Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Hydraulic Fracturing - Promise And Problems

While geologists and industry specialists understood, before the various revised assays of the region, there was a lot of potential for natural gas deposits within the Marcellus Shale, it was with the development of horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing (known as "fracking") in the past couple decades that have allowed for deep wells (up to 10,000 feet) to be drilled to access these deposits. With the widespread, successful use of fracking in the Barnett Shale in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it became industry practice. It also opened up many new areas for exploration and exploitation.

Fracking is simple enough to understand. Because there are few huge reservoirs of natural gas within and beneath the layer of shale, the trick to getting the gas out is two-fold. First, the shale is brittle, what geologists call fissile. Because it is made up in part from the compression of organic materials, it is also porous, tiny holes and pockets running through out the formation. In order to get that gas, the rock has to be broken, the gas then pooling and forced out of the ground.

Fracking does both. While basically water, it has a variety of chemicals and physical additives, to give it some punch. Forced under high pressure, it hits that fissile material. After sufficient shale has been reduced to power, the water acts to force the natural gas in to the empty space. The flow on the pipe is reversed, and up comes the gas. Then, the fracking liquids are pumped out as much as possible.

The industry insists that, done properly, the process poses no risks and offers the benefit of access to previously untapped sources of energy. With natural gas burning far more clean than coal, it is touted as an alternative for use in municipal power generating plants as well as residential power (full disclosure here - our house has a generator that is powered by natural gas; once a week, it cycles through a test run filling the surrounding with the smell of gas; we love our generator, and if it weren't for the natural gas line that feeds it, we would have many days and nights without power, in the worst parts of both summer and winter). With the many debates over energy use, global warming, and the impact coal-fired electrical plants have that are not limited to greenhouse gas emissions, it would seem that the fields in the Marcellus Shale offer the prospect of long-term access to a cleaner alternative.

The process, however, is not without either its critics or its problems. I will admit that my doubts about the entire situation began not with the discovery of the Marcellus gas boom itself, but last June when I heard a report on NPR about a documentary entitled Gasland, which I wrote about. The following is from the transcript of the interview host Ira Flatow did with the director of Gasland, Josh Fox:
I traveled to a nearby place called Dimock Dimock, Pennsylvania, 50 miles away from me. And I found the place in utter dismay and disarray. Halliburton trucks all over the place. People - very scared, their water bubbling and fizzing, kids getting sick. One of the resident's water well exploded on New Year's Day 2009, just spontaneously combusted because I guess so much natural gas is pooling up inside the water well that the pump ignited it and it blew up into...

FLATOW: Did this only happen after the drilling...

Mr. FOX: After the drilling.

FLATOW: It wasn't there all this time?

Mr. FOX: No.

FLATOW: It was like natural gas pockets underground and...

Mr. FOX: Well...

FLATOW:...that might have existed and they happen to tap into while they were drilling their own well.

Mr. FOX: Residents insist that their water was good. There were pre-drilling tests that showed no methane or natural gas compounds, which are also some of the more volatile organic compounds that are carcinogenic...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FOX: ...benzene, toluene, xylene. You know, the residents on the ground and everywhere that I went where this is a problem, chemicals migrating into the water supply from the drilling process.
In April, The New York Times published a long article that looked at the same sets of issues and questions surrounding the practice.
“Questions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing persist, which are compounded by the secrecy surrounding the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids,” said the report, which was written by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Diana DeGette of Colorado.

The report, released late Saturday, also faulted companies for at times “injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.”

The inquiry over hydrofracking, which was initiated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Mr. Waxman led it last year, also found that 14 of the nation’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products — not including water. More than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants, the report said.

A request for comment from the American Petroleum Institute about the report received no reply.


Some ingredients mixed into the hydraulic fracturing fluids were common and generally harmless, like salt and citric acid. Others were unexpected, like instant coffee and walnut hulls, the report said. Many ingredients were “extremely toxic,” including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lead.

Companies injected large amounts of other hazardous chemicals, including 11.4 million gallons of fluids containing at least one of the toxic or carcinogenic B.T.E.X. chemicals — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. The companies used the highest volume of fluids containing one or more carcinogens in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.

The report comes two and a half months after an initial report by the same three lawmakers that found that 32.2 millions of gallons of fluids containing diesel, considered an especially hazardous pollutant because it contains benzene, were injected into the ground during hydrofracking by a dozen companies from 2005 to 2009, in possible violation of the drinking water act.
As the report made clear, the companies consider the details over what is included in the fluid injected underground proprietary information, and refuse to divulge details over its contents. All the same, the discovery of high concentrations of various toxic and carcinogenic compounds in and around drilling areas has raised red flags among both environmental activists and law-makers.

On April 20 of this year, at a natural gas well outside Canton, PA, a cracked pipe led to the release of thousands of gallons of fluid used in the fracking process. The leak, above ground, reached a small stream that, in time, dumps in to the Susquehanna River. This particular well was operated by Chesapeake Energy, an Oklahoma City-based energy company that is among the biggest investors in the Marcellus Shale Development.

This isn't the only time there have been problems with Chesapeake-operated wells.
Pennsylvania regulators levied a record fine for contaminating drinking water against major natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy, a move that threatens to intensify a fierce debate over drilling for natural gas in the state.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Chesapeake $900,000 for contaminating water supplies inBradford County, a busy drilling area in the prolific Marcellus shale gas formation, the agency said on Tuesday. It was fined another $188,000 for a fire that injured three workers in February.

The fine will again cast a spotlight on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial process used to extract natural gas from shale formations, which involves blasting a mix of water, chemicals and sand into the rock.

While public criticism has recently been focused on the possible contamination from fracking waste products, Tuesday's action stems from complaints that gas near drilling wells had seeped into the drinking water.

The agency began an investigation in February 2010 after receiving complaints from residents about drinking water near Chesapeake shale gas drilling sites. The agency concluded that contamination was caused by improper well casing and cementing, allowing seepage from non-shale shallow gas formations.
And Chesapeake isn't the only company facing penalties. According to a report published in April of last year in the Towanda, PA Daily Review, since the beginning of large-scale drilling in Pennsylvania in 2008, there were 1500 violations of various state environmental laws.
Two-thirds of the 1,435 violations were identified by the report's authors as likely to harm or pose a threat to the environment, while the other third were identified as administrative or safety violations.

The violations were issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that regulates gas drilling in Pennsylvania, which released the records to the association in response to a Right to Know Law request.

Elana Richman, projects coordinator for the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, said the organization sought the records to measure the gas extraction industry's environmental record as Marcellus Shale drilling expands in the state.

"We had the feeling that there was a lot out there that we weren't seeing," she said.

The association found that of the 952 violations with environmental implications, 277 were for improper erosion and sedimentation plans or controls, 268 were for faulty wastewater pits, 100 were violations of the state's Clean Streams Law, and 154 were spills of brine, oil, drill cuttings or other waste to the ground or streams.

DEP released the details of one such spill Monday, when it announced that it had fined Talisman Energy USA $15,506 for a spill of gas drilling wastewater at a Bradford County well site in November.

The spill of between 4,200 to 6,300 gallons polluted a small, unnamed tributary to Webier Creek, DEP said. The company has since completed the state's cleanup requirements.

Violations associated with recent high-profile environmental accidents, like well blowouts and gas contamination of water supplies, occurred in smaller numbers during the report's study period, between January 1, 2008, and June 25, 2010.
Another company that has faced fines is Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas, which received a $180,000 fine from the PA DEP. Chief is the company that states, right on its homepage, that social responsibility is one of its core values.

It isn't just the potential for contamination of ground water and wells. There are other, more insidious potential hazards linked to fracking.
Two natural gas companies agreed Friday to temporarily cease operations of injection wells in an area of central Arkansas that has seen more than 800 earthquakes during the past six months.

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy and Clarita Operating of Little Rock said they would comply with the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission’s emergency request to stop all injection activities in Greenbrier- and Guy-area wells used to dispose of wastewater from production. The panel’s next regular meeting is March 29.

Geologists are studying a swarm of recent area quakes, most tiny, in an attempt to determine whether there is a connection between the seismic activity and gas-drilling companies’ work in the Fayetteville Shale formation. A 4.7-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful reported in the state in 35 years, struck near Greenbrier on Sunday night.

A six-month moratorium on new injection wells in the area took effect in January to allow time to determine what relationship, if any, there is between the wells and the earthquakes.
In the absence of a comprehensive national energy policy that includes incentives for research and development for alternative energy sources, there is an obvious need for the potential resources that lie deep beneath the Northeast United States. Nothing, however, occurs without some cost, and the wide-spread use of hydraulic fracturing certainly poses as many risks and hazards as it does the promise of extracting badly-needed natural gas from two miles below the surface. It would seem obvious that, in light of the sheer volume of issues surrounding the practice, more and better safeguards are needed to ensure both that the practice is carried out in a responsible manner as well as fulfilling the promise of all that untapped natural gas becoming available for use.

Tomorrow - Development or Exploitation?

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