An MIT study, funded in part by the industry, found 43 incidents of documented groundwater contamination, much of it by methane or surface spills of brine and fracking fluid, which are pumped out and produced along with the gas. It identified no instances where the fracking process itself contaminated groundwater.
In a preliminary report released this month, researchers from the University of Texas Energy Institute reached a similar conclusion — that it is unlikely that fracking fluid injected more than a mile beneath the surface will intermingle with the fresh water found at less than a thousand feet. But its lead researcher, Dr. Chip Groat, conceded that it's possible, in a state with as many old oil and gas wells as Texas, that fracking fluid could migrate from the fracture zone into a well with a bad cement job or damaged casing and wind up seeping into groundwater supplies. There are still reams of data from the Texas Railroad Commission his team has yet to pore through, he cautioned.
A 1987 EPA study, unearthed in August by The New York Times, documented just the sort of groundwater contamination Groat had warned of. Fracking fluid had found its way into an abandoned well and into a West Virginia man's water well, the agency found. The lead researcher said she believed there were dozens of similar cases, but settlements paid by the industry, accompanied with confidentiality agreements, prevented her team from learning more.
The EPA has since undertaken a massive study, to be released next year, to determine the risk fracking poses to water supplies. Claims of contamination in the Barnett Shale will be one of its focuses. So far, there is no last word on the subject.
Nor is there much consensus on how the practice affects air quality.
According to researchers at Cornell University, fugitive emissions of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, are released at every step in the process, from drilling to storage to its conveyance through pipelines and compressor stations. And a 2009 study conducted by regional EPA administrator Al Armendariz, then at Southern Methodist University, suggested that smog-forming emissions from oil and gas production in the DFW area were greater than those produced by cars and trucks. But a study commissioned by the City of Fort Worth found that emissions from natural gas production didn't pose an immediate health hazard to residents.
Mothers like Kim Davis, then, can be forgiven if they have difficulty finding concrete answers to the questions that keep them up at night. It's their concerns, the anxiety they feel as they frantically download dense PDFs from every corner of the internet, that have brought the outcry over drilling from a murmur to a din as the Barnett Shale play moves from the ranches and single-stoplight towns into the cities and suburbs. Washington's business-centric rush toward "energy independence" has collided headlong with Main Street — especially in towns like Southlake, where parents worry not about job creation or Middle Eastern leverage but about the future and their health and, more than any of that, their children.
Gordon Aalund is an ER doctor at Baylor Grapevine Hospital with a night-shift tan, thick spectacles and a shock of ginger hair. He lives in a brick house cluttered with children's toys in the Whites Chapel neighborhood, a stone's throw from the Milner Ranch, the only drilling site ever approved by the Southlake city council before court orders and moratoriums tied it up. He says he bought the house a few months after the Milners — a landowning, longtime Southlake family — hosted a backyard barbecue lease-signing party.
By the time XTO came back around to clean up its leases, the price of gas had taken a nosedive and Aalund was offered $5,000 an acre, a fraction of what many of his neighbors got. He signed, but he worried when he heard XTO was asking the city council for variances on gas venting and reduced "setbacks," the distance between wells and homes or other buildings.
He began attending city council meetings, where he met like-minded residents, including Kim Davis. And he discovered the curious thing about the divide opening in Southlake: It knew no political ideology. It's a quirk that polarizing issues take on when they cease being talking points. Unlike Davis, Aalund describes himself as center-left on environmental and social issues. But he came to the debate looking at fracking through the eyes of a physician.
"People think we figured out cigarettes cause cancer because we did a study and said, 'Oh shit, this causes cancer!' No, that's not how we figured it out. Forty years later, when we saw all these people getting lung cancer, that's when we got the information," he says. "Do you want to be in the test group or the control group? I want to be in the control group that wasn't exposed to elevated levels of benzene while gas drilling was going on near my house.