What the frack? 

Critics debate oil-extraction method in Montana

Jack Gladstone sums up his concerns about the dangers of modern oil development on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation with a spin on an old maxim: What goes down must come up.

What's going down is a laundry list of hazardous chemicals used to hydraulically fracture—or frack—oil wells. What's on the way up is the water table at the head of two major North American watersheds.

"There is not sufficient or clean science to ensure that this is safe," says Gladstone, a renowned Montana musician and member of the Blackfeet tribe. "On the contrary, there is an emerging wave of evidence that contradicts it as being safe. We are running an uncontrolled experiment on the only home we have."

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  • Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy
  • A government chart shows fracking procedures.

Gladstone has joined a growing community of individuals and environmental groups across the country questioning the safety of a process that dates back to the late 1940s. Fracking has long enabled the release of trapped deposits of oil and gas by fracturing deep rock formations with a combination of water, sand and chemicals. The process allows producers to create new fractures or restore old ones, stimulating yields at new and existing wells.

According to FracFocus.org, a joint oversight initiative by the U.S. Ground Water Protection Council and the U.S. Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, "60 to 80 percent of all wells drilled in the United States in the next 10 years will require hydraulic fracturing to remain operating."

With fracking activity spreading from boom areas in western North Dakota and eastern Montana to small-scale wells like those on the Blackfeet Reservation, critics have become more vocal about the potential havoc the process could wreak on the nation's water quality.

The chemicals used in fracking include naphthalene, potassium hydroxide, 2-Butoxyethanol and known carcinogens such as phenols and benzene. Oil companies have staunchly defended the procedure, pointing to numerous safety precautions like concrete-reinforced steel casing designed to prevent fracking fluids from contaminating groundwater. But FracFocus admits the possibility of those fluids entering fresh groundwater zones due to engineering problems or geological factors.

On the Blackfeet Reservation, safety assurances from oil and gas developers have been tested this year. Several weeks before Exxon Mobil's Silvertip pipeline ruptured in July, spilling 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, a landowner near Cut Bank discovered a leak in an oil flow line maintained by FX Energy. Blackfeet Oil and Gas Manager Grinnell Day Chief referred to the leak—which released 15 to 20 barrels of oil and spilled into Cut Bank Creek—as an act of "negligence" on the company's part.

Keith Tatsey, a natural history teacher at Blackfeet Community College, calls such incidents "spooky." A critic of fracking, Tatsey is anxious about the long-term impacts that oil and gas development could have on the reservation and other communities. He adds he's nervous about the lack of knowledge most residents have about fracking.

"The companies just come in and start getting signatures from mineral rights owners," Tatsey says. "The community and members were never really educated on what it is [and] what can happen."

Montana Board of Oil and Gas Administrator Tom Richmond doesn't agree with the recent, nationwide rash of fears over fracking. While there has been some recent activity in the state—seven wells have been fracked on the Blackfeet Reservation alone in the past year—Richmond believes the scrutiny is driven primarily by controversy from back East.

Fracking projects on natural gas deposits in New York and Pennsylvania have garnered loud criticism from environmentalists. As word trickles west, Richmond says, people begin to fear what they don't fully understand. "The process seems controversial if they're not familiar with it," Richmond maintains. "We've never had an issue of groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing in the state, and we've probably had several thousand wells fracked over a 60 year period—750 of them just in the last ten years—without any complaint or evidence at all of contamination."

If anything, oil and gas development has subsided in Montana in the past year. Richmond's office signed off on 249 drilling permits in 2011, the lowest number in five years. That's largely due to a dramatic decline in natural gas exploration, Richmond says. Montana's Bakken-style boom ended in 2007, he adds, taking any widespread fracking activity with it.

Despite the state's long and apparently incident-free history with fracking, Montana became one of only six states in the country this September to require oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. Richmond says the move was preemptive. The EPA, the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy have recently begun to look more closely at the chemicals used in the process. "We decided to get out in front of that and get some rules on the books," Richmond says, "so that people could find the information on chemical use relatively easily."

The threat of groundwater contamination from fracking in Western states has recently gained federal attention. The EPA last month released preliminary findings from a groundwater investigation in Pavillion, Wyo. Well water in the Pavillion area boasts such high levels of methane gas that some faucets can be lit on fire. The investigation revealed the presence of 2-Butoxyethanol—a chemical commonly used in fracking—in groundwater samples. But the EPA has not conclusively linked the contamination to nearby gas extraction and fracking projects, making any relationship speculative until the agency releases a final report in the next few months. Still, the EPA is exploring permanent alternative sources of water for the area.

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