Nightly News | November 18, 2010
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We're back now with a fight over what some people insist is a terrific source of new jobs and clean energy for this country. Others say it's bad for the health of our citizens and it's doing damage every day to our environment. It is called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" for short. It's not new, but it is moving into new areas, affecting more families and thus getting more attention. As part of our series of reports called OUR PLANET , and reporting from Pennsylvania tonight, our chief environmental affairs Anne -- correspondent Anne Thompson has the story.
ANNE THOMPSON reporting: In Pennsylvania , they're hoping history repeats itself. Home to the nation's first oil well , it changed the way America lives. Now the rush is on for the natural gas beneath these hills to do the same.
Mr. JOHN HANGER (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection): Natural gas isn't perfect, but it's better than coal and oil.
THOMPSON: But collecting this cleaner burning fuel involves a complicated and controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. A well is drilled vertically and then horizontally. Under extremely high pressure, millions of gallons of water mixed with a chemical cocktail and sand are then pumped down the well to fracture the rock and release the gas. With large-scale fracking underway in 10 states and generating tens of thousands of jobs each year, excitement about potential profits is tempered by worries from residents and environmentalists about potential risks, such as shoddy wells or spills, and mistakes in the fracking process.
THOMPSON: The Emmy Award -winning anti-fracking documentary "Split Estate" highlights problems in Colorado .
THOMPSON: In Dimock , Pennsylvania , a pipe vents methane gas from Craig Sautner 's water well under his front yard. If you didn't have this pipe, what could happen?
Mr. CRAIG SAUTNER: It could either be an explosion right here at the wellhead, or inside the house. Most likely, probably in the house.
THOMPSON: State officials say just drilling the gas well contaminated the water supply in the Saunters ' neighborhood before the fracking ever began.
Ms. JULIE SAUTNER (Dimock, Pennsylvania Homeowner): I have been dizzy in the shower and have had headaches. And yes, I have broken out in hives from using the water.
THOMPSON: Cabot Oil Gas , which drilled the well, now delivers bottled drinking water and every day fills this tank in the Sautners ' garage for showers and laundry. Despite paying more than $300,000 in fines, Cabot says it is not responsible, a position Pennsylvania 's secretary of environmental protection says is eroding support for natural gas development.
Mr. HANGER: Cabot has just lawyered up and PRed up, and has told Pennsylvania that they can -- that we can pretty well shove it.
THOMPSON: Cabot insists its drilling practices exceed industry standards and that the process of fracking is safe.
Mr. GEORGE STARK (Cabot Oil and Gas): The industry's word would be the evidence of that right now; 1.1 million wells that have been fracked, no known contamination to ground water .
THOMPSON: But from well drilling to treating the water used in fracking, there are complaints. For regulators, this is a very difficult balancing act. They want to tap into this homegrown energy source and its economic benefits, but without putting at risk one of our most vital natural resources , drinking water .
Ms. LISA JACKSON (EPA Administrator): That's a trade that I don't think we need to make, and if we're smart about it now and ask the right questions, we shouldn't have to make.
THOMPSON: Trying to power the future and preserve the present. Anne Thompson , NBC News, Dimock, Pennsylvania .