Can we keep our environment clean?

Can we keep our environment clean?

Despite the temporary slowdown of the gas and oil boom in Southeast Ohio, many still have hope in its comeback soon. In the meantime, we should all continue to enjoy the low gas prices, right?

The controversy over fracking has calmed a bit, but the lull gives us an opportunity to examine the issues. Laura Seeber, our geologist, explores some of these issues.

Wise landowner groups have had environmental, health and safety protections written into their gas and oil leases by attorneys experienced with the issues that landowners in Pennsylvania have grappled with. So we in Ohio have these advantages.

However, I recently saw a poster in Athens protesting the use of fracking wastewater on agricultural products. The use of wastewater to water produce that we eat doesn’t sit well with me.

(Let’s take some time to examine the issues calmly, both positive and negative. If you have any inside information on the water issue, please contact me as I want to explore that next.) Today, we explore other issues.

Christiane Marshall — Read on: iStock_000074039841_hydraulic fracturing

In the Ohio and Midwest region, searching and obtaining natural gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing, hydro-fracking or fracking as it is sometimes called is becoming big business. Previous areas of the country, once thought dead to the oil and gas boom, are now finding new economic life through new technology and techniques. Some would also argue that hydraulic fracturing has also brought about a wealth of health and environmental problems to the area as well.

So what is the truth? Is hydraulic fracturing providing the promise of a new day, or is it the bringing of environmental disaster? Like any other complex issue, it seems that the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes, and is very dependent on the situation at hand and the local landscape.

Depending on who you talk to, the words “fracking,” “hydraulic fracturing” and “hydro-fracking” can mean many different things. To most of the public, these terms are used interchangeably to mean the entire process used to drill for oil and natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and removing the natural gas or oil from formations previously thought to be economically unfeasible.

They are terms often associated with loud noises, bad odors from faucets, health concerns and noise and air pollution. However, they are equally associated with local economic recovery, job stability and increased opportunities for many families and communities.

If you were to talk with people who work in the industry, the terms “fracking” and “hydraulic fracturing” have a very specific meaning; it is a very specific engineering process in which fractures are created or exploited in an oil-bearing formation in order to facilitate the collection of natural gas (Goldman, G. Balin, D. et al, 2013). In this article, to help to differentiate between the two ideas, I will refer to the engineering process as hydraulic fracturing, and the general overall process, including drilling the well, accessing the formation, completion of the well and cleaning up afterwards as “fracking.”

Continued and Expected Growth

If current and recent production is any indication, the likelihood of fracking slowing down anytime soon is pretty slim. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has estimated that shale gas production (in which fracking is utilized extensively) will grow from about one-third of the total U.S. natural gas production to nearly one-half of all production by 2040 (Sieminski, 2013). It is also predicted that oil will follow much the same pattern.

This expected expansion has been often heralded by politicians and companies alike as being a way for many small towns and cities in the Midwest and Northeast region of the country to help to facilitate new growth and finally take control of their own economic destinies. Not only do the oil and gas companies have the potential to employ local people, but due to the influx of finances into the community in the form of increased retail sales, restaurant traffic and the sales of material used in the process, the potential economic impact of the fracking industry cannot be understated.

In addition to increasing the number of potential sites for oil and natural gas extraction, the amount of oil or natural gas that gets extracted via hydraulic fracturing is actually significantly higher than what is extracted through conventional means (Jackson, R.B., Rainey, B. et al 2011).

Questions and Concerns

However, quite a few people, ranging from environmental activists, health activists and scientists to everyday people have started to voice concerns about the process of hydraulic fracturing. Many of them have cited a disconnect between what the public and sometimes the government knows about the process and the impact it can have on the environment and surrounding community. Simply put, the rapid expansion of the industry, and the desire of various companies to protect their interests, have made it very difficult for scientists and the local community activists to gain information and data that they need to make an informed decision about the fracking industry.

Many people, from many different walks of life, have raised concerns and questions concerning fracking and hydraulic fracturing. How does hydraulic fracturing affect the potable water supply? Is there a connection between fracking and growing health concerns in various local communities? What exactly are the chemicals and substances used in the process? What are the long-term effects of hydraulic fracturing on the environment, and people’s health?

In fact, the New York Public Health Department commissioned and published a study in December of 2014 to determine the possible health and environmental effects of a high volume of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. According to the study, the following areas are shown to be affected by the practice of fracking and hydraulic fracturing, or have shown potential to be affected by it:

  • Respiratory Health
  • Potable Water
  • Surface Water Contamination
  • Air Pollution
  • Community Effects (boom-bust town economics, increased vehicle traffic, road damage, increased noise, increased housing and medical demands)

The Process Explained

The process of hydraulic fracturing has actually been around for quite some time — from the mid-1950s in fact. Overall it is a fairly simple process. Once the well is determined to be safe and in good condition, a mixture of specialized silica or sand, various other chemicals and water is pumped down the newly drilled well and injected at high pressure into the desired formation. This high-pressure injection of the slurry mixture creates and exploits fractures in the formation, which are held open by the sand grains contained within the mixture.

Once the fracturing occurs, natural gas and oil molecules which were previously trapped within the shale use the narrow fractures to essentially move back to the well where they are able to travel up and be pumped up to the surface by the oil and gas companies. In an overall sense, the process is fairly straightforward.

But like in any other controversial topic, the devil is in the details.

First, the materials injected into the well, and therefore the surrounding formation, are not very well documented in the public eye. The mixture can and does contain any number of chemicals, including chemicals to fight bacteria, chemicals to help dissolve surrounding rock, chemicals to aid in lubrication and substances to maintain the proper consistency to name a few (Goldman, G., Balin, et al 2013). One of the reasons why the exact nature of the drilling fluid (another name for the sand/chemical/water mixture used is not public information is that the various companies involved have insisted that the exact amounts and composition of the chemicals used are in fact a trade secret, and to share them publicly would seriously hurt their ability to compete on a regional, national or international scale.

In addition to the incomplete availability of the actual chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, another factor is the sheer amount of resources used in the process of hydraulic fracturing and fracking in general. According to a drilling engineer (whom I will call “Mark” because of his request to remain anonymous), at a typical drill site he has seen anywhere from 5 to 600 barrels of oil/water mixture (oil approximately 75{5b6c00ae8a31f44c65b344f315968efbd322bfc6ea45e4e8cca9716c4473fad8}, water approximately 25{5b6c00ae8a31f44c65b344f315968efbd322bfc6ea45e4e8cca9716c4473fad8} of each barrel) used in the drilling of the actual well, and then tanker trucks filled with water to use during the hydraulic fracturing process.

Considering that a typical 55-gallon steel barrel usually holds approximately 42 gallons, and a typical tanker truck can house approximately 10,000 gallons, the amount of water used on a drill site can be extremely significant. In fact, using tens of thousands of gallons of water per well in the whole process is not out of the realm of possibility.

In addition to the immense amount of water that is used during the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process, there is also a great deal of other material used including sand, silica, barite and cement to name a few. In fact, the amount of specialized sand needed to help hold open the fractures during hydraulic fracturing can be thousands of tons per well. In fact, hydraulic fracturing can account for almost half of the sand mining production in the U.S. today (Goldman, G., Balin, et al 2013).

In addition to the non-availability of information, either due to lack of study, or proprietary concerns of the industry, there are also a lot of misinformation and myths about the process. For example, “Mark” the drilling engineer pointed out that much of the contamination is seen from hydraulic fracturing in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s and was caused not by the hydraulic fracturing process, but through poor sealing of the wells. Essentially, the cement that was used to seal the wells was of a poor quality, allowing the various natural gases, drilling fluids and chemicals to escape into the surrounding area. He also pointed out that over the last decade, immense improvements in the technology and processes used have been realized, all of which have been designed to help protect the environment and the community health.

Good for local business?

Good for local business?

Final Considerations 

Is hydraulic fracturing and fracking the direct cause of various environmental and health situations and problems as many people have claimed? Is it a safe and viable option for extracting oil and natural gas from various formations around the United States? In truth, the evidence as seen so far is inconclusive at best. Each side in the argument can easily cite various studies and personal accounts to support its position.

Each person and each community, therefore, needs to learn as much as they can about the controversy, look at all the evidence and make the best-informed decision about what hydraulic fracturing and fracking can do to their community.
Further Reading/References Consulted

Bamberger, M., Oswald, R., (2012) “Impacts of gas drilling on human and animal health,” New Solutions Volume 22 (1) pages 51-77

Brown, K., (2015) “A look inside New York’s Anti-Fracking Echo Chamber An Energy in Depth White Paper,” Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).
Goldman, G. Balin, D., Rogerson, P. Agatstein, J., Imm, J., Phartiyal, P. (2013) “Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate. Science, democracy, and community right to know in unconventional oil and gas development,” Union of Concerned Scientists

Jackson, R.B., Rainey, B., Pearson, S., Osborn, N., Warner, A. Vengosh, A. (2011) “Research and policy recommendations for hydraulic fracturing and shale gas extraction,” Center on Global Change Duke University, Durham, NC.

Koch, II, C. (submitted 2015) “A wholistic review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, and its related environmental, economic, and social consequences”

New York State Department of Health (2014) “A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development”

Rabinowitz, P., Slizovskiy, I., Lamers, V., Trufan, S., Holford, T., Dziura, J., Peduzzi, P., Kane, M., Reif, J., Weiss, T., Stowe, M. (2014) “Proximity to natural gas wells and reported health status: results of household survey in Washington County,” Pennsylvania Environmental Health Perspectives, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Reimer, G. (2013) Literature review on Fracking Chemical Abstracts, 2011- June 2013

Society for Conservation Biology (February 2013) “Letter Addressed to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Secretary of Department of Energy, and Acting Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency concerning the Potential Detrimental Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) as a rapidly expanding method of natural gas extraction”

Spratt, H. Wilferth, J. (unknown) “Questions regarding proposed fracking study in UT Cumberland Forest”

United States Geological Survey (2014) “Summary of selected studies related to possible effects of energy development on water quantity, water quality, and ecosystems,” conducted by USGS Water Science Centers

Werner, A., Vink, S., Watt, K., Jagals, P. (2015) “Review: Environmental health impacts of unconventional natural gas development: A review of the current strength of evidence Science of the Total Environment,” Vol 505, pages 1127-1141

Webb, E., Bushkin-Bedient, S., Cheng, A., Kassotis, V., Nagel, S. (2014) “Developmental and reproductive effects of chemicals associated with unconventional oil and natural gas operations,” Review of Environmental Health, Volume 29, Number 4, pages 307-318