What the Frack?

Boy, if there is any topic that gets the Grumpy Geophysicist going, it is “fracking”. The term is tossed about with wild abandon by many who have absolutely no clue what they are talking about while, at the same time, those who do know what they are talking about seem to want to be insistently narrowminded about the whole process, knowing full well that the public really doesn’t mean to stop “fracking” per se but to stop the negative environmental impacts of oil and gas development.

Let’s start with what this really is and is not. To get at relatively tight oil and gas deposits (that’s oil and gas that is in essence stuck in the rock where it was created), you basically drill a hole, plug up a section and pump fluids into that section (mainly sand and water with a minor component of rather unappealing chemicals) until the rock around the drillhole breaks (hence you are fracturing with water, or hydrofracing or “fracking”). You do this within the rocks where the oil and gas are. Once you have made your breaks (and these are usually monitored closely with seismometers to know that the fractures have gone where the fracker wants them to), you pull all that fluid (along with some frequently charmingly tainted deep water) back out of the hole. Of everything done at these wells, this business of breaking the rocks at depth, arguably, is the least problematic part of the operation. So those who carp against “fracking” are usually ignorant of the fact that the name they apply has little to do with the effects they despise.

OK, so is industry clean? They certainly like to run ads claiming they are. Well, there has been a lot of stonewalling over the years. This whole “contaminated water well” thing that documentaries like Gasland highlight is not even remotely new. This has come up for decades in parts of the west where, for instance, coalbed methane was being recovered with techniques similar to those now in use across the country. But these areas were typically lightly populated: the San Juan Basin in northern New Mexico, southern and western Colorado, lots of Wyoming. When challenged by landowners, industry said “well, do you have water samples documenting the quality of your water before we drilled?” Why, gee, no—who goes out and gets water analyzed at the appropriate levels with sufficient credibility to be used in court before their water goes bad? Not many, especially if the drilling starts next door and you had no advance notice it was to happen. And so, legally insulated, many companies blithely continued to drill away and just say that nobody had proved they screwed up.

Great, so fracking isn’t itself the problem (other than its use has now allowed for exploitation of resources in more heavily populated areas) but problems arise that are real. What gives? Basically, sloppiness in a lot of the more basic stuff. A Shale Gas Committee that reported to the Secretary of Energy found that pollution of shallow water was often attributable to shoddy sealing around the shallower parts of the well. This connected some deeper gas and water reservoirs, sometimes under significant pressure, with the shallow aquifer.  This is hardly the only risk in developing these resources: the water that comes up from these wells after fracking is not fit for consumption or purification by wastewater treatment plants. If the holding ponds fail or leak, that can be a problem, too (and that is a likely way for fracking fluids to get into groundwater). Issues with high levels of hydrocarbons in the air are common, and of course the whole industrial process of drilling wells is hardly free of unpleasantness.

The other aspect of ongoing shale oil and gas development has been air pollution.  Again, this is old news: a 2003 study showed that substantial air pollution was caused by oil and gas development in many places. More recent developments include high pollution levels in Pinedale Wyoming on the south side of the Wind River Mountains, higher levels of airborne pollutants in Colorado’s Front Range from shale gas drilling than were estimated, and an airborne study suggesting that methane leakage from development in Pennsylvania might be far higher than previously estimated in certain places or in certain stages of development. None of this should be acceptable.

It isn’t too hard to imagine a better solution (as was suggested by a New York Times op-ed in April 2014) than unregulated development or outright bans: tighter regulation, mandated testing, clear assignment of blame for failures can all clean this up. Those who know better than GG think you can get these resources without the complications that are causing so many problems, so GG says, fine, but be ready to take the blame if you are wrong. Once polluted, drinking water aquifers are painfully slow to recover.

And a final note: Many argue that shale gas development is not even a good bridge fuel to the future, arguing that it still is adding to carbon in the atmosphere and has pollution side effects that are unacceptable.  There is truth there, but with China working hard to exploit their considerable coal deposits, any shifts we can make from coal are worth examining. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good may be unwise. Right now, the U.S. is the leader in shale gas development; if we can learn how to get this done right–minimizing risks to groundwater and air–there are plenty of similar deposits in other countries that could be exploited instead of opening up new coal plants.

5/16 codicil. The one effect you certainly can blame on fracking (as opposed to other aspects of oil and gas exploration) is the use of water that otherwise could be used elsewhere.  This is seen as a major problem in California, as detailed in this NY Times article and this could get more serious in parts of Texas and Oklahoma where drought can be a big problem.  Taking potable water and then contaminating it and then disposing of it in a deep well might not feel good to farmers leaving fields fallow…

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