Articles

The effects of chemical fracking on Wyoming’s natural environment

Information gathered: 2017, edited and published: 2019

Life without the oil and gas industry might look much different than the world we know today. In 2016, the United States consumed 27 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to power everything from residential houses to commercial buildings. As it relates to the state of Wyoming, the oil and gas industry provides major economical benefits as well as providing energy to many. However, as necessary as these commodities are to sustain modern life, the methods that are used to extract and gather oil and gas aren’t exactly sustainable or healthy for surrounding environments, water quality and air quality.

One of the main methods of retrieving these materials is hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking. Fracking is the process of sending a mixture of immense amounts of water, sand and some chemicals into an oil or gas well, and sending a short but aggressive pulse through the material to crack the rock, and create flow pathways for the wanted materials, according to a 2015 BBC article. 

I sat down with Director of the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, Peter Stahl and he provided some insight into the world of fracking. 

“I used to live in Oklahoma for four years in college, and never once experienced an earthquake. After they started doing all that injection of water into the subsurface, I went for a professional society meeting [recently], and the first night I’m sleeping in a hotel, in Oklahoma City, I got woken up in the middle of the night by an earthquake,” said Stahl.  

As seen in Stahl’s testimony, the use of hydraulic fracking has had some lasting effects on the geology of Oklahoma. If the environment of Oklahoma has been effected by processes of collection in such a short time, it only makes sense that the state of Wyoming would have just as many issues considering Wyoming produces more oil and gas consistently than Oklahoma.

Just like every other controversial issue, there are opinions on either side of the spectrum. I spoke with David Taylor, professor of applied economics in the agricultural department at the University of Wyoming to find out his opinions on the industry as a whole.

“The positive side [of the industry] is it creates jobs, good paying jobs. Lots of tax revenue, oil and gas and minerals is about 70 percent of our operating tax revenue [in the state].” 

In addition to economics, the effectiveness of fracking also intrigues some people. 

“My opinion is it’s absolutely effective.” said Mark Northam, Executive Director of the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources “We have some of the lowest gasoline and diesel prices in the world because we are pretty much self-sufficient in producing our own oil [in Wyoming].” 

On the other side of the argument however, are lobbyists and environmental groups who are concerned about the effects of the oil and gas industries on Wyoming’s environment. Their concerns are mainly rooted in the water quality around drilling sites, but are also concerned with the air quality as well, according to Melissa Horton’s 2015 article.

Image from: Salt Lake Tribune

However, the most worrisome part of this whole industry is how companies are allowed to keep the public essentially in the dark when it comes to their techniques. The companies that utilize this technique to get resources from the ground, are not required to disclose the information about what chemicals are going into the ground, unless there is a legal issue involving said companies, as seen on the EPA’s website under regulations on hydraulic fracturing. As a resident of Wyoming, this should be very concerning because underneath your feet, and right near the water you drink, there are mysterious chemicals being pumped into the ground at alarming rates. 

“I think if you’re putting stuff into everybody’s environment, it should be fully disclosed. It’s the same thing, genetically modified foods, you should be able to read the package and know what you’re buying,” said Stahl.

There have been a number of court cases filed against oil and gas companies, for the contamination of water wells on their property. Often times, these cases are settled quickly, as companies attempt to cover up the issues to a certain extent, so they can continue to drill, make money, and provide resources.

There have been some instances in Wyoming where some residents’ wells needed to be capped off and shut down due to the contamination being so bad, as seen in Josh Fox’s Gasland documentary. The shutdown of these wells leaves citizens without a reliable source of water, a problem within a problem. 

Usually, in these types of situations, something was done incorrectly.

“If done correctly, it is 100 percent safe. Where there have been problems is, first of all, when operators were learning to use this technology, or if they take shortcuts,” said Northam.

Regardless, when dealing with these harmful chemicals, workers need to be absolutely sure that they are doing everything correctly, by the book, and in accordance with the law. However, the problem will seemingly only continue to grow as in 2018, more than 10,000 applications for oil and gas permits were filed. In just the state of Wyoming. With this amount of applications, there are bound to be more rigs built, more drilling occurring, and more chemicals being put into the environment.

The United States has proven itself to be one of the most gluttonous countries when it comes to the use of oil and gas. Because of this overuse and exploitation of natural resources, methods to extract these materials that are harmful to the environment are very prevalent. One of the largest parts of Wyoming’s economy is the oil and gas industry, and as a result, Wyoming’s environment is suffering. 

Sources:

Interviews:

Mark Northam, School of Energy Resources Director, face-to-face interview 11/13/17

David Taylor, Professor/Extension Specialist in the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, face-to-face interview, 11/20/17

Peter Stahl, Director of Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, face-to-face interview, 11/20/17

Background Sources

Horton, M. (2015, January 19). What are the effects of fracking on the environment? Retrieved from, Investopedia

Fox, J. (Director). (2010). Gasland[Motion picture]. USA: HBO.

Natural Gas Extraction – Hydraulic Fracturing. (2016, December 30). Retrieved from EPA

What is fracking and why is it controversial? (2015, December 16). Retrieved from BBC

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