I happen to be a Matt Damon fan, so of course I have seen the movie “Promised Land” which shows slimy hydraulic fracturing companies dangling large sums of money in the face of poor, unknowing farmers, in exchange for the land that had been their life and livelihood. I understand that although bias, there had to be some truth to this story “based on true circumstances”. So I made my opinions based on what I know of science and hydrology, but I know that my views have been influenced by the environmental uproar that surrounds me. I decided that I should probably get the facts before making statements so I can share an intelligent, unbiased, opinion. The EPA has been on a rampage with surface and groundwater water quality, hazardous waste, remediation, and now going to far extents to combat climate change, so how is it that hydraulic fracturing has received little regulatory discourse? Does it all come down to money or perhaps this process is not as negatively impactful as I’ve been encouraged to believe? I will state some facts about this process, explain where my opinions were drawn from, then share what I learned when I spoke with a fracturing supporter, and I will close with my new opinions formed after collecting all information possible on the process.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of extracting gas resources from the ground via deep well, to be used for energy production, and has been around since the 1940s. This process is commonly known as “fracking”, however, while speaking with a chemist who sells the chemicals used in this process, I learned that this term is slang and slightly offensive, so I will use “HF” instead to maintain an unbiased tone. Recent technological advances, increases in energy consumption, and the need for US energy reserves has increased production of natural gas substantially. The amount of natural gas recovered from a given well differs with each type of shale, sand or carbonate rock, but ranges from approximately 2-4billion cubic feet of recovered gas per well. It is estimated that the USA has 2.2trillion cubic feel of recoverable natural gas (however this number is argued by half), which would last about 92 years (or 46 depending on your source) at 2011 rate of consumption. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) claims that hydraulic fracturing has made the US number one in shale gas production with 39% of total natural gas production coming from hydraulic fracturing. EIA also states that hydraulic fracturing has allowed the percentage of energy coming from coal to decrease 11% in the past 20 years (although energy from coal has still increased substantially). Natural gas stock fraction has increased from 13% to 25% of the energy market throughout the past 20 years, and is projected to hit 30% by 2040. EAI expects that US natural gas production will increase 44% between 2011 and 2040.
These numbers mean very little to a nature lover, but I do understand the need to balance economics with environmental responsibility. My original opinions were based on my knowledge of science, hydrology, and contamination: There is a definite amount of water in the world. The same amount, and same water molecules that were here 1000 years ago, are here today. No more and no less. With an ever-increasing human population, therefore, continuously increasing water demands, it is difficult enough to provide clean water… so difficult that millions don’t have it (see my post about how water kills more people than every kind of violence). During the process of HF, 2-6million gallons of potable water are used to recover “natural” gas (the quotes are not because I think it is unnatural, but because the word is usually associated with positivity and healthy outcomes). Following this process, these millions of gallons of water are now wastewater contaminated to an unusable state, far too challenging and expensive treat to a reusable condition. Therefore this water is injected deep below a confining layer, and basically taken out of the water cycle, ultimately depleting our usable fresh water supply. Now when the product of this pollutant inducing process is burned for energy, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, are byproducts, much like coal and oil, but in lower quantities. This is why proponents claim it is “clean energy”, but how does “less pollutants” end up being termed “clean”, a word that reflects “none”? In addition, Methane is a primary component of natural gas, and is also a greenhouse gas that is emitted into the air when the gas is not burned completely, which happens often. Just an observation, but does anyone else notice that the people and companies that support HF are shouting “clean energy” to the rooftops, meanwhile, they are the same groups most likely to oppose scientific evidence for, and actions to mitigate, climate change? I’m sure there is no economic motive there…Not (yeah I totally just went old school- 90s clothes are back in, why not the slang?)!. These were my passionate opinions prior to hearing from the other side. I attempted to be as open minded as possible, I guess I am hoping to be wrong in this case since I don’t see regulations putting an end to it.
So I met with an expert proponent of HF who I asked to explain the process: The process begins when a well is drilled deep into the earths surface. Then, “fracking fluid” (yes, after I was told not to say “fracking” there apparently an acceptable use of the term), which consists of millions of gallons of water with sand and chemicals (he said a small fraction of the total volume is chemicals), are pumped into the well at extremely high pressures- 9,000lbs/sq.in. This pressure created causes the shale formation beneath the ground to crack, or “fracture”, and the sand in the fracking fluid serves as a “propping agent” to prop open “fissures” that allow hydrocarbons (natural gas) to escape. He explained that this process has been done for over 30years and if done correctly, should not impact groundwater. As reported by a company supporting HF, when fracturing is complete, and pressure is released, between 20-80% of the fracking fluid begins to flow to the surface as “flowback water” throughout a period of a few days to a few weeks. Some companies see this flowback as opportunities to extract more hydrocarbons from the well by extracting them from the flowback water which is now hydrocarbon rich. Water that is naturally present (aka groundwater), may also rise to the surface and can consist of anything at that point (wait, what? I thought the groundwater wasn’t involved?). There are then three different options for that water, permanent disposal of the wastewater injected into the ground, reuse for future fracturing which is theoretically an option, but does not happen due to it’s inconsistent, therefore, unknown chemical composition and would require treatment and the addition of more freshwater, and recycling, another theoretical option in which this wastewater is used for irrigation after an extensive and expensive treatment process removing all total dissolved solids. Almost all cases go with option one because it is the least expensive and the way it’s been done for years. I was told that if the process is done right, and nothing goes wrong, HF is not an environmental risk.
Honestly I was hoping for more concrete, finite statements on the safety to the environment, and an explanation of the process that was much less invasive than I had been predisposed to believe. I wanted to let the information settle, and I didn’t want to sound arrogant and ask leading questions, but my father happened to be listening, a businessman who knows nothing of science, and posed concerns… legitimate, intelligent, concerns. I was shocked. He asked: so during drilling, where does the drilling liquid go? Does the well casing ever leak? What if the casing leaks? If groundwater is present when the shale is propped, then how is it possible that the natural gas doesn’t enter the groundwater system? When the wastewater resurfaces at that volume, can it impact surface water and soil? Is there a way to make the fracking fluid safer? What about earthquakes? Not trying to get political, but my republican dad was actually paying attention to a man talking about science and the environment…. and saw implications with a process that is seen as economically beneficial?? Someone call FOX news and let them know there is a rebel among them!
These questions were answered, but not answered confidently with respect to environmental safety. They do everything possible to prevent leaks, although most likely possible, there are no plans to redesign fracking fluid to be less detrimental to the environment, and the groundwater shouldn’t be affected, even though sometimes it is. He also stated that claims stating that drinking water sources were contaminated, were skewed. Accidents happen at times, and geologic processes can be unpredictable, and the analyses are sometimes incomplete or incorrect.
I did some further research to answer my dad’s questions, and I found the following information:
1. The majority of the drilling liquid remains in the ground and is not biodegradable, and like all pollutants, can spread and travel through the soil or ground water.
2. If the well casing is not perfectly sealed, it will leak, and if the well penetrates through the aquifer and is not well sealed, chemicals can leak directly into our drinking water supply
3. The fractured shale may allow chemicals to enter the water system, and reports of radiation in drinking water have been made, as an article in the NY Times states. This is obvious to me, if groundwater is present, how would it not mix with HF chemicals?
4. Surface water and soil contamination can occur when wastewater resurfaces… only 30-50% of that water is recovered and is highly toxic. Surface evaporation of volatile organic carbons (VOCs) coming into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site can produce ground level ozone, which can travel up to 250 miles (as reported by 8020 vision)
5. When the earth is drilled, pressurized, depressurized, it’s stability is compromised, and HF has been associated with earthquakes in the northeast and Midwest.
6. HF companies have not and will not release the chemicals associated with fracking fluid, they are not required to, so why would they? However, scientists have identified known carcinogens and VOCs such as benzene, tolulene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. I would describe each of these, however, I have a dissertation to finish… and it is not on HF or it’s chemical components.
Following my research regarding the benefits and implications of HF, my opinions opposing this practice were supported and grew stronger. I understand the environmental implications of burning and extracting coal, and the need for alternate energy sources, the need to be independent of foreign oil sources, and economic benefits of HF. However doing, what seems to me, as permanent damage on the earth to extract 46-92 years (if fuel consumption does not increase past 2011 numbers) of fuel, is not sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to see that economics plays a huge part on the longevity of this controversial practice. Other sources of energy should be focused on, which I believe is happening, and hopefully those strict environmental regulators will give this industry some attention despite the potential monetary and political benefits.