What is fracking?
Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is a method utilized by oil and gas companies to increase production of oil or gas from a well that would otherwise exhibit a low flow rate usually due to the geologic rock formation being too dense to allow for the economic recovery of hydrocarbons. These low permeability formations generally include tight sands, shales and coal bed methane deposits.
Fracking consists of pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and various toxic chemicals (known as fracking fluids) thousands of feet down a well and out into the oil or gas bearing geologic rock formation at high enough pressure sufficient to cause that formation to fracture or crack. These fractures can extend hundreds of feet from the wellbore. After the desired fracking has occurred, the pumping of fracking fluids ceases and the internal pressure of the rock formation (the formation pressure) causes the injected fracking fluids to return to the surface (this is known as flowback). The flowback waters are often highly contaminated upon reaching the surface and are usually stored in pits or tanks until removal by truck.
The sand (known as the propping agent) which is injected into the formation via the fracking fluids remains behind and serves to keep the newly created fractures from closing up when the pumping stops and pressure is relieved. These fractures then provide an avenue for the oil or gas to more easily flow through the formation to the wellbore thus allowing for a higher rate of production than could have been achieved prior to the fracturing.
What are the dangers of fracking?
I) Unknowns - The truth is that there are a lot of unknowns regarding the long term dangers and effects of fracking because the oil and gas industry has thus far evaded regulation of the practice.
Instances of people getting sick, animals dying, vegetation kills and well water igniting are well documented in areas where hydraulic fracturing has occurred, but the industry insists that they are unrelated and regulation is unnecessary.
The propagation of fractures caused by fracking and thus the full effects of the fracking process itself are not fully known, since the underlying geology thousands of feet below the surface and up to a thousand feet away from the wellbore can not be identified with exactitude.
Models generated by oil and gas companies lead them to claim that the fracking fluids and resulting fractures extend only several hundred feet from the wellbore and have no communication with upper zones or the surface.
However, modeling is an inexact science based on assumptions and may not fully account for the effects of the explosions from perforating the well, which can extend over a thousand feet from the wellbore; nor can modeling fully identify the interaction of those explosions or the fracking fluids with unknown natural faults and fissures of varying size.
II) Ground, Surface and Water Contamination
Migration of oil, gas and residual fracking fluids into freshwater aquifers
Fracturing occurs thousands of feet below the surface and while oil and gas companies have data concerning the geology, they can not identify every natural fault, fissure or other irregularity within hundreds of feet of the wellbore. A frack job may create new fractures that intersect natural geologic vertical faults that communicate with the surface or with upper zones.
In such a scenario, the formation pressure would force the newly liberated oil and gas, as well as the residual toxic fracking fluids, through these new fractures and into the natural fault. These fluids could then travel upwards along that fault past the reservoir cap and into a freshwater aquifer or to the surface at distances as great as a mile from the well.
Several studies suggest that this has been occurring where natural gas from fracked formations has contaminated drinking water aquifers with methane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. These instances are so severe in some cases that landowners have been able to light their tap water on fire.
Benzene is a known human carcinogen, while the health effects of long term exposure to methane and other components of natural gas have not been fully studied.
Oil and gas companies assert that even though the tap water is ignitable, the methane is harmless. They also conveniently claim that the contamination has nothing to do with fracking, but rather results from other natural sources (such as swamp gas) or historic wells with poor cement jobs or casing.
However a study by Duke Researchers in northeast Pennsylvania found that water wells near a fracking site were 17 times more likely to exhibit methane contamination.
Beyond contamination from natural gas, aquifers may also become contaminated by the residual fracking fluids that remain in the formation (estimated to be up to 20-40% of the 2-5 million gallons injected).
In addition to benzene, methane, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, these fluids when injected often contain diesel, surfactants, solvents, polymers, foaming agents, corrosion inhibitors, scale inhibitors, environmentally toxic biocides, synthetics and other toxic chemicals. (Oil and gas companies have evaded identifying the full list of chemicals in fracking fluids by claiming that the ingredients are proprietary information.)
Furthermore as the fluids migrate upwards through the rock formations, they often become highly salinated and can be contaminated with carcinogens such as Arsenic, Hexavalent Chromium and Radium, along with other dangerous heavy metals, such as Lead, Selenium, Mercury and Antimony.
Small amounts of these wastes can contaminate an entire aquifer.
III) Spills & Leaks
Spills occur during the injection of the fracking fluids as well as during the capture, transportation and disposal of the flowback.
During a frack job, millions of gallons of fracking fluids are pumped downhole from the surface under high pressure and then 60-80% of these fluids return to the surface where it is often stored in a tank or pit before being pumped into trucks for transport to a disposal site.
Operators inevitably have spills throughout this process. Hoses come undone, gaskets fail, pits or tanks leak and liquids always hit the ground, often in large quantities. As described above, the fracking fluids contain numerous toxic chemicals and become even more contaminated once pumped downhole as they travel through rock formations before returning to the surface as flowback. These liquids can cause surface contamination and even in small quantities can contaminate shallow aquifers with hydrocarbons, toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive materials.
Spills of fracking fluids and tainted flowback also occur during transport to or from the drill sites due to leaks from trucks. Traffic accidents can lead to significant contamination away from the site.
Blowouts can occur during the original drilling of a well, during the fracking process or during the installation of a new water well in an area where fracking has taken place. A blowout is the uncontrolled release of oil or gas from a well.
Blowouts are primarily prevented by the circulating of drilling muds or the pumping of fracking fluids in combination with the installation of cement and casing along the wellbore. Blow out preventers are also used as a last line of defense.
Blowouts generally occur when natural gas enters the wellbore (known as a kick) due to the encountering of an unknown pocket of gas or due to a loss of the drilling mud or fracking fluids through an irregularity in the formation.
During a kick natural gas flows up the wellbore and if the kick is not controlled with additional pressure from mud or fracking fluids and the well is not sealed in time by the blowout preventer, then a blowout occurs allowing oil, gas and/or highly contaminated produced waters to flow at the surface.
This happened in Colorado where natural gas and produced water spewed at the surface for 72 hours following a landowner’s drilling of a new water well in an area of active fracking after his previous well had become contaminated. In June of 2010, EOG Resources had a well blowout during the fracking process in Clearfield County, PA which flowed approximately 35,000 gallons of natural gas and fracking fluids onto the surrounding landscape and forested areas.
V) Poor Cement Jobs & Safety Practice – Migration, Spills and Blowouts
The cement and steel casings that line the wells as they pass through the water table, usually just a couple of hundred feet below ground, have failed. This has allowed gas or water tainted with high concentrations of naturally occurring radiation, salt and heavy metals that often come up with the gas or water to foul nearby drinking wells. This has also led to massive spills of fracking fluids and blowouts.
After drilling a well, the wellbore is isolated from the upper rock formations by the installation of cement and steel piping known as casing. Cement is generally required to extend to 150’ below the deepest water well in the area in order to protect aquifers from the fluids in the wellbore. Thus the fracturing process is not supposed to begin until the wellbore is properly cased and cemented to ensure protection of fresh water aquifers.
However, contractors often rush the casing and cementing to move on to the next job and what may appear to be a good cement job or casing connection at first ends up being degraded by the pressure exerted during the fracking process and in the end the casing fails at the connecting joints or the cement cracks. The cracked cement or failed casing then allows wellbore fluids (including fracking fluids and natural gas) to contaminate aquifers or the surface.
Oil and gas companies often claim this is not an effect of fracking, but rather is due to poor historic drilling practices which no longer occur. Evidence of ground water contamination in an area of Colorado with newly fracked wells suggests otherwise. In April of 2011, Chesapeake Energy Corp. had a major spill of thousands of gallons of fracking fluids in Bradford County, Pennsylvania that contaminated nearby farms and surface waters when they lost control of the well during fracking. It is believed that the casing failed allowing flowback fluids to reach the surface uncontrolled, overwhelming the containment measures in place.
Additionally the last several thousand feet of the wellbore generally does not have casing or cement, since the hard rock layers are supposed to substitute as a barrier to prevent wellbore fluids (including fracking fluids and natural gas) from escaping. However these bottom layers are not uniform and often contain unknown irregularities that allow fluids to escape without detection, which fluids can then migrate into upper formations and contaminate water sources.
VI) Improper Storage and Disposal of Flowback
Once the fracking fluids have returned to the surface, operators often do not store and dispose of the radioactive contaminated flowback in a proper manner. Operators often store the flowback in unlined or poorly constructed pits allowing the toxic waste waters to seep into local waterways and aquifers
Operators in Pennsylvania sent flowback to municipal treatment facilities which in turn discharged the still radioactive waste waters into the Susquehanna River above regulatory limits as those facilities did not have the capabilities to effectively treat the flowback.
Other operators sold the radioactive waste water to municipalities to spray on roads to clear snow due to its high salt content.
VII) Lowered Water Table
In addition to the potential contamination of drinking water aquifers, the practice of fracking, which requires millions of gallons of water, often lowers the water table in aquifers. This greatly reduces the availability of well water and also degrades its quality by allowing more particles to concentrate in what is left in the aquifer.
VIII) Air Pollution
Fracking causes air pollution from multiple sources. Many particulates and chemicals can be released into the atmosphere, such as sulfuric Oxide, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOC), benzene, toluene, diesel fuel, hydrogen sulfide and radon gas which can have serious health implications.
Exhaust from the massive pumps used in the fracking process and from the trucks used to transport fracking fluids and flowback contribute to local air pollution.
Evaporation of contaminated flowback waters contained in open pits contributes to local air pollution.
Venting that occurs during the filling or emptying of bulk sand silos used to store proppant releases silica particulate into the air that can cover large areas. The venting or flaring of gas kicks during drilling and production contributes to local air pollution.
Methane contamination brought to the surface from local aquifers contributes to local air pollution. Methane also contributes to air pollution within a domicile and can be an explosive hazard if not properly vented.
Known public health effects from these emissions include reproductive, respiratory, blood disorders, central nervous system and neurological effects.
Fracking in fact causes so much air pollution that some locations experience air quality worse than Los Angeles.
It is speculated that the fracking process’ interaction with natural faults leads to an increase in the frequency of earthquakes. If sufficient shear stress is present from the fracking process, then a geologic structure may slip in shear and generate seismic events over a range of magnitudes. This is believed to have occurred in areas of North Texas and Arkansas.
Why isn’t fracking regulated?
The oil and gas industry and their lobbyists have successfully fended off regulation on many fronts and won exemptions from most environmental regulations including: Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA], Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act [CERCLA], Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act, and National Environmental Policy Act
The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained a provision that has come to be known as the "Halliburton Loophole," an exemption for gas drilling and extraction from requirements in the underground injection control (UIC) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
In 1988, EPA and Congress agreed not to apply RCRA to oil and gas wastes, such as fracking fluids.
Oil and gas companies have refused to divulge the components of their fracking fluids under the community right to know act by claiming the statute does not apply and the information is proprietary.
Many states also exempt from certain water use regulations. Agencies have been averse to regulating or studying the process due to industry lobbyists.
EPA studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope and important findings have been removed, while whistleblowers have been unfairly slandered.
In a draft 2002 report, EPA reported that at the point of injection, nine hydraulic fracturing chemicals violated water quality standards. This assertion was edited out before the final report was published. The published report did note that fracturing fluids are likely to remain underground and are “likely to be transported by groundwater supplies” (EPA Fracturing Final 2004). EPA has finally decided to conduct a more comprehensive study on fracking, but the results are not due until 2014.
EPA has no threshold limit for airborne Benzene which is released during venting of fracked wells.
What can I do to protect myself and my land?
Please contact Smith Stag if you think you might be affected by fracking activities.
Smith Stag, LLC
365 Canal Street, Suite 2850
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
Phone: (504) 593-9600
Fracking diagram graphic courtesy of The Checks and Balances Project.