by Christian Leuz, Pietro Bonetti, Giovanna Michelon
The discovery of hydraulic fracturing is considered by many to be the most important change in the energy sector since the introduction of nuclear generated electricity more than 50 years ago. As a result of its discovery, U.S. production of oil and natural gas has increased to unforeseen levels. This has led to lower energy prices and lower air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions by displacing coal in electricity generation.
As drilling activity has increased, however, a robust debate has begun within communities where development is occurring—and those where it could occur—regarding the pros and cons at a local level. Potential harm to water quality is one key concern because of the unique hydraulic fracturing process where water mixed with chemical additives and propping agents like sand are injected at a high pressure to create fractures in rocks to allow oil or gas to flow. In addition to concerns surrounding the hydraulic fracturing fluid itself, these wells produce large amounts of wastewater—flowback from the hydraulic fracturing fluid and produced water from the deep formations. The latter is naturally occurring water into which organic and inorganic constituents from the formation have dissolved, resulting in high salt concentrations. A 2021 study provided the first evidence that hydraulic fracturing is related to increased salt concentrations in surface waters across several U.S. shales and many watersheds.1 Because of local health and environmental concerns, many states began requiring that newly-fractured wells disclose details on their drilling activity and the chemical composition of the hydraulic fracturing fluids starting in around 2010. In this study, the 2021 study authors go on to provide the first empirical analysis evaluating whether these state mandates requiring transparency are effective in changing operating procedures and reducing water pollution.