The unique dynamics of hydraulic fracking in Utah.
By Rachel Piper
Though it hasn’t received attention from activists to the level that fracking has in Colorado or tar-sands mines have here (see p. 12), hydraulic fracking is something that’s quietly been happening in Utah for decades.
“The majority of wells in Utah are fracked, which I think is a big surprise to people,” says Steve Bloch, conservation director and attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Almost all the wells in the Uintah Basin are fracked for both oil and gas.”
Melanie Martin, an activist with Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance, says that while fracking is on their radar, local activist groups “have their hands full with a campaign to stop tar-sands mining from beginning in the U.S.
“Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance stand in solidarity with communities across the West and across the nation that are resisting fracking,” Martin says via e-mail to City Weekly. “It’s an incredibly dangerous practice that jeopardizes human health.”
Jim Springer, of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, says that Utah has “strict regulations that govern the use of hydraulic fracturing. It’s been an effective process in the state for more than 50 years, and it’s never jeopardized the environment or public health.”
The remote location of most of Utah’s wells, Bloch says, is “for sure” one of the reasons that fracking flies under the radar in Utah. “We don’t see the same kind of high-profile role that fracking is taking in these other Western states, like the Front Range of Colorado, and cities like Longmont and Fort Collins that are looking to ban fracking, or back east, where they’re fracking in an area where people are getting their water from groundwells.”
Springer says, however, that Utah does drill near populated areas, especially in the Uintah Basin, “what makes it safe is it takes place at a depth far underground.”
Unlike some places in Pennsylvania and New York, Springer says, Utah has few places that would be classified as shale areas, so “most of our oil and natural-gas wells are well below any problem, usually in the neighborhood of more than a mile deep. There are thousands of feet of impenetrable rock separating the fracking fluid from any drinking water or aquifers.”
One of the biggest concerns raised by activists has been drill and well leakage. Josh Fox says that 5 percent of all wells leak immediately after installation, and 50 percent leak over the course of 30 years.
“Obviously, any time you drill a hole into the ground, into a natural-gas formation and so forth, there’s going to be a certain amount of that product that reaches the surface or goes into the air. That’s just a natural part of the process,” Springer says. “Sometimes, there’s leakage from wells. Sometimes that’s surface leakage; those are monitored and reported by the companies, and cleaned up. They present no long-term hazard. Oil is a natural substance.”
But Bloch points to Pavilion, Wyo., where the Environmental Protection Agency has preliminarily linked fracking to contamination of groundwater. A December report detected “synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels” in the water table.
Springer says the division occasionally does receive complaints from locals saying that their drinking water has been contaminated. All reports are investigated, and “we have never found a case where that has been ... contamination due to the drilling.” For example, he cites an investigation into a complaint from a rancher that his well had been contaminated. The investigation found that the rancher’s septic tank was leaking into his water system.
“There’s not a single case of [fracking] being traced to groundwater contamination,” in Utah or the nation, he says.
“I think what happens is, this sort of thing gets brought to the public attention, it becomes an emotional issue, a lot of people don’t really investigate it or understand it ... and they leap to conclusions that are usually faulty,” Springer says.
Bloch says that Utahns in areas close to fracking are becoming more concerned about it as development continues to grow. “Folks want answers as to what the chemicals are, what the health risks are,” he says. “I think those are entirely legitimate questions to be asking; I just think it has to be viewed through the lens that there’s been a lot of fracking happening here for a long time.”