Detail of Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marcellus Shale Formation for natural gas, just north of Pennsylvania Route 118 in eastern Moreland.
If you haven't heard, fracking is when you drill thousands of feet down through the bedrock and then inject a mixture of chemicals and grit into shale below. The mixture fractures the rock open deep below, and allows natural gas to seep back out through the drill hole. Right now, there are fights raging over whether to allow it in Maryland and certain parts of Virginia. Maryland's governor recently proposed funding a series of studies taking a look at fracking in that state, and some legislators are proposing an outright ban on fracking in the state. The U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to allow fracking in Virginia's George Washington Forest.
Opponents are afraid of the environmental impacts of the practice. Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the George Washington Forest is only a few hundred miles away, and "it's the headwaters for 4 million people in Washington, Fairfax, northern Virginia all the way out to Leesburg... this is a really big decision."
Mall says there are risks throughout the process, from the transportation of the dangerous chemicals used in fracking, to problems with drilling itself.
"When fracking happens, problems can occur at any point in that well, 100 feet below the surface, even if the well is thousands of feet deep," says Mall.
Drill holes are lined with cement to protect aquifers, but she says, "problems have occurred in parts of the country -- the well in the steel pipe — and sometimes the cement is not properly installed. There are failures."
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, takes issue with Mall's characterization.
"Statistically, it's just not proven! Its anecdotal evidence; you throw these threats up and scare people, but lets just deal with the facts."
Cobbs says there have been no definitively documented cases of groundwater contamination that was specifically the result of the fracking process.
"Most evidence brought for this anecdotal in nature, one person complains there's an issue," says Cobbs. "Studies have not born that out, and in fact the opposite's been shown that it can be done safely. In Arkansas, the United States Geological Survey conducted a survey of 127 private or domestic [water] wells in an area that has been highly developed. Over 4,000 production [natural gas] wells have been put in this area over the last 6 to 8 years, and no damage done to the water in those areas."
In the rest of Virginia, outside of the George Washington Forest, fracking has been going on since the '50s, and according to the state's department of Mines Minerals and Energy, there have been no documented instances of groundwater or surface water contamination in the state. But in Maryland, the geology is radically different. Fracking would require more than 20 times the volume of fracking liquid -- that's the stuff that gets injected into the ground, and one of the contaminants that people are worried could spill. Mike Tidwell is with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and is among those concerned.
"There's been everything from earthquakes triggered from the wastewater to deforestration, incredible truck traffic 'cause they have to truck in the clean water, truck out the dirty water, there's just a number of different impacts including methane that's released during the fracking-drilling process and piping of the gas through pipelines. There've been a lot of questions that haven't been answered."
William Valentine is County Commissioner in Allegany County, one of only three counties where fracking could potentially happen because they're right above what's known as the Marcellus Shale.
"I sit on the governor's commission to study the fracking process, and nobody has been able to come up with a single positive problem with the fracking. All we're told is there are potential problems. Well you could potentially get hit by a car when you leave your building tonight, but you're still gonna go outside."
He points to the surrounding states' experience and the resulting economic benefits.
"The state of Pennsylvania is making millions," he says. "West Virginia is making oodles of money off of Marcellus gas. The majority of the people in Allegany and Garrett County would like to see it happen."
West Virginia's Department of Commerce points to estimates that the natural gas industry will have brought $884 million in tax revenue and 30,000 jobs to the state by 2015.
"We've never seen groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracking itself," says Kevin Sunday, with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. "What we have seen is where there's a lot of gas in the ground in these shale formations, there's also going to be a lot of gas in the shallow formations as they drill vertically down. If those vertical wells aren't cased and cemented right, there can be a path for shallow pockets of gas to migrate into an aquifer. There've been a handful of those cases."
In 2011, faulty cement leaked liquid contaminated the wells of 16 families in Bradford County Pennsylvania, and the company was fined a million dollars. There are other instances of chemical spills and blowouts.
Sunday says if there's a lesson for other states, it's in the regulatory arsenal the state had to prepare for modern fracking.
"That greatly increased the fracturing fluid disclosure law," says Sunday. "It also increased the fine we could assess, increased protection of private water supplies... there's new casing and cementing regulations in place, there's a restriction on oil and gas drillers taking wastewater to treatment plants. As a result, we have seen dramatic increase in the amount of flow back water recycled."
Kathy Cosco, with West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection advises to make sure environmental regulations are prepared for the industry.
A state commission in Maryland is investigating best practices for fracking, and its potential impacts in the state. It's expected to produce several reports, the first of which is due in August of 2013.
[Music: Fracking: "Frack" by Princess Chelsea from Lil' Golden Book]