To Frack or Not To Frack? Real Questions Persist

Thursday, July 21, 2011

dreamstime_xs_18557465 The environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as it’s usually called, have two story lines. The industry’s is that there has never been a problem caused because of fracking. Opponents cite numerous instances of contaminated wells and other environmental violations, many of the resulting in steep fines.

The Great Gas Hope

Part of the problem is linguistic. The industry insists that the term, fracking, only apply to the final process, where a calibrated charge of sand, water and chemicals causes an explosion a mile underground and shatters a couple of thousand linear feet of rock to release thousands of tiny pockets of natural gas, which are piped to the surface and around the region to fire our boilers, water heaters and stoves.

However it is called, the process requires that a vertical hole be drilled a mile down to where the shale is, and then the drill  path turns a right angle and goes horizontal for a couple of miles. The hole is lined with very strong and dense concrete, and then a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced down with so much pressure and velocity that it fractures the shale into a million bits, releasing the gas they have held for so many millions of years.

The most powerful premise of shale gas is that if enough of it could be gathered, and enough of our boilers and other oil using equipment could be converted to use it, we might be able, within a few decades, to cease importing any oil at all – freeing us from the tyranny of oil producing countries . With nuclear power fading as an option, and with wind, wave and solar technologies barely in their adolescence, gas is our great domestic hope for fuel independence.

The Environmental But….

But fracking has left a tell-tale trail of environmental damage. While few of the thousands of wells that have been drilled appear to have caused problems, the problems that those few have caused have created havoc for the people living near the culprit drilling sites. The most prevalent and serious consequences have been the  pollution of water supplies, primarily of wells, but also on occasion of lakes and rivers.

The argument from the drillers – and from industry spokesmen in general – is that the contamination of any water supply couldn’t possibly be laid at the feet of the hydrofracturing companies, because the fracking is done at several thousand feet down — levels far below any water supplies, which are almost always a few to a few hundred feet below the surface. But this argument is disingenuous at best. To reach the shale, the well bore first passes through those very same watery levels. When properly formed, the bore hole is lined with a very strong cement that can, if properly mixed and formed, resist the extreme pressure under which the fracking fluid is forced down the pipe to create the explosion that fractures the shale. But if there is any fault in the bore hole casing that the mix forms in the first couple of thousand feet, the same pressure that explodes the rock a mile away is released into the softer dirt around the vertical pipe. Wells as far as a mile away from the drilling site have been contaminated.

However, hydrofracturing is a protected industry that – by a quirk of the law – is exempted from responsibility for any water contamination in its vicinity. The EPA is currently not allowed to regulate fracking fluids under the Clean Water Act because of the "Halliburton Amendment" (also called  the "Cheney Amendment" because Dick Cheney is assumed to have been behind its creation).  The makeup of fracking fluids, which contain such toxic substances as xylene and benzene, is also protected by patent law.  As a consequence, companies that were fracking in contaminated areas can challenge the affected parties with impunity. Without proof that the chemicals that are pervading their water are also the chemicals that were in the fracking fluid, very few people have had any success in suing for damages. Since the companies claim that their fracking mixtures a company secrets, the chemical link can’t be established.

There is a lot of political and other pressure on companies to release this information and a few have done so. Some of the larger companies involved in fracking, like Chesapeake Energy, claim they are also substituting chemically harmless substances for some of the more toxic compounds used in their fracking mix. But as long as full disclosure is denied the public, these protestations must be taken with a grain of salt.

Most of the fracking fluid that returns to the surface with the gas is either  recycled or stored in lined pits and tanks, sometimes indefinitely. Eventually, many of these pits and tanks leak, contaminating ground water: In 2008 and 2009, Pennsylvania’s DEP recorded 162 violations of “improper construction of wastewater compoundment.” With lax state rules, companies are often permitted to get rid of the water by dousing large areas, where the high sodium and chloride concentrations of the treated water linger and damage the plant life.

The Million-Gallon Problem

But even if all fracking fluids were potable, this does not do away with fracking’s insatiable appetite for water.

  • It takes on average 100,000 gallons of water to drill the well;
  • It takes millions of gallons to repeatedly frack the shale to release the gas during the life of the well; and
  • About three quarters of the water that goes into the well, all of which gets mixed with the sand and fracking mixture, comes back up seriously contaminated and has to be disposed of.

Some of the recovered fluid used by companies that are large enough to make the process worthwhile is treated and reused in other fracking operations. But even this does not deal with the fact that the industry uses billions of gallons of potable water and turns it – even after treatment, into a doubtful soup. Fracked water contains chemicals which wastewater treatment systems are not designed to handle, and is often radioactive, an aspect no wastewater treatment can yet deal with. Clean water from local rivers and even from aquifers is transformed into a mix that no amount of treatment will return to its natural state.

Our need for natural gas is great. Our primary national reserves of it lie deep and scattered in vast shale deposits that are only accessible through hydrofracturing, a water-intensive technology that requires the injection of toxic substances into our earth. Can it be done in a way that won’t turn tracts of American land into superfund sites? And are the deposits really as vast as they’re reported to be?

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