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The price of gas: A Need to Know investigation

Hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — is a process used by energy companies to get natural gas out of the ground. Fracking involves forcing water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture rocks and release the natural gas trapped within them.

But what happens to those chemicals once they’ve been injected into the ground? That depends upon whom you ask. In a joint effort with ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalist organization, we sent correspondent John Larson to Wyoming, where some residents believe fracking is contaminating their water and risking their health.

Editor’s note: This video was temporarily taken off the site to reconfirm past and current energy industry affiliations of members of an EPA peer review panel. We determined that our original reporting and statements were accurate, but to avoid confusion about the members’ current affiliations, a graphic listing their names was removed with accompanying narration.

Producers: Abby Leonard and Lucy Kennedy

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  • larry

    This report was the most frustrating pieces I’ve watched in a long time.. It was high on speculation and shamefully low on facts and scientific method.. When are journalists going to ask the appropriate questions? Or is the better question, when are they going to stop editing answers that might weaken their preconceived thesis? Don’t get me wrong.. This is a righteous enviromental question that was probed here. HOWEVER — I can’t believe that your folks sat down with the EPA Admin for the district and she had NO idea what chemicals were actually found in the tested wells. It SCREAMED for follow-up.. Were the samples within EPA spec for water safety? Did they test for the largest suspected culprit which was benzene? What was that result? Could the wells pass the same test standards applied to municipal supplies?? NOPE.. none of those answers. or if there were, we didn’t hear them.. Now it’s not hard for me to believe that the EPA was just completely incompetent. But it’s also not hard for me to believe that this report was just over edited, or done by folk who haven’t had a science lesson since 11th grade..

    It’s really possible that the story here is that these folks just have extraordinary levels of METHANE in their water. Hence the smell and the health effects. But that’s no surprise since they’re sitting on top of rich Nat Gas field.. Perhaps the solution is to frack and drill and REMOVE most of that Nat Gas. These are all questions to be answered by FACTS and LOGICAL inquiry. Not by just portraying the stereotypes of incompent regulators and criminally negligent corps…

  • mel

    I think the more interesting question is why is the worlds highest paid, privately funded investigative journalism organization bent on brining down the shale gas industry?

    Why has a single family – the Sandlers – committed $100,000,000 to create a journalism outfit that gives away content – with the apparent purpose of furthering our reliance on coal?

  • macadamia man

    I see the guard dogs of the oil-shale gas industry are on the early watch catching the “first to post” worm again. Theirs must be just like the “economic motive” advanced in the piece by a pro-drilling farmer as the likely reason hundreds of farmers would complain about their bore water being polluted – the opportunity to gouge an oil company for dollars and then happily quit the land their families and fore-fathers treasured. Yeah, right . . .

  • Luke

    Heck, the gas has been in the rock for more than a 100 million years, it’s not going anywhere. What’s a little delay to make sure nobody dies unnecessarily. Given the risk to health – it is only logical to delay and discover what the threats to health and water are. In the USA we take clean and ample drinking water for granted. We even have enough clean drinking water to supply areas of the US that have respectfully little natural drinking water. Again, given the risk, caution and transparency will not hurt anything; and if it means someone needs to bring attention to a problem that is right now neither cautious or transparent, to achieve the appropriate end, so be it. Be thankful there are people out there who care enough for your health, my health, and the nations health to ask the tough questions. I personally thank the team of “Need to Know” for this story.

  • elaine thomas

    Thank you so much for providing a great program explaining the horrors of ‘fracking’. Also, kudos for the excellent work of John Larson. I am used to seeing him on NBC – glad to see him lend his excellent interviewing skills to such a fine show. Please pass on my admiration for his excellent work to whomever does the hiring. More of John Larson, please!

  • James Barth

    As a resident of the Delaware River Basin in Wayne County, PA, which is part of a watershed that provides drinking water to more than 17 million Americans, I have become deeply involved in the issue, and safety, of high volume, slickwater, multistage, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, in this case, into the Marcellus Shale layer. More than 3 million Pennsylvanians get their drinking water from private wells, as portrayed in the Pavillion, Wy area of Mr. Fenton and Mr. Meeks. People in Dimock, Pa, within a 9 square mile area, began to experience the Wyoming type contamination within 6 months after drilling began, and have now been waterless since the Fiorentino water well exploded on January 1, 2009, as a result of operations by Cabot Oil & Gas. Chesapeake has just been found, by the PADEP to have caused a similar contamination in Bradford County, PA to three private water wells. I am surrounded by about 1,500 acres owned by hunting clubs, who have leased to Chesapeake. The first two posters, larry and mel, express the opinions similar to gas industry lackies. This is real stuff happening to real people, and it is about time the US EPA is beginning to get back into the ball game. Now we need to level the playing field, and take away the huge handicap that the industry has been given. Full transparency on those chemicals is absolutely required. Thanks to Need to Know, and reporter John Larson, for this intelligent and measured report. We who are being impacted have a Right to Know, and the sooner those Federal exemptions given to the gas and oil industry are repealed, the better.

  • jan

    When Bush II exempted the oil and gas companies from accountability and disclosure of information on chemicals they were using to the public AND the federal government, he did a lot of harm. Given that fact, it can’t be a surprise the EPA person doesn’t know what chemical to test for (in order to have an effective investigation with less expenditure of tax money).

    And for those of you who don’t have wells and don’t know; water wells tend to produce water consistently decade after decade. They don’t change overnight from water to methane mixed with water for no reason. I feel badly for the people in Wyoming and anywhere else the companies are fracking at will with the blessing of the state. My mother has land with gas wells and I know what a environmental mess they are capable of making even without the fracking and how extremely difficult it was to get accountability and even limited clean up from them.

  • Johanne Dion

    André Caillé, president of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, said on national radio Radio-Canada this week that the chemicals added to the water and sand in the hydraulic fracturing process are surfactants, chlorine and muriatic acid. Exploratory wells are being drilled right now all along the south shore of the St-Lawrence river. Many environmental groups, towns and citizens’ groups want a moratorium until the laws pertaining to gas drilling are drawn up this fall. Till then, drilling pads are being installed, exploratory wells are being drilled, wells flare for 135 days (St-Edouard), and mayors are being told by their citizens that sonar trucks are sounding for gas along their city roads.

    Johanne Dion
    Friend of the Richelieu

  • Alex Stromeyer

    Each nat gas well site is by EPA definition a super fund site,because of the materials used in fracking, one of which is diesel fuel, over 150 known carcinogenic, and neurological damaging chemicals are used .The exemption from clean water laws is a moral crime.Once an aquifer is polluted, and they do get polluted by fracking, the potable water resource is gone .The question is: why is a clean perpetual source of potable water under ground sacrificed for a few decades of nat gas?How short sighted is this? The arrogance of short term greed is on display.The stupidity of allowing potable water supplies to be ruined shows an indifference to what is important to life for generations;clean water.

  • Deborah

    I agree that this is not “Bill Moyer’s Journal” but the question remains how is it possible that toxic chemicals can be pumped into the ground AT ALL and we have no way of knowing what it is doing to the environment and particularly the WATER. We cannot live without clean water, we had better start to use the good ol’ American ingenuity to figure out how to live without oil. Busting it out of rock should be the first clue that we are about to run out.

  • public citizen

    The public has a right to know what chemical hazards may be present as a result of this industrial practice. Proprietary formulations need not be disclosed; a simple list of the individual chemicals would suffice without any loss of competitiveness or profit. Besides, greener alternatives are being developed and likely will result in the abandonment of these compositions anyway. Why not use them in these locations now, instead of continuing the controversial practices?

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  • Pam Dwnnison

    So many of you, Deborah, public citizen, Alex, Johanne, Jan, James, Elaine and Luke expressed my feelings and added more than I could have.

    I find it outrageous that these companies do not have to disclose what they are using because they have a patent on it.

    As I sat and watched this show I thought that Bush, and the big wigs from these companies along with those who voted for the loop hole should have to drink this water along with all their family members. I would ask Larry and Mel if they would be willing o drink this water along with having their family members drink along with them?

    But I do agree that better questions should have been asked and hope John Larson will follow up on this.

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  • Z. Flowers

    Thank you, Need to Know, for a moving piece. I agree with previous commenters that ongoing followups would be appropriate and appreciated.

    As Larry, above, mentioned, there are “stereotypes of incompent regulators and criminally negligent corporations” which are reinforced by histories like these – unfortunately, sometimes stereotypes have basis in reality.

  • d. patton

    I wonder if these people in charge of “fracking” have had this procedure on their own property, and if they are willing to do so? Also I wonder what would happen if they tried to do “fracking” on a former presidents ranch? Would they be stopped? If so then why cant they be stopped from the private ranchers properties. I understand that the owners of the places where the “fracking” is done have absolutely no say in the matter.
    What really upset me was to see it is being done in Michigan, a state that has some of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water, not only in lakes and streams but underground as well. It would be a total disaster to have that water contaminated by the chemicals used in “fracking”
    I feel that the companies are using the “intellectual property” clause to hide the fact that they are using dangerous chemicals. But they want high profits and do not care who gets hurt in the process of their making the big bucks. Isn’t it enough we have to pay high prices for natural gas, now people are getting sick as well. Sure it may not be a large portion of the population now, but it will be eventually.
    This is just as bad if not worse than strip mining or the way mountains in West Virginia are being torn up and left bare, all because it is an easier way to get coal out of the ground.
    WE ARE RUINING OUR LAND!!! When will we wake up?

  • James Bowen

    Denver and other Colorado Front Range residents residents ought to know that the government is intent on leasing out all of South Park where your water comes from to the fracking people. Park County right now is considering issuing permits to a company that will be exploring on Colorado Division of Wild life property. The BLM is doing the same thing. No one knows what is in the fluids and they don’t have to tell anyone either. They all are interested in exploring for uranium using similar methods of extraction known as in situ.

  • me

    Good story. There needs to be a follow up on this story in six months and continuously updated until the truth comes out.

    I live in Texas, and people are seeing the same things here. Contamination of water, land and air near drilling sites. To me a pattern exists between drilling and water, land and air contamination, so the EPA needs to thoroughly investigate, and oil and gas companies need to divulge chemicals used in Fracking.

    Oil and gas companies only care about profits. The safety of people and water is not part of their plan.

    Now I know America needs to get this fossil fuel, but it cannot be at the sacrifice of the health of people nor the contamination to people’s property. Corporations, especially Oil and Gas, need to be accountable for their actions, take into account the qualify of life of humans and their needs to live (e.g. water, air, and land) and then take the necessary steps to ensure that no harm comes to people and their properties. And going to court after the damage occurs is not an answer.

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  • The price of gas: A Need to Know investigation August 27th, 2010  /
  • larry

    Far from the being the “lacky” I was accused of being, I also want to know IF there is a dangerous practice here.. The EPA tested 40+ wells and this piece of wantonly weird journalism didn’t disclose the results other than to say that the majority of the samples were “good”.. IF the suspected harmful chemical is benzene, you would THINK that the EPA is competent enough to test for that. Anyone know the results? Didn’t think so.. You can’t develop public protection policies on calling folks lackies or “suspecting” as one poster spat that diesel fuel was involved. Now diesel fuel may be used on site — but I doubt that this is what is being used as “proprietary” fracking additive. I’ll go along with the crowd who says that the producers need to disclose what they are using. But EVEN THEN — I want journalism that reports actual test results and the we should be watching for contaminants that aren’t disclosed by the drillers.

    Like I said — the main contaminant of their water is very likely NATURAL GAS!!!

    BTW: For all you “alternative” fans.. Just what the heck do you think that geothermal mining sites look like? It’s a circle of death for sure around those “clean, green, alternative” mining operations – with blowouts being commonplace…

  • public citizen

    Diesel fuel and kerosene are listed as components of some fracturing fluids.

    See example 1 in US Patent 4554082

    With a little effort, using google scholar and the uspto website, you can find a lot of information.

  • USPatriot4Sanity

    Go Frack Yourselves, Gas Companies!
    If someone w a towel on their head, from another company came and POISONED America and Americans, they would be called ECO TERRORISTS.
    Watching Josh Fox’s “GasLand” on You Tube and HBO made me realize just how much our congress people are on the take from the gas companies. They claim they’re making us less independent on foreign oil. WATER + LIFE you IDIOTS. I’ve recently contacted Erin Brockovich and Eric Holder, to exhume the bodies of fracking victims, to identify fracking chemicals in their tissues, just as fracking chemicals have been found in the bodies of rabbits, frogs, etc. in fracking areas.
    WAKE UP America: Your congress people and your states’ attorneys general
    DON’T GIVE a RAT’S BUTT as long as they get their 30 pieces of SILVER.
    I can’t wait for the gentleman from Trinity Solar to come and talk to me about putting SOLAR PANELS on my house.

    FRACK YOU, gas companies!

  • John W. Parana

    Water in Elk County, PA has been ruined from this drilling too. But most of the politicians are receiving money from the gas industry in Pennsylvania. Gov. Rendell, Sen. Scarnati and AG Tom Corbett are three of the biggest beneficiaries of the industry. The drilling industy has paid Penn State for two pro-drilling studies. When the truth of who funded the studies, the Dean came out and admitted there were flaws with the studies but yet our politicians continue to refer to the propaganda studies. The questions that aren’t being asked or answered is what will happen to the other industries that this drilling will negatively affect. In Pennsylvania, they are talking about destriying millions of acres of sustainable forests. What will happen to the hunting and timber industries with this loss? Plus, what will happen to our air and water quality when this many trees are cut down? What is going to happen to our fishing and farming industries, when billions of gallons of water is pumped into the ground and polluted? What will happen to the tourism industry, who is going to come here to look at gas wells? What about all the air pollution from all the traffic and the damage they do to the roads? Texas has already passed stronger air quality standards against the industry. West Virginia is trying to make the industry bond the roads they use because they are destroying them. Yet, the drilling continues as quickly as they can. There should be a moratorium on all hydraulic fracturing until a comprehensive and unbiased study can be done to insure the safety of the process to our water, environment and health.

  • LC

    Maybe Larry should watch the report again if he can’t get the FACTS out of it on the first go around. It clearly stated in the piece that the results of the EPA tests are forthcoming, so he should cool his jets before spouting all this misplaced outrage…might make him look like a shill for the natural gas industry. Why would anyone come to a website to defend an industry that continues to mislead the public about its activities? The have million (probably billion) dollar public relations machines and lobbyists–they don’t need his help. In fact they were very good at getting that Halliburton exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act put into the 2005 legislation, an exemption that EVERY OTHER industry has to comply with. Unfair? You bet.

    Seems to me reasonable people would want this process investigated thoroughly, before it does any more damage around the US, as groundwater is something that once ruined, can’t be fixed. The story also stated that 11 out of 39 wells tested positive for chemicals that didn’t belong there–that is almost a third, and that’s no small percentage. If these wells are also contaminated with methane, then that water is ruined-you can’t get the methane out of the water by drilling. Its over for those poor folks; they will never be able to use that water, and their property is worthless.

    What is also an abomination is a government that allows a gas company to come on your property without permission and do whatever they want on your land. Any state that allows this is not protecting the rights of their people. We all need to worry when an industry is running the government rather than the other way around. Just look at the recent BP oil spill and you can clearly see it isn’t a government “by the people” it’s a government “by the oil and gas industry”. This industry needs to be taken down before it ruins everyone’s water and makes the price of a gallon of Poland Spring 10 times more than the price of a gallon of BP. I hope some honest oil and gas industry people out there will come forward and rat out this horrible process before its too late.

  • Charles G. Shaver

    Not the first segment on fracking I’ve seen, while experiencing worrisome new health problems in a rural agricultural/pesticide location, I’d like to give Need to Know a ‘well done,’ with exception. What Need to Know needs to know to tell the people who still need to know is that, in the absence of an Amendment to the contrary, the U.S. Constitution, not mineral rights, the gas companies, EPA, George W. Bush or any federal legislation, is the prevailing law of the land and that which injures, or sets precedent to injure, the working-class majority is inherently unconstitutional and treasonous (e.g. aids and abets our real enemies by weakening the whole).

    The right way to handle these things, from fracking to the economic collapse to the mass poisoning of Americans with FDA approved food additives (e.g. MSG, monosodium glutamate, 1980, preceding the current multiple epidemics of chronic and degenerative diseases) and prescription drugs is to vote the ‘perpetraitors’ out of office and take them to court. Unfortunately, most Americans, myself included, have much greater ability to cast votes than to file legal claims. With only two types of corporate puppet candidates (Republicans and Democrats) to blame for all they have legislated to not ‘establish justice’ and not ‘promote the general welfare,’ my policy is to vote for any other candidate to not support the status quo. This November we will have a good chance to hold many of the perpetraitors accountable, but will enough of us still be conscious and need to know what we need to know?

  • USPatriot4Sanity

    Every States’ SANE Citizens Should Have This War Cry, Come November:

    “Tell Your Government Officials to Go FRACK Themselves! Throw the Gas Co. Crony

    You May All Let Loose the Xena War Whoop Now!

    Call your gov. officials and tell them WHY you’re voting them OUT.
    They MUST know we’re NOT a bunch of ostriches.
    Let them know we KNOW they’re letting us be POISONED for 30 pieces of silver.
    Let them know, w no uncertainty, we’re WISE to their CORRUPTION.

    Pennsylvanians”: Tell Rendell To Go to HELL.

    America First.

  • Concerned Coloradoan

    Thank you for this informative piece on fracking. As a resident of Southwest Colorado I have been very concerned about the possibility of chemicals from fracking poisoning our water supply. In 2008 an emergency room nurse in a hospital in Durango, Colorado nearly lost her life after a brief exposure to gas worker who had fracking fluid on him. I remember it was difficult for her to get treated for exposure to these chemicals because the industry would not disclose what the chemicals were. She fortunately survived, but I have since wondered if this brief exposure nearly killed this emergency responder what kind of damage could these chemicals pose to our water supply?

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  • larry

    LC: You said “”"” The story also stated that 11 out of 39 wells tested positive for chemicals that didn’t belong there–that is almost a third, and that’s no small percentage. If these wells are also contaminated with methane, then that water is ruined-you can’t get the methane out of the water by drilling. Its over for those poor folks; they will never be able to use that water, and their property is worthless. “”"”

    THAT’s the point!!!! Methane is a naturally occuring component of Nat Gas. The evil gas companies are not putting it there — their trying to REMOVE it. If these people have methane in their water supply it’s because they live directly over large fields of “natural” gas.

    As for the EPA tests being “pending” — I doubt the timing there if they have issued a report on those 40 wells already containing traces of “chemicals that don’t belong there”. Be aware that all municipal water supplies are tested for dozens of toxic substances and that the EPA should have already completed the basic testing that is applied to the majority of drinking water sources in America. Stuff either IS there or ISN’T. Since the “journalism” here skipped right over the results — I can only assume the results didn’t fit their premise — or — the EPA is so incompentent as to be a fraud to the consumer equal to or greater than the fraud of not disclosing chemical contents of stuff the gas people are dumping into the drilling sites..

  • larry

    Thanks Public Citizen: … for that Patent reference.. This is the kind of factual information that is required to determine the level of threat.. I applaud you for attempting to drill down (pardon the pun) thru the hysteria and get to the facts..

    So — that technique for fracking that you cited did indeed require a dense hydrocarbon like kerosene or diesel to work. And I’ll join the crowd here with a declaration that nobody should be injecting diesel fuel into places where water contamination can occur.

    BUT — the patent was written with emphasis on OIL extraction and I’m not a petrol engineer, but it might not be the method being used here. In fact, injecting small amounts of diesel fuel into an OIL well site is not likely gonna be an enviromental holocaust since millions of gallons of hydrocarbons are ALREADY there. But I agree, we shouldn’t allow Clean Water exemptions to use techniques like this on sites where gas is being extracted without the natural presence of solid hydrocarbons..

    BTW: Screaming and threatening is not an effective mind changing technique. As soon as the enviromentalist on the left learn this, the sooner us “more conservative” enviromentalists will join with you to get stuff changed…

  • Finolakennedy

    As an economist I found the story fascinating both initself and because it highlights the broad issue of external diseconomies. Someone hurts while someone else benefits. If the losers can compensate the gainers and still create a surplus then there is the potential for net gain. The problem in this case is that the diseconomies are not acknowledged.
    It seems that the next step is agreed scientific criteria on which to arrive at agreed facts.
    Congratulations to all concerned

  • Jeaneyann

    you go i agree with you

  • Jeaneyann

    you go i agree with you

  • Potter

    When is this episode going to be re-posted?

    I am part of a group of people in NYS following this issue.