Frack or Fiction: Economic Boom or Environmental Bust? - KCTV5

Frack or Fiction: Economic Boom or Environmental Bust?

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MEDICINE LODGE, KS (KCTV) -

On a patch of ranch land in south-central Kansas, an oil rig rises more than 60 feet above the barbed wire fencing that otherwise dots the landscape of a livestock ranch just outside the tiny town of Medicine Lodge.

The constant hum of a diesel engine parts the prairie air here, as a massive steel drill bit bores deep into a dense rock formation known as Mississippian Lime two miles below the Earth.

Trapped inside that rock is oil, a commodity that could pump the Kansas economy out of recession. "Kansas black gold," as Ben Crouch calls it.

"It's going to end up being tremendous. I mean, it's billions and billions of dollars," he said. 

Crouse is chief operating officer of Osage Resources Inc., one of several energy companies leasing thousands of acres of land across the Kansas plains. In some cases, those companies are paying farmers and ranchers $1,000 per acre for the right to drill for oil and natural gas on their property.

When energy companies find major oil and gas reserves, like the one sitting beneath the rich Kansas soil, they call it an emerging "play." And over the past two years, major firms like Shell Oil and Chesapeake Energy, along with smaller companies like Osage Resources, have invested more than $2 billion in Kansas to develop that play, according to Ed Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association.

"We don't know the exact full potential yet," Cross said. "But if this play meets expectations, many communities in this state need to prepare for economic growth."

The boom in oil and gas exploration in Kansas is courtesy of a relatively new drilling technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. It involves injecting millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, under high pressure to crack the Mississippian Limestone and release oil and gas from the rock. But fracking is not without controversy, as environmental groups like the Sierra Club claim it carries significant health risks.

"In some cases they're using toluene and benzene, known carcinogens," the Sierra Club's Joe Spease said, referring to the chemicals that help make up fracking fluid. "You'll find arsenic and mercury. Things that are deadly, deadly toxic."

Environmentalists fear those chemicals, as well as methane from natural gas, can escape the rock formation, seep upward and contaminate underground water supplies. "This happens miles underground," Spease said. "When those rocks are fractured, we don't know exactly where those cracks go."

Cross disagrees, saying 99.5 percent of fracking fluid is water and sand. And the small amount of chemicals, according to Cross, is basically harmless.

"Many of those chemicals are used in our daily lives, like detergent or something like guar that's used in ice cream," Cross said.

It doesn't make any difference whether it's 1 percent or 50 percent, Spease said.

"When fracking chemicals are blended in, that water is useless, it's contaminated," he said.

As it turns out, Kansas has a long history with fracking.

"The first well ever fracked in the United States was in Kansas in 1947," Cross said. "And there hasn't been one case of harm to ground water in the 60 plus years that it's been used."

Spease claims the safety record that Cross cites doesn't tell the whole story.

"The industry is using its history and the lack of incidents that occurred with vertical hydraulic fracturing as a reason to say we just don't need regulation," Spease said.

"A Duke University study examined 60 wells in the East at random that were different distances from horizontal fracking sights," said Spease referring to a controversial study of hydraulic fracturing that some scientists now question. "What they found was 51 were contaminated and they've since confirmed the contamination was from the fracking operations."

For that reason, Spease and other environmentalists are pushing Kansas lawmakers to pass a law requiring oil and gas companies drilling in the Sunflower State to disclose the full list of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. While lawmakers recently passed a law in Kansas giving the Corporation Commission the authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing, it does not require disclosure of fracking chemicals.

Nine states currently have strict rules requiring such disclosure, but Cross doesn't see the need for that type of legislation in Kansas. "In Kansas, the industry is not opposed to disclosure, in fact we are in favor of transparency," Cross said. "We support the projects that are already going on like the fracfocus.org project."

According to Cross, most companies drilling for oil and natural gas in Kansas disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process on the website fracfocus.org. But as Spease points out, companies are not listing their trade secret chemicals on site.

"There's no way of holding the gas industry accountable unless we know which chemicals they are using that might be responsible in a contamination," Spease said. "So there needs to be that disclosure, which would include chemicals they consider proprietary."

But Kansas Sen. Pat Apple, a Republican from Louisburg, contends full disclosure is not that simple.

"Some of the companies have proprietary concerns with their fracking materials," Apple said. "So how do you do that?"

If Kansas goes the route of disclosure, Apple said, then the Kansas Corporation Commission is best suited to figure a way to do that while still protecting the companies' trade secrets.

"If we need to take a look at that next year, then maybe that's something we take a look at," Apple said. "But it's much better if the KCC comes up with a solution."

However, the KCC's rule-making process is arduous, and without legislative action it could take the agency more than a year to adopt any regulation of hydraulic fracturing, including full disclosure.

Spease says that's precious time clean water supplies in Kansas might not have in the wake of all the drilling now taking place.

"We have great reason to be concerned about the risk to water supplies," Spease said. "That water is absolutely critical to farming and ranching in this part of the country, and the thought we are not putting it at risk from contamination by fracking would be crazy."

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