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Holy Rizzoli: Is That Fracking Fluid Going to Kill Me? (No)

The plot line for the recent episode of Rizzoli & Isles – a “torn from the headlines” crime drama on the TNT Network about a female police detective in Boston — is Hollywood at its worst. Rizzoli stumbles onto an illegal shale gas fracking operation, but the evil frackers catch her before she can call for back-up. They have to kill her. Sure, they could shoot her, but the evil frackers decide to tie her up in an abandoned car in the path of toxic spill water coming from the illegal fracking operation. Naturally, Rizzoli is rescued just in time, and the evil frackers are sent off to prison where they belong for being dirty polluters. My beef is not with the Blofeld-like decision not to shoot Rizzoli, but with the nonsensical representation of shale gas fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) is a natural gas extraction technique in which a mixture of water, sand and a tiny amount of chemical additives are pumped deep underground through a well-bore to fracture shale rock and release trapped natural gas. The disparity between the plot’s take on shale gas fracking and the facts could not be greater.

For starters, shale gas fracking is not illegal in Massachusetts, where the TV show is set.  Indeed, there is no fracking in Massachusetts because there is no shale to frack in Massachusetts.  More fundamentally, the notion of death by toxic fracking water is unrealistic in two respects.  The water-sand-chemical mixture used in fracking operations is not toxic, and in any event there are no discharges of raw fracking water.

“Chemical” Does Not Equal “Toxic.”  The minute amounts of chemicals added to the water-sand mixture used in fracking operations have drawn intense scrutiny and criticism.  Fears over dangers posed by these chemicals, however, are greatly exaggerated.  The US Department of Energy reports ( Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer, April 2009) that these chemical additives collectively account for less than 0.5 percent of the fracking fluid; the other 99.5 percent is water and sand. Moreover, the vast majority of chemicals added are innocuous surfactants used to enhance the “slipperiness” of water used in fracking operations. It is possible that the water may accumulate small quantities of naturally occurring elements after being pumped down into the shale rock formation, as well as brine, but that hardly renders the water toxic.

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