Hydraulic fracturing fluids: A Closer Look

Earlier GG noted that making a huge fuss about some things with the sole point of getting folks riled up can be counterproductive if, in fact, those things turn out not to be so bad. The example was a recent study showing that surfactants in samples of fracking fluid were not in fact noxious. It was pointed out in letter to the editor that this study did not address all the chemicals in the fracking fluid.  This is quite correct, but then the letter writer engages in the same kind of certainty (and a certain amount of misdirection) that can cause trouble later in stating, for instance, that there “are known to be up to 750 chemicals and compounds used in hydraulic fracturing, and that the list includes 29 chemicals that are either known or possible carcinogens.” Pretty specific stuff (apparently lifted from Wikipedia) and kind of implies that all fracking fluids have these carcinogens, which are then detailed in the rest of the letter. The origin of this information is from the Democratic Staff Report to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which was prepared in 2011 from lists of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing from 2005 to 2009. (It is a very interesting report, by the ways, providing a rare view into what is really going into the ground).

Sounds pretty nasty, no? Let’s dig in and see what is there….

Yes, this report says there are 29 chemicals that were found to be either air pollutants, known carcinogens or chemicals regulated under the Clean Water Act. However only 19 of the chemicals are carcinogens. Of the 780 million gallons of hydraulic fluids used (and remember, these are all greatly thinned in water when injected), only 10 million contained any of the carcinogens (and again this was 5 years ago).  The most common one? Diesel fuel (this is the source of the benzenes and other undesirable carcinogens). Arguably one of the nastier chemicals in there was 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE)–which is a surfactant–the stuff the CU study was looking for.  That the CU study didn’t find it in their samples is encouraging but hardly surprising: even in the 2005-2009 interval, it was only used in 126 of the 2500 fluid cocktails used in fracking and 22 million gallons of the 780 million gallons of fracking fluid used in that interval. The top two troublesome components are methyl and isopropyl alcohol, mainly as air pollutants.

Now how would this stuff get in your drinking water or in the air? Oddly enough, almost certainly not by injecting it into the ground for fracking as currently practiced (because of the way fracking is done, bad casings and other problems are pretty unlikely to leak fluid into shallow water tables–you won’t frac if the fluids are leaking out; casings become a much bigger problem in polluting shallow water from the motion natural but undesirable fluids including natural gas along the casing). One place where problems are likely is spilling it before every putting it into the ground, the other is from improper disposal of the production water that comes back up the well, which can contain a lot of the fracking fluid (and, actually, usually has a lot of other really unpleasant stuff in it too).  It is quite possible that equally toxic materials (and possibly in greater volume) are released by diesel spills from the drilling equipment and the exhaust from that same equipment–and these impacts are at every drill site.

If you want to make a big deal of the bad chemicals in the fracking mix, be forewarned that most of the fluids used in fracking from 2005-9 lacked those chemicals.  The drilling companies know that they are increasingly likely to be forced to expose exactly what they are putting in the ground (as they well should be!) and so it is likely these chemicals are being used less and less.  It is quite possible that an outright ban on all these chemicals would have little impact on ongoing development (perhaps somebody should propose that as legislation). Again, is this really the big problem? GG thinks not: instead, having industrial activity in places where it hasn’t been before, having poorly cased wells and continued industry denials of pollution of groundwater, having real problems in disposing of the production water–these are all serious issues which appear to have had some widespread consequences. And, of course, our continued use of fossil fuels is a big problem. Before you get too high and mighty about diesel in fracking fluid, though, you might want to be sure that some farmer didn’t have his own personal gas tank that corroded and leaked or he disposed of used motor oil in the back forty.

Now the oil and gas industry lobbied to exclude flacking fluids from the Clean Water Act.  On the face of it, this seems a clear end around designed to allow them to pollute with impunity, and there are suggestions that this is indeed how the industry has used this exemption.  However, there is some logic there that does stand up: when used properly, fracking fluids go into waters that are highly non-potable; these are not waters the Clean Water Act was meant to protect.  What needs to happen though is that damage to potable water sources from oil and gas operations needs to be addressable under the Clean Water Act: just because you intended the fluid to go into deep waters but you blew it somehow shouldn’t absolve you of responsibility (“oh gee officer, I meant to go through the intersection on a green light but it somehow became red”–yeah, that’ll get you out of a ticket).  This might become even more important if the industry starts exploiting resources at shallower depths where the possibility of a hydraulic fracture connecting to potable aquifers increases (this would be the one situation where concerns over what is in properly used fracking fluid would be most appropriate; at least with the present plays, this doesn’t appear to be an issue).

Transparency would help everybody.  Too bad the oil and gas industry denied everything for so long that even the most far-fetched claims against them seem plausible; the public has, with good reason, little trust in their word at this point. This leaves the field open to those who exaggerate or misrepresent information from the other extreme.  Believe it or not, GG would really like all this drilling to stop too, but when you fight something from misunderstanding, you really do risk losing your fight not because your goal was wrong but because your facts were wrong.  Please fight your fights with the facts, not your worst fears. And to those who advocate more drilling: take responsibility for your actions.  Accept appropriate regulation and oversight. If you really want the public to buy into your actions as good, then disclose what you are doing, monitor your impacts, and bend over backwards to make things right when things go wrong.

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