The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (also known as "fracking" — sorry, Battlestar Galactica fans) extracts natural gas from deep underground by using drillers to pump large quantities of water mixed with sand and chemicals under high pressure. That process fractures the rock formation, letting the gas flow freely. So freely, in fact, that communities that live above the Marcellus Shale, a massive underground natural-gas deposit stretching from New York to West Virginia that's being flooded by investors eager to drill, are worried about their drinking water's turn for the flammable.
A group of residents from Dimock, Pennsylvania, called "Carter 15" filed a suit against Cabot Oil & Gas last November for contaminating their well water, including charges that combustible gas was released into the wells, natural gas was discharged into fresh groundwater, and elevated levels of dissolved methane were found in the water wells. A couple in Damascus, Pennsylvania, who have an exploratory gas well near their home were told by the American Natural Gas Alliance that the "water contamination is the result of isolated accidents." Like isolated incidents, only accidental!
Although hydraulic fracturing has been in practice for decades, it has never been done so close to major population centers or on such a large scale, spurred by technological advances and the attendant piles of cash. (Exxon Mobil recently paid more than $40 billion for a company that specializes in extracting natural gas from shale.) It's already being done outside New York City and Philadelphia. By 2020, the Department of Energy estimates that shale gas will make up more than 20 percent of the country's total natural-gas supply. We hope Julia Roberts hasn't retired for the rancher's life in Taos by the time they're ready to film Erin Brockovich 2.