Fracking (Hydraulic Fracturing) 3 of 7

Last spring I did a pretty thorough look into fracking so here a copy. Necessarily due to the length it is broken into multiple parts. Here are the links for all parts: Fracking: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Citations.

An Educational Overview of Fracking

            A definition of fracking (at dictionary.com for “hydraulic fracturing”) is as follows:

A process in which fractures in rocks below the earth’s surface are opened and widened by injecting chemicals and liquids at high pressure: used especially to extract natural gas or oil.”

Overall, this is a fairly accurate, one-sentence definition of fracking and a good launching point for a more detailed explanation of the complete process of fracking. Let’s zoom out to develop a clear picture of where fracking currently occurs and where it is possible to occur. Fracking is currently conducted in underground shale deposits. When fracked, the oil and gas inside these formations can be obtained more easily and the process can become economically feasible (Phillips, 1972). A map of known world shale deposits from eia.gov released January 2, 2014 is displayed below (Fig 1.).

Looking at the map it can be observed that there are significant deposits of shale, in North America suitable for fracking, and many other locations internationally. The United States seems to be at the front of the pack and well positioned to become the top international energy exporter (Financial Times, 2012).  According to the U.S. EIA the USA has approximately 665 trillion cubic feet of known natural gas and 58 billion barrels of known oil reserves in shale deposits (U.S. EIA, 2013). Advanced Resources International (http://www.adv-res.com/) gives alternate estimates of 48 billion barrels of oil and 1161 trillion cubic feet of gas. Examining FracTracker (Fig 2.) it is fairly easy to determine the location of more than 65,000 fracked wells (FracFocus Wells, 2014).

Using the same website but a different map, it is also easy to locate all the locations and incidents of alleged harm in the United States (Fig 3.). These sites of alleged harm suggest damages ranging from property damage to water pollution to mild medical problems to severe medical problems and even death (PACWA’s List of the Harmed 2014). A major concern among opponents of fracking is the potential to contaminate groundwater (Myers, 2012). Below is a map showing the overlay of shale basins and underground aquifers (Fig 4.). This gives a fairly detailed account of the scope and location, geographically, of the debate. The next important piece of background information concerns the actual physical processes necessary before, during and after fracking occurs.

The first step in actually fracking is to determine a suitable location for a well. To do this the well should be located above a shale basin (Fig 1, 2, 3, 4.). The next few steps are identical to traditional oil well prep. Once the site is prepped and the company is ready to begin digging, they bring their equipment to the well. In traditional oil mining, the well goes straight down into an oil reserve then the liquid oil is pumped out. Hydraulic fracturing is slightly different at this point. The gas and oil are trapped inside a rock formation. This makes it tricky to just drill and pump. The oil companies use a special auger that is able to dig a hole that turns, and when digging, it will be aimed so that it goes either slanted or horizontally through the shale formation, to maximize the pipe exposure to the shale formation. There can be almost a mile in length of horizontal pipe, and 5,000-10,000 feet below the surface(Joshi, 1988).

After digging the hole, the auger is removed and the cap and pipe are installed. This again is the same as normal oil well installation. Following the installation, hardware hydraulic equipment is brought to the site and water (5-7 million gallons) is pumped into the hole under high pressure(Engelder et al, 2011).. Mixed inside the water is a chemical slurry (just a fraction of a percent or about 50,000 lbs of chemicals) which is a special proprietary blend of chemicals. The exact chemicals utilized for the slurry is not commonly disclosed by oil companies. However, thanks to voluntary disclosure it is known to include “{acids, biocides, scale inhibitors, friction reducers, and surfactants” (Engelder et al, 2011). This water chemical mixture, called frackwater, is then pumped out of the well  and pumped into a temporary storage pit (Hubbert & Willis 1972).

While in the subterranean environment, the frackwater potentially picked up heavy metals and radioactive materials in addition to all the unknown chemicals that were previously pumped into the ground (Howorth et al, 2011). Typically more than half of the frackwater is not recovered leaving a lot of chemicals loose in the subterranean space.

The frackwater is then disposed of by trucking it to a certified injection well, and injecting it back into the ground. This process can actually lubricate the tectonic plates and cause earthquakes. At least one of these Ohio earthquakes measured 4.0 on the Richter scale and was felt as far away as Toronto (Davies, 2012). In fact, there have almost been 1000 earthquakes in Ohio since fracking began (CETT 2010).

Fracking is controversial because there are several risks associated with the process. However, there are also substantial benefits to accessing the otherwise inaccessible resources with fracking.

Benefits:

Clean – The fuel burns much cleaner than coal or oil (Engelder et al, 2011).

Abundant product – 58 billion barrels of oil and 665 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the U.S. (U.S. EIA, 2013)

United States energy independence – (U.S. EIA, 2013)

Risks:

Toxic Chemical – These are injected into the ground and may also gain more chemical from the ground or even radiation (Engelder et al, 2011).

Carcinogenic Chemicals – Chemicals that can cause cancer (Engelder et al, 2011).

Mutagenic Chemicals – Chemicals that can cause mutations (Engelder et al, 2011).

Radio Active Contaminants – Matter that is undergoing radioactive decay and may emit alpha, beta or gamma particles (Engelder et al, 2011).

Heavy Metals – Elements such as Chromium, Mercury, Lead, Arsnic etc… Which are hazardous to human health (Engelder et al, 2011).

Methane Gas – is emitted from wells, methane is a greenhouse gas and more potent than  (Engelder et al, 2011).

Carbon Dioxide –  is also released when the gas is burned for heat (Engelder et al, 2011).

On a 20-year outlook, the impact of greenhouse gasses from fracking is worse than the burning of coal or oil (Engelder et al, 2011).

The 100 year outlook puts fracking similar to oil or coal (Engelder et al, 2011).

75% of wells within 1 km of a fracked well had methane contamination “51 of 60 wells” (Osborn et al, 2011)

Potential to cause earthquakes (Davies, 2012)

The other risks identified while reviewing literature were either poorly linked to fracking or required an accident, such as improper installation of a well. While these could be real risks, they are not included here.

In short, the above benefits and risks can be considered to be a debate about a tradeoff between economic benefits and a healthy environment. A small study was conducted to supplement the review of information. The following discussion will describe how the study was conducted and analyzed as well as a discussion concerning the results. The previous discussion might be considered to be an introduction to the experiment.