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What’s the Fracking Problem?

One image in the HBO movie Gasland changed our perception of shale gas: a Pennsylvania resident held a lit matchstick up to a running kitchen faucet and turned it into a blowtorch.  An army of hydrogeologists cannot expunge that image from our consciousness: tap water caught fire.

The United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.  According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. has more than 2,552 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas – enough to fuel the United States for 110 years.  Unconventional sources, such as shale gas found in the Marcellus Shale Formation beneath Pennsylvania and parts of New York and the Barnett Formation under Texas account for 60% of our reserves.  Unlike conventional gas fields where natural gas can be extracted simply by venting underground pockets, extracting natural gas from shale formations is hard work.  The extraction technique, known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking,” works as follows.  First, drill a mile down into the earth, then take a right turn and drill laterally into a shale rock formation.  Next, fracture the shale rock by blasting it with millions of gallons of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals.  Finally, withdraw that water/sand/chemical mixture, along with natural gas released from the interstices of the fractured rock.

Shale gas offers many advantages if it can be safely extracted.  It could lessen our dependency on foreign oil and thereby enhance national security.  Moreover, combustion of natural gas releases less carbon dioxide per Btu than combustion of either coal or gasoline.  Thus, natural gas has the potential of being the transitional fuel of choice until renewable energy becomes both more cost-effective and sufficiently developed to meet our energy needs.  From the moment that kitchen faucet became a blowtorch, however, shale gas has been subjected to intense scrutiny.  Congressional committees have called for disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluids.  Environmental groups have demanded that federal and state regulators develop strict rules for fracking to prevent groundwater contamination.  The picture that is emerging from this scrutiny is not yet complete, but here is what we know.

Chemicals Used in Fracking.  As noted above, fracking fluids consist of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals.  Water and sand can make up more than 99.5 % of the fluid.  Water acts as the primary carrier fluid in hydraulic fracturing, and sand props open the fractures so that gas may escape.  The 0.5% chemical component of fracking fluids has garnered a disproportionate share of the attention.  This is partly because fracking fluid providers have been reluctant to disclose the identity of the chemicals, which they contend are trade secrets.  The function of these chemical additives, however, is not secret.  Some chemical additives improve the flow of the fluid (making it “slippery”); others kill bacteria that can reduce fracturing performance.  According to a House Committee that investigated the chemicals used in fracking, over 750 different chemicals have been used.  Most of the chemicals used are innocuous (e.g., sodium chloride (salt), gelatin and even instant coffee).  A few pose significant human health hazards (e.g., methanol, isopropanol and 2-butoxyethanol).

Groundwater Contamination.  Conceptually, fracking fluid that is pumped 6,000 feet below the surface through a steel pipe should not come into contact with groundwater, which is at most 1000 feet deep (and usually much shallower).  The potential for groundwater contamination is much greater, however, when fracking fluids are brought back to the surface.  These returning fracking fluids (referred to as “flowback”) can carry back many naturally occurring substances that pose hazards, including heavy metals (e.g., barium) and radioactive matter.  Some operators hold returned flowback in rudimentary lagoons or pits – little more than excavated holes in the ground.  Flowback can leach out of the bottom of these pits and contaminate underlying groundwater.  To prevent such contamination, operators are beginning to utilize closed loop systems, which store and transport flowback within a series of pipes and aboveground tanks.

Leaking well casings are another potential pathway for groundwater contamination.  Observers believe that the flammable tap water depicted in Gasland was caused by methane gas that escaped through well casing cracks and fissures, and contaminate groundwater.  As a precautionary measure, some operators have begun encasing well borings with multiple layers of steel.

At some point, flowback becomes too dirty to be reused, and must be discarded.  Proper disposal of flowback is critically important to the protection of both surface water and groundwater.  The vast majority of flowback is disposed of in underground injection wells, regulated by EPA’s “Underground Injection Control” program.  Although disposal of flowback in permitted injection wells is currently the most effective means of safely isolating these fluids from the near-surface environment, the required specific geological conditions that are required for such wells do not exist in all areas.  Depending on the location, there may be other methods of handling flowback such as treatment and discharge.  Treatment of flowback can be conducted on-site or in centralized treatment facilities.  If discharge is allowed under state or federal law, it must be done under strict controls which would typically require the issuance of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit from EPA or a state environmental agency.

Advances in flowback treatment technology offer the promise of using flowback for other purposes, rather than simply disposing of it.  The use of filtration, reverse osmosis, decomposition in constructed wetlands, ion exchange and other technologies may eventually result in the widespread practice of using flowback for such things as managed irrigation and land application. One practice in use today is the recycling of flowback for reuse in other hydraulic fracturing jobs, which saves water.  This technology is being used by companies like Devon Energy in the Barnett Shale Formation around Ft. Worth, Texas.  Several companies also use this technology in the Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania.

The explosive growth of hydraulic fracking has exposed some of the environmental risks associated with shale gas, particularly in the Northeast where gas is often located closer to population centers.  The dramatic image of tap water catching fire may look frightening, but it pales by comparison to the images from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  Every source of power has its pros and cons.  We must exercise patience with shale gas as we develop improved methods of extraction.  Shale gas offers enormous promise for this country’s energy needs, and the risks are manageable.

Peter L. Gray is a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, where he chairs the Environment, Energy and Product Regulation Department.

Peter Gray
Peter Gray is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Gray chairs the firm’s Environment, Energy & Product Regulation Department and co-chairs the climate change practice. Gray can be reached by email at pgray@mckennalong.com.
 
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8 thoughts on “What’s the Fracking Problem?

  1. You can only manage a problem if you know what it is that you have to manage. By the gas companies’ own admissions in their SEC filings, they do not know completely what all the risks are below ground. The whole process of unconventional drilling for natural gas by the means of hydraulic fracturing needs to be halted until we fully understand that it cannot cause irreparable harm to the environment. That has not been proven yet. See my case for a moratorium at http://go.to/marcellusstop

  2. Sorry Stephen Cleghorn, but a moraturium is supported neither by science nor the law. The “guilty until proven innocent” is not the standard for mining and drilling practices. I understand that you’d rather not see your neighbors enjoy their mineral rights, but the world doesn’t revolve around your druthers.

  3. Risks manageable? First, there are risks. How much risk are you willing to put at the feet of your child, wife, sister, mother? Are you THAT confident that the risks are manageable? Or are the risks manageable when they are not near your home?
    If the disasters in the Gulf and Japan tell us anything, they tell us that manageable risks are simply not managed, mainly due to the costs related to “managing risk.”

  4. PJC – (I’d call you by your real name if you shared it, as I did) – If you look through my PowerPoint I think you will see that science is quite unsettled on whether this kind of drilling cannot cause irreparable harm to the environment, whereas there is a great body of evidence to suggest that it could. Under those circumstances the gas industry does not have to prove “innocence”; they simply must prove that irreparable harm cannot happen. They have not been able to do that. It’s true that our economic ethos and our culture essentially ignore the “Precautionary Principle” that would call for a halt to the drilling until we know more about its long term and cumulative impacts, but because we ignore such a principle does not make what we do right. Future generations are relying on our being cautious to preserve the land and water where they live. Have you bothered to look at the PPT before popping off at me? I have no quarrel with my neighbors, by the way. They are also trying to figure out if allowing drilling is the right thing to do. I have their respect for the work I put into reclaiming this farm. I respect them for sustaining this farming community for more than a hundred years. I expect we will not have the sort of “my druthers versus your rights” conversation you suggest. There are people in this world capable of much more than your comments give me, or them, credit for. In the end I am left with a kind of pity for someone who sees the world as you appear to see it from your remarks.

  5. The faucet on fire in the propaganda movie has been exhaustively debunked. Methane in a Colorado well occurring naturally, no fracking anywhere near it.

  6. Anyone with expertise, please add to the discussion information that explains or debunks the reported relationship between fracking and increased earthquake activity.

  7. The Gas Fracking methodology is causing other forms of widespread land devastation in areas like Wisconsin, where silica sand that is specifically being used in Fracking is being surfaced mined. The value of this silica sand is reported as high as $300 per ton, making the farm land which it is under too hard to refuse offers from the gas companies for many private farming families.
    The gas companies have been taking advantage of rural communities that have few protecting zoning laws in place to prevent the buying up of the farm land for the surface mining, and the reclamation laws are apparently too weak to return the land to its natural state after the hills have been turned into valleys. Many communities in Wisconsin are faced with a choice of accepting the land devastation and living with the uglyness, or selling out and moving away. The devastation of the silica rock filled hills also may affect the quality of the underground aquifers, having acted in the past as natural filtration to the aquifers.

  8. I think it is so silly the way people are reacting to fracking, all it will do is put pressure on other energy resources driving prices. Surely everyone must realize that any traditional way of getting energy poses some harm to the environment weather CO2 or habitat destruction. Additionally every action we make or scientific advancement we have can have on foreseen effects in the future. we have just not been on the planet taking data long enough to know what will happen. Its far better to make fracking as safe as we can so that we can tap this huge resource to buy us time to lower the cost of and develop greener energy.

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