MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., July 30, 2013 – In the last few years the word “fracking” (or “frac”) has entered the common lexicon. It stands for the practice of fracturing underground formations to ease trapped gas to the surface. Technically the practice is called “Hydraulic Fracturing” and has been practiced for many years in both oil and gas production.
After an oil or gas well is drilled, the producing formation has to be “enhanced.” This is done in part by injecting fluids at high pressure to create fissures that allow the oil and gas to flow with more ease. This practice has been exempted from Federal Regulations due to the political and economic power of the oil and gas industry. In fact, when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974, it gave EPA the authority to regulate the injection into underground formations, but specifically excluded oil and gas production, including hydraulic fracturing.
Similarly, gas wells, whether in coal or shale formations use the same techniques. The gas is usually held in tight formations that usually also contain water. The only way to extract the gas is to remove the water by creating fractures in the formations that eventually also allow the gas to flow. On December 2010, EPA completed a report on the impacts of producing gas from coal formations. This was used as the bases for not regulating the practice. Under the so-called “Halliburton loophole,” hydraulic fracturing was excluded from any regulations by the Federal Government.
EPA has been ordered by Congress to conduct additional studies to determine the potential damage to ground water from hydraulic fracturing. This was prompted by reports of ground water contamination attributed to hydraulic fracturing. The studies are due to be completed next year.
In fact, the regulation of oil and gas with regards to its potential contamination is the prevue of the states. In most cases the state agency that is responsible for the management of natural resources is given the task to protect ground water from the development and production of these resources. Many have called this arrangement a conflict of interest as the agencies derive a significant portion of their budget from the production of oil and gas.
Engineers (as is this columnist) will tell you, that if a well is drilled and completed properly, there is no chance for contamination of ground water.
The facts are that when you drill a deep hole through several formations, however, using data that needs to be interpreted, it is a gamble. Remote sensing develops the data used to determine the safe way to drill. That is, data points are developed by surface or borehole instruments, utilizing sound or other physical agent to determine the characteristics of the formations. These then are interpolated into existing geological “maps.” While these techniques are marvels of engineering, they are not infallible and depend heavily on the interpretation of the operator doing the test. Faults and other characteristics may be missed or misinterpreted. Holes left from exploration or historic production may also be ignored or forgotten.
The actual fracturing of the producing formation may also cause problems. Without any ground truth data, confining formations may also be fractured and mineralized water and gas could migrate. There is also some evidence that either the disposal of injection of fluids from dewatering operations or the actual hydraulic fracturing may cause earthquakes.
The completion of the well could also go awry. The ring formed between the hole and the metal casing has to be filled with cement to provide support and to prevent gas migration or cross contamination of aquifers. Cross contamination of aquifers happens when there is a conduit between a mineralized aquifer and a fresh water aquifer. In a recent documentary video, Gasland 2, the researchers found that by using industry service provider records about five percent of the cementing jobs failed. While the information in the video was cryptic, when a cement job fails it means that the cement did not return to the surface. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there would be contamination; it only means that relative engineering certainty is lost. The well may leak or there may be gas migration or cross contamination of ground water. Assuming that only a portion of the wells will actually allow migration, since the number of the gas wells drilled is in the hundreds of thousands, we could have ground water pollution crises.
Summation and Other Facts
Pollution of ground water is possible as part of the historic oil and gas exploration and production and the relatively new coal and shale gas extraction processes. Sixty percent of this planet’s potable water supply resides underground. There are also other possible effects like earthquakes.
Pollution of ground water is very difficult to find, monitor and determine its cause. It is also very expensive to investigate.
The burning of natural gas instead of other fossil fuels has been promoted as a way to reduce greenhouse gases. However, accidental release of the gas could have a worse effect on climate change than carbon dioxide.
So far episodes of gas intrusion into water wells have been confined to places near the actual drilling and operations. The number of people affected is relatively small.
Most of the country is benefitting from the abundance of cheap natural gas and the employment that these activities provide.
Chances are that very little will be done by the federal government to address environmental effects. President Obama has already said so. This is nothing new. We have turned a blind eye to traditional oil and gas exploration and production and their impact on the environment for almost 100 years. Why change now?
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