Since 1949 the United States has had more than 2.6 million oil and natural gas wells drilled into its surface. Many more wells have gone uncounted since they were drilled before comprehensive records were kept. Add to that some 680,000 waste injection wells of which more than 150,000 inject industrial wastes, some of it considered hazardous. And, this may not be the full count since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that records are inadequate on the largest class of injection wells which it says "in general...inject non-hazardous fluids into or above [U.S. drinking water]." The "in general" part is not terribly reassuring.
The concern about all these holes through the country's subsurface layers has taken on added significance with the widespread application of hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and natural gas trapped in deep shale formations. The process injects millions of gallons of water under high pressure mixed with toxic chemicals into wells to create fractures that will allow oil and natural gas to flow to the surface. Also flowing to the surface are millions of gallons of return flow which must be disposed of. Much of it is forced down waste injection wells.
Vast new areas in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Arkansas and many other states are now the subject of intense interest from drillers. So, an issue that had previously been confined to hydrocarbon-rich states such as Texas, Louisiana and California has now become a nationwide concern almost overnight.
The ProPublica story referenced above makes the case that the injection process changes the underground geology because of the amounts that have been injected (trillions of gallons), the high pressures used and the fractures created intentionally or unintentionally by the process--fractures which have the potential to allow dangerous wastes to reach underground drinking water aquifers. All of this is compounded by the lax supervision by both state and federal regulators who are overburdened in any case and have too few resources to monitor so many wells. It is no surprise then that many wells experience failures and leaks.
So where does that leave the future of America's drinking water? One former EPA engineer predicts that within 100 years most of the country's underground drinking water will be contaminated. This is an observation that I want to focus on.
I had a conversation this week about this issue with a contact who frequently does environmental consulting with clients in the oil and gas industry. While he thinks the immediate dangers of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas wells are overblown, when I asked him about the long-term integrity of all those millions of wells, both recent ones and those long since abandoned, he was less sanguine. I asked him to imagine those wells not 10 years or even 100 years from now, but 1,000 years from now. He agreed that most of them will have disintegrated allowing free flows of liquid along the drill paths. There wouldn't be much pressure, he added. But then, the liquids don't need to come to the surface to be a problem for underground drinking water.
More recent wells might maintain their integrity much longer since they are usually stainless steel, and the concrete which surrounds them is more intelligently formulated to withstand corrosive elements in the subsurface layers. He was far more concerned about the waste injection wells which he agrees are poorly regulated and poorly run. These, he believes, pose the greatest danger to underground drinking water supplies.
I suggested that we are not accustomed to asking questions such as, "Who will be monitoring all these wells in 500 years or 5,000 years?" Human civilization, that is, our settlement in cities with their complex systems and logistics, is only roughly 10,000 years old. And, many discrete civilizations have come and gone in that period, most in under 1,000 years; many have come and gone in only a few hundred.
A great number of people in our time imagine that our technological age has solved the problem of civilizational collapse. They imagine our society moving from triumph to triumph and never making fatal mistakes that could wipe our way of life from the globe. Since the mental time line these people imagine stretches out thousands of years into the future, they have no care about who will be monitoring all those wells we've drilled in America and across the globe.
But history suggests the folly of this way of thinking. And, it is therefore an almost unspeakable horror that we have already bequeathed to future generations--polluted groundwater virtually everywhere that will kill and sicken many and may make habitation based on groundwater supplies impossible in many areas of the country.
That is the irretrievable legacy of our age of pincushion America. We get the temporary benefits while all future generations pay the terrible price.
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.