Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is a procedure that is used to extract natural gas. The process involves forcing chemicals, sand and water at high pressure into rock deep below the earth’s surface, causing the rock to fracture, releasing natural gas and oil trapped within.
Natural gas acquired through fracking currently accounts for one-third of the U.S. gas supply, resulting in decreased natural gas prices nationwide. Although natural gas is being touted as a key to energy independence, many communities affected by fracking are concerned about potential health risks posed to groundwater and the air by the chemicals used in the process.
Early Research Suggests Fracking Pollutes
A recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health found levels of xylene, ethylbenzene and toluene in the air surrounding natural gas wells in Garfield County, Colorado. These chemicals have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems. Benzene is also a known carcinogen. The results of this study suggest that more research is necessary to determine just how the chemicals involved in fracking affect the environment and public health. This study shows that fracking is likely not only to contaminate ground water, but it appears to create harmful air pollution as well.
On April 17, 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized standards that will reduce air pollution associated with fracking and natural gas production. These regulations provide the first federal standards regulating natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured. A full report of the dangers of fracking is expected at the end of 2012.
Recent Legal Action
Although fracking has not been clearly linked to health risks, some Pennsylvania citizens are concerned that their mysterious ailments could be related to nearby natural gas drilling. However, because natural gas companies are refusing to disclose the chemicals used in their process, doctors are unable to assess the potential health risks.
In an effort to address these health concerns, Pennsylvania has a bill pending that would compel natural gas companies to disclose the types of chemicals that are being used for fracking to doctors. However, the doctors must sign a confidentiality agreement which will make it illegal for them to share the names of the chemicals used in drilling with their patients. Doctors are concerned about the vagueness of the law, and fear that it will open them up to malpractice lawsuits by their patients angered by the lack of disclosure.
A case was filed in Scranton, Pennsylvania after a woman’s well exploded, allegedly from chemicals that built up in the water supply due to nearby fracking. State legislators blamed a the Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation, suggesting that their natural gas drilling methods had increased the levels of methane in local wells. These elevated levels of methane gas are blamed for causing the well explosion. Although Cabot did not admit responsibility, under an agreement they established under the guidance of state legislators, the company has set up a fund of over $4 million available to families with polluted wells. So far, families with affected wells have claimed nearly $2 million from this fund.
One of the latest States to enter the fray is California, where rules and regulations pertaining to fracking are just coming into debate. California has one of the toughest tort environments in the United States and there is no doubt that each wrongful death attorney in Los Angeles is closely watching the legislative process to identify the parameters of future suits, as are the oil companies. California with its massive economy and robust fossil fuel industry may very well be the case study for the nation’s fracking rules going forward.
Future of Fracking-Related Lawsuits
More than 23 cases have been filed nationwide seeking recourse for the health and environmental consequences posed by fracking. So far, lawyers have been unable to link health consequences to the fracking process, but with more awareness of the potential dangers, the pending EPA study, and the findings by the Colorado School of Public Health, it is likely that natural gas companies will be subject to tighter regulations in the future. If these studies are able to link the chemicals released by fracking to substantial risks to human health, the gas companies will no longer be able to deny that fracking is harmful and they may be liable for damage caused to public health and the environment.