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Facts on Fracking: Three Things You Need to Know

fracking protestThe natural gas boom in the US due to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has provided the country with a cleaner burning, inexpensive fuel source that has lowered energy bills for industrial facilities and homeowners alike. The fracking process is still a hot topic of controversy wherever it is used to extract fuel.  Environmentalists claim it will ruin watersheds and leave scars on the earth, and other concerns range from flammable tap water to carcinogenic soil.

Fracking won’t set your faucet on fire.
The 2010 documentary GasLand famously illustrates the potential hazards of methane polluted water.  In the film, a homeowner holds a lit match up to his running tap water and a burst of flame results.  This homeowner’s water is contaminated with flammable methane.  The film asserts the pollution is the result of a nearby fracking operation, but actually methane pollution can occur in wells which are drilled into natural methane pockets.  This was the situation with the homeowner in the film, but by the time this was established the connection between flammable tap water and hydrofracking had already been made.  The fact is, the phenomenon of flammable water depicted in the film is not restricted to areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place, but occurs wherever water wells encounter methane pockets underground.  This could happen literally anywhere, and it is a result of poorly explored and drilled wells, not fracking.

This is not to say that fracking has never caused such an episode.  Isolated incidents of pollution to freshwater wells have been caused when drilling is done too close to the surface, and natural gas companies have settled several cases where damage is attributed to the gas wells.

The point is, however, that the horror story of the flammable faucet is extremely uncommon.  For one thing, the drilling components used to trap the natural gas are encased in steel and cement to prevent it from escaping.  If the casing is done properly, it is nearly impossible for methane gas to escape.  Also, fracking is done so far underground, that escaped methane would have to travel through solid rock in order to contaminate aquifers.  There are reports that this has happened due to problems like improperly cemented boreholes.  16 families in Beaver County PA were affected by such an incident.  As a result, the drilling company was fined over $1 million.  Problems like this are rare, and can be completely avoided by constructing and sealing equipment properly.

 Fracking won’t cause earthquakes.
There are several claims around the country, and even around the world, that fracking activity has spurred a number of low-registering seismic disturbances.  A recent study released April 16, 2013 by Durham University found fracking to be “not significant” in causing earthquake activity.  The study explains that seismic disturbances caused by hydraulic fracturing are minimal.  So small, in fact, that they would only be detectable by the sensitive instruments used by geoscientists.

It would be nearly impossible for hydraulic fracturing to cause any major earthquakes unless drilling equipment were to come into contact with a major fault line and somehow cause the fault to release any built up energy it has stored.  A recent British study concluded exactly this.  “The fact is that court case after court case and study after study have shown plainly that fears over earth tremors . . . have no basis in fracking facts,” summarizes Peter Glover of The Commentator.

Fracking fluid isn’t going to give you cancer.
What is that mysterious concoction being shot underground into the shale rock, and how can it not be dangerous?  Fears over pollution and contamination of drinking water and the environment from fracking fluid seem to stem from a lack of information about what this rock-shattering mixture actually is.  The secret to fracking fluid is water and sand.  Those two components make up about 98% of the fluid mix.  The remaining 2% is composed of ingredients that are familiar to many of us, such as citric acid, guar gum (a common food additive, used to suspend the sand in the fluid), and even common table salt.  Currently, fracking is regulated at the state level, and as such is exempt from the federal Clean Water act, which would require all companies to disclose the chemicals they use.  Even so, some states have implemented regulations requiring disclosure, and some companies list their chemicals voluntarily.  The information can be found here.

Certainly not all of these chemicals are harmless to the environment or to drinking water.  But, the fracking industry has a habit of recovering most of its fluid and recycling it.  This does not prevent every drop of fluid from being spilled, but it certainly means that most of the material is recovered.  This saves the company doing the drilling money as well as improving its environmental impact.

Like any method of recovering fossil fuels, hydraulic fracturing does do damage to the environment.  But, even accounting for methane leakage during extraction, the total carbon cost of natural gas is less than that of coal or oil.  The transition to natural gas for power generation in many places has led to a drop in carbon emissions for the United States.  Since the world is not yet ready for 100% renewable energy, natural gas could be a suitable energy source to “bridge the gap” in the transition to truly renewable fuel.

Jessica Kennedy's picture

Thank Jessica for the Post!

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Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on April 21, 2013
Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on April 21, 2013

Great article Jessica! 

References to learn about the natural gas revolution around the world: https://docs.google.com/document/d/19Yf0MWpo91vrlu-mmJtjB1ERukjJo5W41oi4RZVQBug/edit

Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on April 21, 2013

What makes Jessica Kennedy think anybody is going to believe her just because she says it? 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on April 21, 2013

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21952428


But seismologist Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey said while the study showed a potential link between the earthquake and wastewater injection, “it is still the opinion of those at the Oklahoma Geological Survey that these earthquakes could be naturally occurring”.

“There remain many open questions, and more scientific investigations are underway on this sequence of earthquakes and many others within the state of Oklahoma,” he said.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222989/

John Hanger, a former head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), blames poor gas well construction or design, not fracking, for methane contamination noted to date. He says repairs or plugging of gas wells eliminated contamination in 14 of 19 previously contaminated water wells tested in 2010 by the DEP. But Jackson maintains fracking cannot be ruled out as a cause, given the high pressures used in the practice.

http://www.eoearth.org/article/Hydraulic_fracturing

In the United States, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires controls on the underground injection of fluids to protect underground sources of drinking water. Notwithstanding that general mandate, the law specifically states thatEnvironmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for state underground injection control (UIC) programs “may not prescribe requirements which interfere with or impede … any underground injection for the secondary or tertiary recovery of oil or natural gas, unless such requirements are essential to assure that underground sources of drinking water will not be endangered by such injection.[1] Consequently, EPA has not regulated gas production wells, and had not considered hydraulic fracturing to fall within the regulatory definition of underground injection. Then, in 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the hydraulic fracturing of coal beds for methane production constituted underground injection and must be regulated. (This decision applied only to Alabama (LEAF v. EPA, 118 F. 3d 1467).)

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Jessica Kennedy on April 22, 2013

Thank you for the comments everyone!  I’m happy to see some good discussion

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on April 25, 2013

If, as I believe, benzene is one of the chemicals used (even in small amounts) it could cause cancer if someone were to injest it.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on April 25, 2013

Jessica, I disagree with your opinion.  The issue is not what environmentalists say about fracking but what the oil and gas industry don’t say.  To argue that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes may be true, but it is way to early to pass such a judgement.  In fact, evidence seems to indicate the exact opposite.  The same with the isue of fracking fluid.  First, we don’t really know the content of the fluid/s being used in fracking.  The oil and gas companies won’t tell us.  Given this, how can you possibly argue that fracking fluid will not give anyone cancer?  You can’t.  You don’t know.   I have to agree with Max.  Your piece is more a shill for the fracking/oil and gas industry than good journalism.  If it had appeared in my local newspaper I would have wondered how much you were being paid by the fracking industry to write this piece. 

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on April 26, 2013

…You said “The secret to fracking fluid is water and sand.”

WOW it is so simple and that is why the fracking companies are NOT willing to release their fracking fluid list of ingredients.  NOPE it is just a simple set of secret stuff and yet you can insure us that the fracking fluid will not cause cancer.  Do you really expecty us to believe this?  Better yet are you naive enough to believe this?

 

There are many such statements and I do not have enough time to waste on adressing a oil industry propoganda news feed.

 

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on April 26, 2013

An additional thought and the article is worth checking out:  Natural gas is a bridge to nowhere. It undermines progress on clean energy and is dangerous for our climate. http://clmtr.lt/cb/rDc

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Jessica Kennedy on April 26, 2013

Hi Ralph,

In simple terms actually – yes – the ingredients that actually “do the work” of fracking fluid are in fact water & sand.  Water is one of the best solvents in existence actually, which is why it is used in just about everything, and the sand particles are what causes the fractures in the rock.  Shale is very soft rock so sand made up of harder rock particles causes fractures pretty easily.  Those ingredients make up the lion’s share of the mix. 
The rest is sometimes disclosed & sometimes not – depends on state regulations.  Basically the point of the other ingredients is to suspend the sand & control the viscosity of the mix.  So even any secret ingredients used are going to be used for that purpose – there would be no other reason to add them. 
Natural gas companies are of course going to ensure that fracking fluid is perfectly safe and has no adverse health effects.  Is this true?  I hope so, but what I really want to get across is that it is really impossible to tell at this point.  More investigation and study clearly needs to be done.  But, a statement like “fracking might or might not be bad for you” isn’t going to catch the same kind of attention. 
Thanks!

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Jessica Kennedy on April 26, 2013

Hi Eric,

I appreciate your resposne.  I think you’re right about us needing to know what the gas & oil industry are not saying.  I agree with you there.

Fracking might cause the ground to shake from drilling, but I can’t see how it could possibly cause an earthquake, unless drilling were to be done directly on a fault line – I do know of some cases of “seismic activity” recorded when drilling has been done near faults.  Tough to tell if there is any movement along the fault line with that though because the activity is small.  And if a larger magnitude earthquake occurs – it’s impossible to tell if it would not have happened anyway.  

As far as safety of fracking fluid – I agree with you 100% – we can’t say fracking won’t give you cancer.  But, your point helps make my argument: how can you argue that fracking will give you cancer?  You can’t because you don’t know.  My point was less about backing up the gas industry and more about offering that counter-argument.  The propaganda from the anti-fracking movement is just as one-sided and uninformed. 

I’m sure there are carcinogens in fracking fluid & I’m sure there are materials being hidden as “trade secrets” or some other nonsense to avoid being disclosed.  But, there are carcinogens in alcoholic beverages, tobacco smoke, the sun, and a myriad of other chemicals we come into contact with every single day.  We’ve manufactured such an artificial world that it’s just about impossible to tell where the most dangerous substances are. 

Why focus on fracking? 

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Jessica Kennedy on April 26, 2013

That’s another valid point that’s tough to quantify.  Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas about 4times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.  But, it’s hard to estimate how much leaks from gas drilling.  And, is this process as damaging or more damaging than burning and mining coal and oil?  Is it worse than mining tar sand or offshore drilling? 
100% renewable energy would be the best option, but there is more to it than simple cost/benefit and renewable capacity.  The infrastructure of our electric grid is not yet 100% engineered to support renewable resources.  Energy storage, microgrid technology, distributed generation, i.e. “smart grid” tech will need to be implemented on a much wider scale before it’s possible to put a 100% renewable generation system in place.

 

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on April 26, 2013

Perhaps the key then is make fossil fuels pay the FULL cost of their production and use, which would include monitoring leaks at their wells.  As well as the health costs, destroyed environment costs etc…. Then clean tech would become not only the right tech but also the cheap tech!  Instead we get articles that hide the reality of fossil fuels.

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