Environmental Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing



Hydraulic fracturing is something of a dirty secret for the oil or gas industry - especially when they get too close to the residential areas. People get naturally very nervous when they discover that someone wants to pump millions of liters of water laced with some secret "proprietary" chemicals into the ground they live on. So the gas exploration companies, prefer not to talk about fraccing at all or call it something else. Hydrological study or permeability testing are very popular - the usual tricks of secrecy, obfuscation ad spin.

Yet, from a purely technological point of view, hydraulic fracturing is a very amzing and brilliant invention. Unfortunately, if used in an irresponsible and arrogant manner it could cause permanent environmental damage which we may regret for generations.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking, hydrofracking, fraking, fraccing) was originally developed in 1948 as a method for improving product flow from the exhausted oil or gas deposits. In the seventies it was further improved by Halliburton scientists and became indispensable for exploitation of non-traditional sources of hydrocarbons such as shale oil and gas, tight sands and also coal bed methane gas. The economics of the most gas projects these days are largely determined by the success of the hydraulic fracturing. In fact, many methane gas deposits today, including most CBM/CSM projects, would no be profitable without it.

The fraccing operation involves pumping of huge quantities of a mixture of water, fine sand (proppant) and "proprietary" chemicals into a completed gas well under enormous pressure. This expands existing or creates new cracks (cleats) in the coal seams and surrounding geological strata. Once the pressure is released, the proppant particles stay in the cleats and thus prevent their closing. This improves the gas flows and makes the operation more profitable.

Unfortunately, there is a downside. The fraccing process uses huge quantities of water which then becomes toxic waste and difficult to dispose off. Typically, anything like 30 to 60 % of the fraccing fluid stays in the geological strata and may escape through the existing or new fractures and contaminate surface groundwater. This is particularly serious because the secret "proprietary" additives in the fraccing mix turned out to be highly poisonous and/or carcinogenic. In some cases hospital staff became seriously ill just by touching a patient who was accidentally exposed to these chemicals.

Furthermore, the fraccing process, which takes place hundreds of meters in underground strata is difficult to control and sometimes unpredictable. New or existing geological fractures (geological faults or joints) may allow the methane gas may escape to the surface and cause harm to the residents and/or vegetation. There were cases when methane accumulated in wells or basements and sometimes even exploded. Nobody could seriously guarantee that these problems will not occur in the future on any particular site.


A Real Life Demonstration

The following training video shows a fraccing crew in action. You will need to put your earphones on to get the full benefits of this demo. Note the number of people and the size and range of the mobile equipment required for this operation



After watching this demo you will agree that fraccing is a "full-on" hight-tech operation. The drilling pad itself is almost 1 ha (2 acres) in size and the traffic to and from the pad will be heavy. Would you like to have this just two hundred meter from your home as per NSW Government regulations?

Review of Hydraulic Fracturing

If you put any of the terms like hydraulic fracturing, hydro fracturing, fracking, fraking, fraccing into Google you get hundreds of matches. However, most of these will be aimed at the oil and gas specialists or at the investors. These people are usually not much interested in the environmental impact of their technologies. After all, they will be very far away if and when any problems arise.

One would expect that the government administrators, who are employed to supervise the petrochemical exploration industries, would be a rich source of environmental information. This is not so. Government departments are usually short of money, understaffed and have to perform daily a difficult balancing act. On one side they have to respond to a great pressure applied by many well- endowed mineral resource companies. On the other side are the citizens who elect the politicians into power - their masters. Most of the general public harbors a strange notion that, on one hand, they require plentiful energy to support their living standard and on the other hand, they want to be surrounded by pristine nature. Experience from all around the world shows that most governments in general find it easier to side with those in the money.

Consequently, we are left with volunteers in various citizen action groups who spend endless hours of their own time searching the internet and writing emails. Most of them would much prefer to do something else but cannot. The gas companies, with a government support, invaded their home territory and want to change it into an industrial wasteland. So they sit and write late into the night and here are the results of some of their labors.

We can start with the entry hydraulic fracturing in Wikipedia which gives a general top down overview and many links. The treatment is scrupulously technical and there is not much about the social aspects of this technology.

There is an excellent review Hydraulic Fracturing 101 from Earthworks. This is a very professional review, particularly strong on the effects of the fraccing chemicals.

The Journey of the Forsaken site provides a Primer on Hydraulic Fracing subtitled: "How to Destroy the Earth's Fresh Water Supplies Without Anyone Finding Out". Here we find the fraccing process described step by step accompanied by beautiful illustrations. The material comes from Marcellus shale gas formation at the USA east board. We are dealing here with the unconventional or, as some prefer, un-natural gas deposits. While the geology of the US gas shales and Australian coal seams are obviously different, the technologies for exploration and production of the methane gas are very similar.

Then there is the un-naturalgas.org website also from the Marcellus Shale. They give a whole section entitled what's hydraulic fracturing? Which describes and illustrates the whole process in text and associated videos that are all well worth watching. In fact, all of this excellent site deserves a thorough study. The section on 'high-volume hydraulic fracturing' (HVHF), and 'slick water fracturing'  which are two new technologies require special attention. Especially interesting are their comments on the unpredictability of the fraccing process:

"Despite these precautions, the process doesn't always go according to intention.  Regarding a subsurface trespass case before the Supreme Court of Texas, the Fort Worth Business Press reported the following: "The problem is, however, that fracture stimulation isn't a precise science...in some ways, cracking the shale [predictably] could be thought of as trying to hammer a dinner plate into equal pieces...'You may plan a fracture that will go 1,000 feet and it might go 2,000 feet or 400 feet, ' said John S. Lowe, a professor of energy law at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law."...'How do you prove any fracing was correct or incorrect in an area that is not precise to begin with?' asked [John] Holden [a partner at Dallas-based Jackson Walker LLP]...'Either side has to prove what's going on down below, and that's hard for both sides.'...Lowe said, 'You can bring the scientific evidence, the scientific testing to see whether or not a trespass has occurred but I'm not sure you can rely on it 100 percent.'" Fort Worth Business Press, July 7, 2008"

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange provides a list of chemicals used for fraccing of natural gas wells. This list contains names of 435 fracturing products containing 344 chemicals an describes some of their medical effects.

Shaleshock provides a rundown Drilling 101 which covers both drilling and fraccing in the Marcellus formation.

The problems associated with fraccing and the environment discussed t above, have been neatly summarised in the November, 2008 article in Scientific American entitled "Drill for Natural Gas, Pollute Water". The article not only lists all the important cases but it also shows the secret background. The extent of collusion between the gas industry and government regulators in suppressing the truth is frightening.


When Things Go Wrong

If you got so far that you are reading this you have probably already seen The Journey of the Forsaken website. This is a typical example in the world of gas well fraccing: Gas wells too close to their house, explosion in 2004. Both the gas company and the government denied that it ever happened until they were confronted with a video evidence. Methane gas escaped trough the fractured ground and fouled a pristine creek. Gas company installed a pathetic aeration pipe and a boom in the creek in an attempt at fixing the problem. Five years later, the methane gas still escaping from the ground and the gas company vents the raw methane gas into the atmosphere to "relief the pressure". One of their children died of cancer...

Here is another story from comments to this article:

A newspaper article dated Jan 21, 2009 Houses near gas drilling in Dimock hooked to temporary water supply was accompanied by readers' comments from "Joe" and "Mary" . Let them speak for themselves:

Joe:I have been renting in Dimock since December. There is a drilling site about 2 miles down 3023(Dimock to Nicholson Rd.)I am recently learning of this huge drilling rampage and opportunity for local land owners. Just yesterday a local person told me how dozens of huge trucks go by every day carrying yards of sand used to "Frack" the vessels open to free the resources.The sand is "Blasted" into the wells to open and clear out obstructions. I now understand why my children have oil specs all over their backs and stomachs after exiting the shower. We couldn't even clean the black oily specs and smears out of the shower with a harsh toilet cleaner chemical. We wonder how much of this contamination we have injested already! If we cant clean it out of the tub with a sand sponge and a chemical, How good can this be for our bodies? This is my first attempt to draw out possible solutions from anyone who may be able to help. I have called the DEP and they said they would get in touch with an inspector if they could today. Oil from my car must be disposed of by law through an approved company, yet the presence of the seemingly same substance due to the prosperity chasing locals is being absorbed into my familys bodies during daily living. We do not have the ability to just pick up and go, but if we must?

Mary: Hi Joe,
I do not know if your problems are related to the drilling or not, but, I would guess there is at least some chance that they are. PLEASE, do not consume any more of this water until you find out exactly what is going on! Frankly, I would even be wary of washing with it until you know it is safe. Pester the DEP if you have to. And where is your landlord? Has he/she been informed?
For more information on the potential negative effects of gas drilling, see: http://earthworksaction.org/Health%20and%20To...

These are just two examples how things can go wrong in this beautiful world of ours. We can go on but it is too late. Perhaps, another day...