The practice of fracking to gain access to oil and gas deposits in shale formations deep below the earth’s surface has been in use in the US for decades. The fact is, there are no oil or gas reserves in the US that are accessible through traditional vertical wells, and there haven’t been for quite some time.
Because those shallower reserves have all been tapped, operators today use a horizontal drilling technique to dig deeper and then use a high pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the shale and release the deposits. This is an important set of facts when considering claims of groundwater contamination:
The aquifer is about 300 feet below the surface; fracking involves drilling down to levels of as much as 10,000 to 15,000 feet.
Before any mixture of water, chemical and sand is used to frack the shale, a steel pipe encased in cement is laid through the well. This system ensures that the fracking mixture is delivered directly to the shale layers targeted for fracturing, 10,000 to 15,000 feet below the aquifer.
The fracking mixture, as well as the released oil or natural gas, are then sucked back up through the protected wellbore and stored in surface reserve tanks. Some is filtered for re-use; some is disposed of at a regulated disposal center.
The fracking mixture is 99.5% water, 0.5% chemical, and sand. At Breitling Oil & Gas, the chemical mix typically contains between 15 and 30 different chemicals, with an emphasis on chemicals that are considered safe for human consumption. These chemicals are posted to our website, as they have been for the past three years.
The controversy over fracking escalated in the last several years as new technologies opened new opportunities for extracting higher volumes of the precious commodity. Though the EPA concluded in 2004 that there was no credible evidence of environmental impacts from fracking operations and Congress exempted fracking from federal drinking water regulations in 2005, the issue was re-ignited in the media by Josh Fox’s sensational and inaccurate “Gasland” documentary. Many states have opposed further federal regulation, however, and local municipalities have moved to regulate the practice within their own jurisdictions. Attempts to ban the practice have already been met with constitutional challenges.
Unfortunately, scenes like tap water catching on fire make for great footage any time the media so much as mentions proposed regulations. The actual research is far less incendiary and attention-grabbing. For example, consider the most exhaustive study of the claims versus the facts published in February by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin: “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.” The study included a thorough review of adverse health effects associated with the chemicals most commonly cited as potential pollutants due to fracking, and found no direct evidence of health impacts associated with fracking chemicals in gas and oil workers or people living near fracking activity.
“It appears that many of the water quality changes observed in water wells in a similar time frame as shale gas operations may be due to mobilization of constituents that were already present in the wells by energy (vibrations and pressure pulses) put into the ground during drilling and other operations rather than by hydraulic fracturing fluids or leakage from the well casing,” stated the study1. “None of the water well claims involve hydraulic fracturing fluid additives, and none of these constituents has been found by chemical testing of water wells.”
In addition, Aqua America completed independent testing of water near well sites in Pennsylvania and, as of March of 2011, had found no evidence of any adverse impact on these water supplies2.
Despite these and other studies, fracking opponents have kept pressure on state and federal regulators, as well as oil and gas companies, and reputable oil companies have kept pace and even surpassed current and proposed regulations in their daily operations. Many companies post their fracking ingredients on their own websites, as well as the FracFocus website.
Other environmental worries include the high volume of water used in fracking practices, the recapture and recycling or disposal of the water, and air emissions that can include dust, diesel fumes, methane and volatile organic carbon (VOC).
For each of these concerns, the industry has worked with legislators to develop regulations designed to ensure the highest level of safety and environmental protection, as well as best practices for well operators. These include:
Centralized fracturing— operators exert tighter controls over digging and fracking, as well as improving containment of gas emissions and wastewater, by consolidating multiple well operations in a single site,
Reducing water use—recycling the majority of wastewater for reuse, operators use less of this precious resource while reducing the space and resources required for containment and disposal of contaminants
Proper frack monitoring—employing the latest technologies and techniques, developed through the more than 60-year use of fracking, operators can dig more safely and effectively
Closed-loop drilling—re-usable tanks for storing fracking fluids rather than large pits reduce the risk of leakage
The new rules would require drilling companies to list the chemicals they use for fracking, as well as set standards for building and ensuring the safety of well casings. Many states already have such requirements in place and are free to impose even tougher regulations. As noted above, for reputable operators, these new regulations are simply business as usual.
Chris Faulkner is the Founder, President and CEO of Breitling Oil and Gas, an independent oil and natural gas company based in Irving, Texas. With diverse and extensive experience in all aspects of the oil and gas industry in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Faulkner is an advisor to the ECF Asia Shale Committee and sits on the Board of Directors for the North Texas Commission.
1 “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development, ”The Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, February 2011, p. 20
2 “Aqua CEO to Marcellus Shale Commission: Shale can be Future Economic Boom to State if Done Right,” Aqua America news release, May 20, 2011, https://www.aquaamerica.com/News/Pages/AquaCEOtoMarcellusShaleCommissionShalecanbeFutureEconomicBoomtoStateifDoneRight.aspx
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