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UW Researcher: Too Many Unknowns About Fracking

PHOTO: Three-quarters of the sand used in fracking operations worldwide comes from western Wisconsin. A UW-Madison researcher says there are far too many unknowns about the environmental impacts of fracking, and that more studies should be done. Photo courtesy of The Sierra Club.
PHOTO: Three-quarters of the sand used in fracking operations worldwide comes from western Wisconsin. A UW-Madison researcher says there are far too many unknowns about the environmental impacts of fracking, and that more studies should be done. Photo courtesy of The Sierra Club.
August 6, 2014

MADISON, Wis. - It may be a little too much of a gamble.

The biological impacts of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" to release pockets of natural gas and petroleum from shale formations underground are still largely unknown, according to University of Wisconsin conservation fellow Sara Souther. In a report to be published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Souther wrote that there are too many things we don't know about the process.

"We know that shale development is influencing the landscape in many ways, many of which could be detrimental," she said, "but we don't have the basic data that we need to really understand how those changes are affecting plants and wildlife."

Wisconsin produces 75 percent of the sand used in fracking worldwide, and supporters of the process say sand-production jobs have been a boon to the state's economy. Fracking uses a mixture of high-pressure water and sand, and Souther said it's injected with a variety of chemicals.

"We don't know what chemicals are in these hydraulic-fracturing fluids; they're not always disclosed," she said. "We don't have the basic data, essentially, to understand the impacts of shale development on our forests, grasslands, streams and rivers."

Without more complete and accurate data about the chemicals being used, Souther said, researchers can't get a clear picture of their effects on plants, animals, air and groundwater. She said the past has taught scientists that the environmental impacts of large-scale resource extraction are greater than the sum of their parts.

While there are many unknown aspects of fracking, Souther said, a number of things have become clear.

"I think there's a critical point that most people don't understand is, shale development is really influencing our ecosystems right now," she said, "There is chemical contamination. There is habitat loss. There is water loss from aquifers and water basins."

Her study identifies one of the greatest threats to animal and plant life as the cumulative impact of rapid, widespread shale development, as each well contributes collectively to air, water, noise and light pollution.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI