Blog 5. Fracking

What’s fracking?

With the expansion of drilling for natural gas in New York through Ohio, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and the southwest, the term “fracking” (or fracing) appears repeatedly—but incompletely—in the news. Fracking means hydraulic fracturing of an oil or natural gas well, but it seems the news media is fractured, delivering incomplete stories.

When an oil or gas well is drilled into a petroleum-bearing layer, the oil or gas must flow through the rock to the well. If the rock doesn’t provide channels for flow, the petroleum is inaccessible unless the well is fracked. That’s done by injecting a fluid, usually water, with some chemicals and a “proppant” such as sand, under high pressure. The applied pressure fractures the rock, creating channels that are then held open by the proppant as the fluid flows back out of the well. In the last decade, new fracking technology and horizontal drilling have opened access to vast new reservoirs of gas. Multiple horizontal wells can extend thousands of feet into the petroleum-bearing layer from a single vertical borehole. Sounds good. What’s the controversy?

So who cares?

Many people fear the fracking will break entirely through the overlying rock that seals the petroleum-bearing layer, allowing petroleum and frack fluid to flow upward into their aquifers. Pictures show flaming water coming out of kitchen faucets. Or flammable bubbles rising in streams. An industry practice is to negotiate silence with an offended landowner, rather than to allow the problem to enter the courts or the regulatory arena.  After all, how could a landowner prove the origin of the contaminants in his water, unless he could afford to drill and test, following the contamination in some zig-zag pathway back to its source in the fracked layer? Sure, contamination has happened.  But is the broad fear misdirected?

Contamination from where?

When it occurs, the contamination might not have come upward through runaway fractures, but from seepage along the wellbore. When a well is drilled, a steel casing is inserted in the borehole. Of course, the casing must be smaller than the borehole, or it wouldn’t go in. Then, in stages as drilling progresses, cement is injected at the bottom of the casing. The cement is forced upward between the casing and the surrounding soil or rock. An incomplete or faulty cement job will leave pathways for the fracking fluid and the gas to move upward in time, eventually reaching the aquifer, streams, or ground surface.

Before it is purified, natural gas usually contains other noxious gases and vapors that will contaminate the water.  An EPA study documented extensive water contamination from poor cement jobs in Wyoming, but that drab government report can’t compete with flaming faucets for media coverage.  Then there’s that nagging question of whether even a good cement job remains impervious for centuries.

The misdirected fear overlooks a second source of pollution—the huge volume of contaminated fracking fluid that returns to the surface after the frack job is completed. What can you do with it?  It’s usually too toxic for irrigation. Industry has said it isn’t suitable for the next frack job, although I’m sure they would like to save money by reusing the fluid.  It’s been dumped in streams, but that should be a no-no everywhere.  In the east, industry has released some fluids to municipal sewer systems, which are designed to process biological waste, not chemicals and petroleum. In arid New Mexico, the industry is allowed to leave the frack fluid indefinitely in large lagoons that receive from multiple wells, each lagoon lined with a single thin layer of plastic sheet.

So why aren’t the authorities on top of this?  Well, government is now organized to aid business. That’s corporate governance—something Mussolini called fascism, if you are old enough to remember WWII.  That’s a topic for another blog. Or two. Or more.

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