Before he suspended his candidacy for president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave a spirited defense of fracking, a process that extracts natural gas from thousands of feet underground.
"You cannot show me one place where there is a proven – not one – where there is a proven pollution of groundwater by hydraulic fracking," Perry told a college student who raised the topic at a December 18, 2011, stop in Decorah, Iowa, according to the Texas Tribune.
Perry’s sweeping claim tracks with the November 2011 release of preliminary findings of a study by the University of Texas Energy Institute. A November 10, 2011, Austin American-Statesman news article quoted the study’s leader, UT geologist Charles "Chip" Groat, saying hydraulic fracturing "doesn’t seem to be of concern to groundwater."
Groat said the study had looked at regulatory violations and frameworks in states with major shale drilling operations, including Texas, Louisiana, New York and Pennsylvania. "The violations that we've seen are of no, minor or small impact," he said.
Perry’s claim also echoed more than 25 others made by regulatory officials, as compiled by a pro-drilling group, as well as a May 2011 assessment by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s administrator, Lisa Jackson, was asked at a May 24, 2011, hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform whether hydraulic fracturing can affect aquifers and water supplies. Jackson replied: "There is evidence that it can certainly affect them. I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water."
The "fracking process itself"?
Fracking might be fun to say, but it’s a little slippery to define.
Both Jackson and Perry were using a very specific definition of fracking, their spokeswomen told us by email, referring only to the step in the process where the shale rock is fractured.
In high-pressure hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, a mix of water, sand and chemicals is shot down into the well, bursting out of holes in the pipe lining the well and cracking the gas-bearing shale rock. Gas then flows from the cracks back up the pipe for collection. The immense increase in fracking since the mid-2000s came about because companies began to use this process in horizontally drilled wells, which cost more but also reach more of the layer of shale that lies as deep as two miles below the earth’s surface.
But the energy industry and environmental groups use the term fracking in very different ways.
Fracking expert Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, mapped out the two positions for us.
"Industry likes to restrict the use of the term hydraulic fracturing to just that process taking place underground during which time high-pressure water opens natural cracks or creates new cracks at the depths of the reservoir rock," Engelder told us by email.
Conversely, Engelder said, opponents of drilling "consider fracking to encompass the entire process from leasing land through drilling and sending natural gas to market."
PolitiFact Ohio acknowledged as much in a July 14, 2011, article. Evidence supported an Ohio lawmaker’s claim that state agencies had no proof of groundwater contamination from fracking, though the statement was rated Mostly True because in one case, a state panel found that a well’s cement casing allowed gas to seep into water wells (and up into homes, causing an explosion).
Even by the narrow definition, some environmentalists say that EPA reports from 1987 and 2011 prove that fracking has contaminated water.
The 1987 report (unearthed last year by the national nonprofit Environmental Working Group) said that "residual" fracking fluid "migrated" into a private water well after a nearby gas well had been fractured in West Virginia. The Dec. 8, 2011, preliminary report found fracking was a possible cause of groundwater contamination in Pavilion, Wyo., where a company was fracking inside an aquifer -- an unusual case, according to the report.
EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara offered us no comment on the 1987 report, though an Aug. 4, 2011, news story by an independent nonprofit news organization, ProPublica, quotes an unidentified EPA official as saying the agency was reviewing that case.
The 2011 report, Alcantara told us, "tentatively found a link between groundwater contamination in an aquifer with hydraulic fracturing. The report is not final and it will now go through independent scientific review."
Also using the narrow definition, other regulatory officials said they did not know of groundwater pollution by fracking.
The Texas Railroad Commission regulates fracking in Texas. Commission spokeswoman Gaye Greever McElwain told us, "Commission records do not indicate a single documented water contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas.
Similarly, an official with the National Groundwater Protection Council told us in a telephone interview that fracking has not been proven to contaminate groundwater. Mike Paque, executive director of the council comprising groundwater regulators and oil/gas regulators from state agencies, said the depth at which shale is fractured makes contamination by fracking itself practically impossible.
"There’s no water down there to drink," Paque said. "Private wells go a couple hundred feet down, and these are 11,000 feet down. So the fact that people say that, and that my state regulatory agencies say that, and the drinking water agencies say that, is correct, period."
To get our own fix on possible water pollution by fracking, we examined lists of incidents that were described as fracking-related by EarthJustice, a nonprofit law firm; the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit group; and ThinkProgress, a blog run by the American Progress Action Fund, a liberal think-tank.
Because we were seeking "proven" groundwater contamination, we first eliminated claims not related to water pollution and accounts that did not include independent evidence, such as a state investigation or newspaper story. Of the remaining 56 claims of groundwater contamination, not a single one fit the "industry" definition of fracking -- the one Perry was using, his spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, told us.
Yet how close to that step in the process were they? We identified 11 incidents that appeared to be both substantiated by outside evidence and linked to an essential part of the process of hydraulically fracturing a well. The 11 included events such as fracking fluid leaking from wastewater pits or from pipe lining a fracked well. Several were "blowouts," which Engelder defined for us as the (normally controlled) process in which "high pressure gas blows fracking water out of the well to clear the way for natural gas production."
A few examples:
- February 2008, Parachute, Colo. -- A ProPublica news story says a state agency confirmed a 200-foot frozen waterfall of fracking fluid that melted into the Colorado River.
- August 2008, Dimock, Pa. -- A Vanity Fair news story says that after fracking began nearby, the state shut down water wells and fined a company $360,000 for "contaminating Dimock’s groundwater and failing to fix the leaks that caused the problem."
- April 2010, Caddo Parish, La. -- A ProPublica news story says parish residents were evacuated and told not to drink their water after a blowout at a nearby fracking well.
- November 2011, Leroy, Pa. -- A (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader news story says an energy company confirmed that equipment failure allowed a 30,000-gallon spill of fracking fluid, some into a tributary of the Susquehanna River.
The two views of fracking seem irreconcilable.
Jason Pitt, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told us by email: "Fracking is just one small part of an overall industrial process to extract natural gas. When speaking about ground water contamination, it is very misleading to refer back to just the fracking process." He said there are many cases of water contamination "that have occurred as a result of natural gas extraction across the country."
Engelder, the Penn State geologist, disagreed. "Anti-drillers," he said, "have lots of proof of spills and leaks and other stuff including noise pollution and so forth because they consider fracking to be the all-encompassing, creeping industrialization of rural areas."
Attempts to tie events such as surface spills to hydraulic fracturing miss the point, he said. "Fracking is such a toxic word in the English language that Americans are blaming all sorts of bad things on it when, in fact, Governor Perry was using the term hydraulic fracturing correctly in his comment."
Perry’s comment, focused on "proven" incidents of groundwater polluted by the specific step of breaking the shale rock, holds up. However, the definition of fracking is debated -- and if we rope in all incidents that take place at such wells, there have been more than a few reported incidents of groundwater contamination.
We rate the claim Mostly True.