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Desert Companion

Environment: Deep questions

Like it or not, fracking is coming to Nevada. Can we be the state that gets it right?


Sometimes, being the first in line is a bad thing. Take hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — using high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals to break up underground rock and suck up the dispersed oil and gas. With a gold-rush mentality, developers had started more than 500 fracked natural-gas wells in Pennsylvania by 2009, just four years after the Bush administration loosened environmental laws, encouraging the practice. Pennsylvania paid dearly for being an early adopter. Deadly industrial “fraccidents,” polluted groundwater, and impacts on wildlife and public health made Pennsylvania the poster child for gas development gone wrong. (Even Pennsylvania’s former health secretary recently said the state had failed to ready itself for fracking’s side effects.)

Five years later, fracking arrives in Nevada. Only three wells have been drilled so far, but leases for more than 600,000 acres of public land that could contain dozens of potential well pads will go on the auction block to oil and gas developers by the end of December. The tardy advent of fracking in the Silver State may give us the chance to learn from others' mistakes. Can we get it right, or is fracking just wrong at its core?

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The state certainly thinks we can frack responsibly. In 2013, the Nevada State Legislature passed a bill mandating the creation of fracking regulations. The state’s Divisions of Minerals and Environmental Protection are overseeing the process, and their final recommendations go up for public comment Aug. 28. The Division of Minerals has been transparent throughout; for instance, it published online a lengthy list of chemicals proposed for use by companies that intend to frack in Nevada. (With the exception, in some cases, of custom blends considered trade secrets.) Among the division’s proposed regulations are requiring fracking operations to monitor nearby water sources for contamination and to test and report on the strength of their cement well casings. Nevada joins numerous other states, from California to New York, playing regulatory catch-up as fracking fever takes hold.

“We’ve made a lot of changes based on feedback from workshops,” says Michael Visher, deputy administrator of the Nevada Division of Minerals. “The counties wanted to be notified, so we added language that it isn’t just the landowners within the area of review, but also the county commissions that get 14 days’ notice before fracking begins.”

Visher is confident that advances in drilling technology will make Nevada’s operations more secure. Here, for instance, an additional layer of cement well casing will be required beyond the usual two in other states.

“As long as operators follow laws, there shouldn’t be any issues,” he says. “Mistakes can happen at any industrial site where there are lots of people, equipment and chemicals. But if you plan accordingly, you can minimize the times they occur and the impact.”

It’s that impact, however minimal, that has some people concerned.

“There have been cases where shale gas wells have allowed for the migration of methane, and eventually it has made its way into people’s drinking water aquifers,” says James Saiers, a Yale professor of hydrology who studies fracking’s effects on surface and groundwater. In May, the National Academy of Sciences published a study of 41,000 Pennsylvania oil and gas wells; it determined that broken or weakened casing and cement in the wells could explain the elevated concentrations of methane in groundwater located near natural gas wells.

Reno resident Dawn Harris has read this and many other studies. The hospice worker started the group Frack Free Nevada in February of 2013 out of concern about the potential danger to the state’s rural areas. She doubts the regulatory process is free of influence from wealthy oil and gas developers, and she notes that Nevada’s Division of Environmental Protection, which would be responsible for handling any air or water contamination issues, has been largely absent from the process. (The Division of Environmental Protection referred Desert Companion to the Division of Minerals for all questions.)

“I see political corruption, social justice issues and economic costs,” Harris says. “The BLM has to file environmental assessments, but what they’re doing is just saying, ‘No impact,’ which is ludicrous.”

[HEAR MORE: How will fracking affect Nevada’s water? Hear a discussion on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

A recent study by the Government Accountability Office that found BLM oversight of the oil and gas industry was insufficient to identify nearly half of the wells at high risk of pollution, says Rob Mrowka, an ecologist who until recently headed Nevada’s Center for Biological Diversity. In May, the Center lodged a formal complaint against the BLM over its sale of leases on 174,000 acres in the Battle Mountain District of Northeastern Nevada. Around the same time, a group called the Reese River Basin Citizens Against Fracking filed a lawsuit against the BLM, claiming the agency failed to adequately assess the possible environmental detriment of fracking on 231,000 acres of public land where they live, farm and ranch.

The legal actions have energized anti-fracking forces. Frack Free joined the Center for Biological Diversity and several other organizations to form Nevadans Against Fracking, which staged a July 17 protest outside the BLM’s Reno office.

Yale professor Saiers believes the biggest issues with fracking in Nevada may be water-related. “These are typically horizontal wells whose lateral portion might extend a mile into the formation,” he says. “To frack them over this distance might take 4-5 million gallons of water per well. … The potential for problems is the extraction of water is local. All the water taken out of the Susquehanna River Basin, for example, might be a small volume in relation to the total stream flow. But if it’s taken out of small streams and it’s not regulated, then you have a localized effect.”

But all of this may be moot. Unlike in Pennsylvania and other states where fracking has freed lucrative natural gas deposits, the fracking in Nevada would be for “tight” oil — a low-grade, shoe polish-like crude that isn’t good for much more than asphalt paving.

“There are fewer than 90 active oil wells in all of Nevada,” says Mrowka. “There’s low probability the wells being drilled will prove commercially viable, but the environmental community is sending a clear message that we oppose any fracking, no matter how extensive.”