Recent distress in the nation’s economy has not dampened the new natural gas boom sweeping up the Appalachians. Until recently, natural gas could not be economically produced from “tight” rock formations like the Marcellus Shale stretching from Western New York into Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The widespread use of modern hydraulic fracturing techniques has changed that.
Gas contained in the Marcellus does not easily flow through the rock to a well except along cracks in the rock known as “fractures.” Hydraulic fracturing—sometimes called “fracing” or “fracking” — involves injecting fluid into these tight formations at very high pressures to create man-made fractures. Generally, the more fractures created, the more gas production. Fracking has made production from the Marcellus Shale possible and created thousands of jobs in its wake.
The new technology carries the promise of opening for exploration natural gas deposits in other areas of our nation, including the Barnett Shale surrounding Fort Worth, Texas, and the Antrim Shale in Michigan.
This bonanza comes with a cost. With increased drilling come increased surface use and more chances for spills and accidents. Fracking operations are noisy, require a great deal of water, and may involve heavy truck use of country lanes and town streets. The biggest concern, however, is the potential for water pollution.
The type of fluid used for fracking varies, but it is usually over 99 percent water and solids with the remainder being additives that promote flow of the fracking fluid through the pore space in the rock. The solids are the “proppant” which is typically sand, ceramic pellets or similar material that is carried into the fractures. The proppant is left in the crack when the fluid is pumped back out, propping the crack open and allowing the oil or gas to flow to the well.
No evidence directly connects injection of fracking fluid into shale with aquifer contamination. In 2004, the EPA released the results of a study that found no confirmed instances of contamination of drinking water wells by fracking fluids in the ground. This finding is not surprising as fracking fluid is pumped through a concrete-lined borehole to formations generally thousands of feet below the aquifers containing drinking water, minimizing this vector of contamination. After environmentalists criticized the conclusiveness of the 2004 study, another study by the EPA is planned, although conflicting opinions have arisen over its scope, which may push the completion date of the study into 2012 or later.
The potential for water contamination comes after the fracking has occurred. Industry sources say that operators receive back 20-40 percent of the fracking fluid when they pump it back to the surface. If improperly handled, this fluid could potentially harm surface water assets just like other liquid waste from drilling operations. Methods exist and are being further developed to reuse, treat, or contain the used fracking fluid. State regulations and enforcement to make sure these methods are applied, however, are currently not well developed.
Legislation to regulate fracking has been introduced in Colorado and Pennsylvania and passed in Ohio and West Virginia. The New York legislature has a number of pending bills before it that would increase fracking regulation. These bills propose a variety of restrictions, including new guidelines for where and when fracking can take place, require heightened environmental impact statements before issuing a fracking permit, and even call for a permanent ban on fracking within a certain distance of any unfiltered source of drinking water. One bill requires the disclosure of any chemicals used in fracking fluid.
With the memory of oil platform trouble in the Gulf of Mexico fresh in the public’s mind, however, an unfortunate push exists in New York and other places to ban all fracking, purportedly until the technology can be “proven” safe, and to require federal oversight of fracking. The New York State Senate recently voted for a temporary moratorium on fracking until May 15, 2011. This delay is purportedly to allow time for the Department of Environmental Conservation of New York to further study fracking. Other bills propose various longer or permanent moratoriums on all fracking.
Hopefully, these delays are not attempts to keep moving the goalposts back by dedicated opponents of the oil and gas business. While a responsive state regulatory framework and vigorous, impartial enforcement of those regulations is necessary, draconian measures such as rolling moratoriums or federal oversight of fracking are not. New York is well able to regulate fracking while at the same time allowing development of natural gas and enjoying the jobs and revenue it brings.
Dr. Kulander, is an attorney with Haynes and Boone, LLP in Houston. He received his B.S. and M.S. in Geology from Wright State University in Ohio, his Ph.D. in Geophysics (Petroleum Seismology) from Texas A&M, and served as a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., and Denver.