What's the Fracing Truth? (gas drilling)

I just watched GasLand (I think), a documentry on the practice of drilling for gas with the process known as fracturing or “fracing”. It was more than a little disconcerting seeing the burning tapwater at homes near some drilling sites. Not to mention illness in animals and people where there previously had been none. The idea that the drilling companies are hiding what chemicals (many of which are known or suspected carcinogens) they are using behing the shield of “Proprietery Information” and have been exempted from the Clean Water Act doesn’t pass the smell test both, literally and figuratively. The companies cite a 2004 EPA study as proof that what they are doing is safe. But even the authors of the study say “Hey! That’s NOT what we said and the study was limited in scope and doesn’t apply here”. The companies also say that “You can’t prove that we are the source of the contamination. It may be just a coincidence.” Home and landowners that they have settled with are subject to non-disclosure agreements. It seems that the companies have bought their silence. So just what is going on here? Is this an over-reaction by a very few number of people or an environmental disaster in the making with lobbyists and big energy keeping the politicians in line? Anyone care to defend the industry?

For anyone interested, Jon Stewart had Josh Fox on last night (Mon, 06/22). It’s on the front page right now, but I get a “not found” when trying to load it specifically.

saw the Daily Show segment, but have not seen the documentary.

I should point out there is a non-zero risk of groundwater contamination on any oil or gas well. The setting (and cementing) of a surface casing string is a standard practice to mitigate this risk, and, I believe, is mandated by regulation in most US locations. There are normally additional intermediate casing strings placed in the well at greater depths.

For me the case for such contamination hinges on whether it can be shown that there is communication between the shale zones subjected to the frac treatment and the near-surface formations containing groundwater. It should be noted that the producing zones and surface formations are normally separated by thousands of vertical feet.

I’d have to do a bit of research to verify this, but I believe many of these shale wells are completed with a horizontal section through the producing formation. For me, the most likely potential routes for the contamination are: 1) via direct communication from the producing zone to the formations containing groundwater, probably though some combination of the induced fractures and pre-existing faults; 2) via poor-quality cementing on the back side of the casings, allowing leakage to surface formations. If number 2), this problem is not inherently limited to shale wells.

So, not outside the realm of possibility, but it does not appear that there have been widespread complaints of gas or frac fluids reaching groundwater supplies from wells drilled without induced fracturing, so something related to the frac process seems more likely, if the problem is in fact widespread.

Sorry, last sentence should have read, “…gas or produced fluids reaching groundwater supplies…”

Here is a report on frac’ing from Tudor Pickering. Although the report is 65 pages, there is a short 3.5 page summary at the beginning. A small excerpt from that summary is as follows.

So how does tap water get contaminated to the point where you can set it on fire? Serious question, I don’t think it was explained well enough in the film.

The water in question contains methane. In this case there apparently is communication (a flow path) between a methane-bearing shale formation and the near-surface formations containing the fresh-water aquifer. The methane degasses from the water at the tap and if the concentration is greater than 5% in air, it can be ignited.

Here’s the Daily Show bit with Josh Fox

As a property owner in Sullivan County, NY (one of the areas proposed for Marcellus shale NG drilling) and a NYC resident and consumer of drinking water from that area, I watched Gasland with interest. I know I thought natural gas drilling was a matter of simply sinking a hole in the ground, tapping into a pocket of gas and siphoning off the gas. What’s the harm in that, right?

One of the problems is that area is terribly distressed economically, so people might be eager to short-sightedly cash in on NG drilling.

I looked for an industry site debunking of Gasland and found one at Energy in Depth (EID) .

IMO the industry site doesn’t adequately address the before drilling and after drilling sections of GasLand esp. with regards to ground water contamination and health effects. Drillers apparently went to great lengths to restore clean drinking water to those affected by their practices. This isn’t touched on by the debunking article.

Here’s more fromthe ProPublica article EID cites:

Gives me the heebie-jeebies.

You can always trust the industry involved to give a fair and honest assessment. It is pure coincidence that where hydraulic fracturing occurs the ground water gets polluted. Like in the gulf, the BOP assessments have been spot on. You can always rely on those making tons money off something to be fair.

Scientific American has run a number of articles over the past couple years about natural gas drilling and “fracking” in particular. They even have one specifically about Gasland. Some are better than others, but en toto they generally give a pretty well balanced and scientific view of the issue. Probably better than random bloggers and documentaries.


I just watched Gasland on HBO VOD. A thought provoking film, even subtracting the hype.

It seems to me that the “can’t migrate through thousands of feet of rock” argument against aquifer contamination misses an important point - the well bore has provided a shortcut between gas and water strata. If the well bore is not properly sealed/cemented, both hydrocarbons and ‘produced water’ could easily migrate.

Here is a SciAm article which predates the film. Does Natural Gas Drilling Make Water Burn? - Scientific American

I recommend the film - if you get a chance, watch it.

It doesn’t seem like the “can’t migrate through thousands of feet of rock” people are missing the point. If the issue is of a not properly sealed well bore, then the issue is not damning to hydraulic fracturing, it’s damning to the well design or completion of the well. Nothing about the frac process should be causing any problems; it’s a proven process. If you want to argue that the produced water is not being handled correctly or that there are well bore integrity issues, that seems to be a completely separate issue.

To draw an analogy, if a certain ingredient in pepsi is poisonous and making people sick, don’t say there is a problem with selling pepsi in aluminum cans and call for a moratorium on aluminum cans; call for a removal of the poisonous ingredient.

I don’t care for that analogy, although I agree that in it, the aluminum can is not the problem. To me, a better analogy is that the canning machinery occasionally introduces a toxic lubricant into the soft drink.

In that case, I would expect a moratorium on aluminum cans until the canning process is of free of toxic contaminants.

The problem with that is that it is not the issue that occasionally hydralic fracturing a well causes the contamination of the water supply. It is that occasionally poor well completion techniques or poor water handling cause a contamination. The fact that these wells have been frac’d is not contributing to the problem. Therefore, calling for a moratorium on frac’ing is not a reasonable response. Tighter regulations on what is causing the problem is appropriate.

Ok, for this discussion, I’ll allow that fracturing is fine - but how do you separate gas recovery via hydraulic fracturing from well completion / fluid handling? They all seem to be required for a properly functioning well.

Tighter regulations might help, but better technology could help too - all the regulations in the world are useless if the failures still occur. It is good that the EPA has started a study of this. In the meantime, how about having hydraulic fracturing operations adhere to normal industrial standards per the Clean Water Act as a start?

This is all heating up at the moment and the EPA has subpoenaed Hallburton for the contents of the fracking fluid which they are being very cagey about revealing. Instills a lot of confidence! They won’t tell anyone what the additives - “which make up only 1% of the fluid” contain.Great. . CBS report here http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-31727_162-20022247-10391695.html & and there is another documentary from PBS here - watercontamination-from-shale.com - if you’re interested, similar to Gasland, about “The Real Price of Gas”.

For the record, my parents (both upper state PA in origin) describe being able to ignite holes cut in the pond ice in their youth. This would be in the 1930’s.

And records of tarballs washing up on the gulf coast go back to before Columbus, not just BP. That doesn’t mean the Deepwater Horizon blowout is nothing to be concerned about.

If these practices are causing pollution of drinking water and private residences, then they should be modified. If nature causes some mix of the gas reservoirs and natural water sources, that’s just a fact of life we have no control over. But knowingly polluting should be discouraged/banned.


Here is a Halliburton press release from Monday.

Here is the section of the Halliburton website which lists exactly what chemicals are in their Pennsylvania Marcellus shale frac fluids.

In other news regarding the Marcellus Shale, the Pittsburgh City Council is attempting to ban fracing in the city. Probably won’t withstand veto or legal challenges, but interesting from a populist point of view.