Hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”) is nothing new. It dates back to the 1940s and drew little environmental attention or concern for most of its existence. It is a form of natural gas extraction that involves pumping water, chemicals, and sand slurry into a well at extremely high pressure in order to fracture the surrounding rock formation and prop open passages. This frees up the trapped natural gas to flow from the resulting rock fractures to the production well for capture. Fracking operations have evolved from using a range of 20,000 to 80,000 gallons of water per well to using up to 8 million gallons of water and 75,000 to 320,000 pounds of sand (proppant) per well. Much of this advancement happened in the last two decades, thanks largely to the development of dramatically more advanced drilling technology that allows for horizontal drilling deep under the ground. After drilling downward from the point of entry, the drill turns roughly ninety degrees once deep underground, thereafter traveling parallel to the surface. To visualize this process, imagine a very tall “L” with the long side horizontal underground and the short side’s tip at the surface. While the downward drilling goes a substantial distance, the drill goes much further after it turns horizontally, and is thus able to get at exponentially more of the shale rock. This new technology has not only rendered the method far more productive and profitable but has also increased the environmental impact. The recent development of utility-scale hydraulic fracturing, which has taken place at a gold-rush pace and with a corresponding level of excitement, has raised many new environmental concerns. The issues are quite serious, ranging from drinking water contamination to earthquakes, so it is not surprising that wildlife has not been at the forefront of the alarms. But as it turns out the wildlife problem, and not the contamination of the human water supply, may well be the most ominous for the industry. This seemingly anomalous circumstance stems from the array of regulatory exemptions granted to the industry in the statutes designed to protect human health and the complete absence of such exceptions in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Indeed, the ESA tends to be the least flexible of environmental statutes. It may not get its due in implementation, but when it is applied, it is fierce and unbending. We are just now gradually learning that the new scale of hydraulic fracturing technology is fraught with potential ESA violations, and early signs suggest that the wildlife agencies and NGOs are poised to halt the activity.
Awakening the Slumbering Giant: How Horizontal Drilling Technology Brought the Endangered Species Act to Bear on Hydraulic Fracturing
, 63 Case Western Reserve L. Rev. 1143
Available at: https://ecollections.law.fiu.edu/faculty_publications/257