filmed, Pelton said.

“We picked sites that were accessible to public roads,” Pelton said. “[We] didn’t want to notify them in advance [because the companies might have] shut off emissions.”

George Stark, director of external affairs of Cabot Oil & Gas, confirmed that the company was not aware that their sites were being filmed from public roads.

“No, I was not aware of the video,” Stark said. “The [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] has done studies and determined there was no negative impact from methane emissions.”

Pelton, accompanied by David Sawyer of Sawyer Infrared Inspection Services, Optical Gas Imaging, shot footage of the sites in May and June. They used both a standard video camera and a Flir GasFindIR infrared camera, designed to detect methane leaks and hydrocarbon gases.

CBF claims that the infrared equipment detected otherwise invisible gas emissions from 11 of the 15 sites.

Pelton said he believes that EPA needs to conduct another in-depth study into fracking’s environmental impacts.

“[A] comprehensive study should be conducted and should be taken in account for EPA air regulations,” Pelton said. “When written, those should be strong enough to stop leaks of methane from these sites.”

Jon Mueller, vice president for litigation of CBF, called in the letter for tougher federal regulation of air pollution caused by fracking.

“A federal rule governing air pollution associated with natural gas hydraulic fracturing is greatly needed,” Mueller wrote in the letter. “EPA has also failed to fully consider the impact of methane released from drilling and process equipment on human health and the environment.”

When contacted for comment, the EPA released a statement via email.

“EPA is working to ensure that America’s shale gas resources are developed responsibly so that public health and the environment are protected as the nation gains important economic and energy security benefits,” the email stated.

The EPA declined to comment on the CBF letter or video footage.

Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, said he believes the CBF footage is important.

“During gas development, storage and transport to market, some of the gas is purposefully vented to atmosphere and some accidentally leaks,” Howarth wrote in an email. “The footage from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation does a great job of illustrating some of this venting and leakage, using a special ‘FLIR’ video camera to ‘see’ the methane in the natural gas, which is not visible to the naked eye.”

Howarth said he believes the footage could be instrumental to stopping methane leaks at drilling sites.

“Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, so this leakage is important,” Howarth stated. “Our research indicates that methane makes up more than 40 percent of the entire greenhouse gas inventory for the U.S. … We really need to get this methane leakage under control, if we are to seriously address global warming.”

New York State does not currently allow fracking while the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) completes a review process of the environmental impacts of fracking and proposed regulations. Fracking may get underway in New York as early as next year, however.

Brendan Woodruff, campaign organizer for the BU chapter of New York Public Interest Research Group, said he believes the CBF video provides evidence that proposed regulations for fracking in New York State are insufficient.

“This [CBF] video clearly demonstrates that hydrofracking creates significant amounts of air pollution and underscores how woefully inadequate DEC’s review of this activity is since they do not feel the need to analyze how these emissions would impact public health,” Woodruff wrote in an email.

The CBF video footage is available on the organization’s YouTube channel, ChesapeakeBayFound, under the title “Drilling Air Pollution.”