05 Nov 2010

Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing: What the Frack?

No Comments Environment, Science

As companies have begun to dramatically increase their horizontal drilling efforts in the massive shale deposit known as the Marcellus formation, concerns have risen around its environmental impact and what that might mean for people’s health in the area.  The number of wells in this formation has increased from two in 2005 to 210 in 2008, and 768 in 2009 according to numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Fracking Explained

Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing, also called fracking, is when an enormous volume of freshwater and a mix of proprietary chemicals-varying by the company operating the well-are forced down a well so that the rock breaks, the gas is freed, and the tainted water comes back to the surface.  The process works like this:  a plot of land a few acres in size is cleared and a well is drilled to the shale layer (3,000-5,000ft deep typically).  This shale layer is usually a few hundred feet thick, and a drill drills horizontally for distances as long as a mile.  The company then inserts a steel pipe with holes in it the length of the bore and encases it in cement to help it handle the immense pressure from the water being pumped through it.  The company fracks the shale in 1,000 foot sections, beginning at the far end of the pipe.  Over 1 million gallons of freshwater is pumped through the pipe at pressures as high as 6,000 pounds per square inch which fractures the shale.  Subterranean pressure pushes the fracking mixture back up the pipe, but along the way, this flowback fluid picks up other compounds from the shale such as heavy metals, salt, and naturally radioactive materials.  This fluid is stored near the site in either tanks, or more commonly, holding ponds.  The gas rises through the pipe afterwards.  The water and chemical mixture is about 99.5% water and 0.5% chemical mixture (each company uses a proprietary blend).

The Main Concern

These proprietary blends of chemicals are the main concern.  One would assume that this wouldn’t be a big deal since the companies are required to disclose the chemical types and their concentrations using Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) per OSHA’s requirements.  It is a big deal however, because fracking is excluded from having to meet “underground injection control” provisions from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This exemption, commonly called the Halliburton Loophole, was written into the 2005 Energy Policy Act and was strongly supported by Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton.  Each company uses a mixture of 10-12 chemicals in a well, but they don’t disclose these, claiming that they are the intellectual property of the company.  Halliburton’s mixture contains hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, the bacteria killer glutaraldehyde, and other unknown chemicals.  BJ’s Services’ chemical mixture includes methanol and petroleum distillate blend.  These mining companies have made MSDS available for local regulators upon request, but they do not disclose their mixture, how they are used, or what percentage they make up of the blend.  An independent review of the chemicals themselves (one that doesn’t account for any combination of chemicals) by Theo Colborn, a former EPA science advisor found that these chemicals fell into 14 potential health concern categories including lung, liver, blood, kidney, and brain damage.

Timeliness of Action

It is important to determine whether or not this process affects the groundwater in this massive chunk of the U.S.  As you would expect, each side dismisses the claims of the other.  Also as you would expect, each of them have some truth behind their statements.  While there have been no documented cases of groundwater contamination so far, the mining industry’s claim that it is has a spotless record is wholly incorrect.  If you include the entire process, especially the holding ponds, then there are thousands of documented cases of contamination.  There is an EPA study that is being conducted currently with the results expected in 2012.  Given the rapid increase in mining of this area, it could potentially be too late.

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