"Biological impacts of fracking still largely unknown"

new peer-reviewed scientific paper outlines in detail the threats of fracking to plants and wildlife. The authors, from various universities, concluded that there are few studies and therefore significant knowledge gaps. Among their findings:

  • Threats from shale development include: "surface and groundwater contamination; diminished stream flow; stream siltation; habitat loss and fragmentation; localized air, noise, and light pollution; climate change; and cumulative impacts."
  • Many shale basins, particularly those in the eastern U.S., occur in regions of exceptional biological diversity. "The most rapidly growing source of natural gas in the U.S. [the Marcellus Shale] underlies one of the country’s highest diversity areas for amphibians and freshwater fish."
  • "In conjunction with other anthropogenic activities, environmental change associated with shale operations may cumulatively affect living organisms in unknown, potentially calamitous, ways.
  • "Rapid development of fossil-fuel resources has the potential to transform landscapes and biological communities before the resulting impacts are fully understood."
  • "Lack of data on wastewater disposal impedes environmental assessment."
  • "There is virtually no empirical information about the biotic risks associated with disposal of produced water and drill cuttings"
  • The authors reviewed records found on FracFocus regarding chemicals used to frack 150 randomly selected wells from three states (Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota) and found alarming results: 67% of wells had at least one undisclosed chemical, 37% had five or more undisclosed chemicals, 18% had 10 or more undisclosed components, and "many disclosed chemicals lacked Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) numbers or concentration values."
  • Most wells (82%) were fractured with fluid containing either undisclosed components or disclosed chemicals lacking CAS numbers or concentration values.
  • "Chemical information was sometimes omitted for “non-hazardous” components, but chemicals that are innocuous to humans (e.g. some salts) can be lethal to freshwater organisms."
  • The biological impacts of shale energy development are numerous, and include water scarcity, habitat loss, and various forms of pollution that can cross terrestrial and aquatic boundaries, extend beyond the immediate footprint of the operation, and may interact to affect ecosystems in unexpected ways, making cumulative impacts assessment imperative.

The bottom line from these researchers: "substantial knowledge gaps remain regarding effects of these activities on plants and animals." Many new peer-reviewed papers have been published over the past few years regarding oil and gas production. This level of scientific investigation is long overdue. Unfortunately, every single paper I have seen points to negative impacts.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Policy Analyst, Land & Wildlife program

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