Is it Safe to Drill? “Fracking” America for Energy

By Carolina Luna

The notion that there is an abundance of shale gas and other forms of unconventional gas in the United States, Asia, Europe, and elsewhere has prompted a global rush to explore and extract this energy source.

In the United States, natural gas is booming as a result of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and the rising of natural gas prices. Between 2006 and 2011 the annual shale gas production in the United States increased from 1 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet. Shale gas is viewed by many policymakers as the answer to America’s foreign dependency on oil, the energy crisis, and climate change.

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These are natural gas resources and where to drill for them. Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

According to the oil and gas industry, natural gas can power millions of homes and businesses across the nation as well as fuel cars. The industry states that the development of natural gas from shale plays will generate thousands of jobs in local and regional areas as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half. Producing electricity from natural gas, compared to oil and coal, is indeed less carbon intensive.

But there is a downside to shale gas development. There are no national standards to regulate it, and instead, there are loopholes in federal and state laws that exempt hazardous oil and gas waste from treatment, disposal, and storage. Also, recent scientific studies point out that oil and gas waste can lead to air and water pollution. In addition, generating electricity from shale gas may accelerate climate change in the upcoming years.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing? Its History and Relation to Shale Gas

The natural gas industry is growing rapidly in the United States and is becoming a “game changer” in energy security. In 2010, natural gas production from shale gas grew to 27 percent, is currently at 34 percent and the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that it will increase by 29 percent in 2035. According to a report by the IHS Global Insight—a study commissioned by America’s Natural Gas Alliance—America has enough natural gas to satisfy demand for the next hundred years based on current consumption rates. For environmental groups, shale gas can either be the solution to reduce the levels of carbon and sulfur dioxide, or it can pose a serious threat to the environment due to its drilling process.

In the past decade, the oil and gas industry has been able to extract large amounts of oil and gas from shale formations—fine-grained sedimentary rocks that are rich sources of oil and gas—with the help of two technological innovations: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking is the process of injecting fluid—a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals—into a wellbore at high pressures to prop open fractures in rock to allow gas to flow more easily from the shale into the well. It is estimated that more than 750 chemicals, ranging from benign to toxic, have been used in hydraulic fracturing solutions.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, without horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the industry would lose 45 percent of domestic natural gas production, and 17 percent of their oil production within five years. Moreover, without these two techniques extracting large quantities of natural gas from shale formations would be nearly impossible and economically unfeasible because of its low permeability.

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This picture shows the extraction of shale gas from shale using hydraulic fracturing. Credit: Durham University

Since the 1860s hydraulic fracturing has been used to stimulate oil and gas well production in the United States. Horizontal drilling and multi-level hydraulic fracturing was developed until the 1970s in a joint partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, the gas industry, and private operators. Today, modern fracturing requires millions of gallons of water for each well, in addition between 30 and 70 percent of the millions of gallons of hydraulic fracturing solutions used per well returns to the surface as wastewater. This wastewater not only contains fracking chemicals but also high amounts of salt, radionuclides, heavy metals, and other additives drawn to the surface from the shale formation below. By 2000, hydraulic fracturing was used 90 to 95 percent in all U.S. oil and gas wells.

Is Drilling Safe? Cases of Water Contamination

According to the environmental group Earthworks, hydraulic fracturing has been implicated in several cases of water contamination in the United States. In addition, these cases have been reported by the media and confirmed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed these cases to a certain extent.

Since 2009 ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom, investigated fracking methods and uncovered more than 1,000 cases of water contamination near drilling sites. These cases were documented by the courts, states, or local governments prior to 2009. In the small town of Dimock, Pa., state environmental regulators found that the Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation had contaminated the drinking water of 14 homes with leaking methane. In 2012, the EPA found high levels of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, barium, and manganese in well water at five homes.

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The EPA taking water samples in Pavillion, Wyo. Credit: U.S. EPA

In Pavillion, Wyo., residents stated that their water wells have been contaminated with fracking chemicals. In 2010, the EPA released a preliminary study and found a possible drinking water contamination near fracking wells in Pavillion. In addition, the EPA recommended that residents do not drink tap water. The following year, the EPA released a draft report concluding that gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing, likely lead to methane contamination of deep groundwater near the town of Pavillion.

In 2011, The New York Times investigated the process of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and found that nearly three-quarters of the more than 240 gas wells analyzed produced wastewater with high levels of radiation, including at least 116 wells with levels that were hundreds of time higher than the EPA’s drinking water standards.

In a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 1, 2012, Jim Martin, the regional administrator for EPA Region 8, said that the chemicals found in several domestic and shallow wells near Pavillion contained a number of organic and inorganic additives. They also detected high levels of petroleum mixtures such as benzene, xylene, naphthalene, and phenols in the shallow wells located in the drinking water aquifer. They determined that the chemicals found in the water wells were most likely the result of fracking and not related to agriculture. However, the EPA concluded that their analysis was limited only to the Pavillion gas field, and such analysis should not apply to other fracturing areas across the nation.

“It should be noted,” Martin said, “that fracturing in Pavillion is taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells—production conditions different from those in many other areas of the country.”

Scientific Findings Support a Threat to Human Health and the Environment

Recent scientific studies seem to disagree with the EPA. The findings state that drilling for gas can pose a serious threat to the environment and human health across the United States. According to a study compiled by Jeanne VanBriesen, who holds a doctorate in environmental civil engineering and is the director of the Water QUEST Center, found that the organic and inorganic substances used in the fracking process can be toxic and dangerous, like formaldehyde which is known to be a carcinogen or a substance that can cause cancer.

“Both types of wastewater contain potentially harmful pollutants,” pointed out VanBriesen, “including salts, organic hydrocarbons (sometimes referred to simply as oil and grease), inorganic and organic additives, and naturally occurring radioactive material or NORM.”

Moreover, in a study published in the August 2012 issue of the Risk Analysis journal, Stony Brook doctoral student Daniel Rozell and professor Sheldon J. Reaven found five potential pathways of water contamination: transportation spills, well casing leaks, leaks through fractured rock drilling, surface discharge, and wastewater disposal. Given the typical well spacing in the Marcellus Shale, if only 10 percent of the region is developed this would mean the construction of 40,000 wells, noted Rozell and Reaven, which poses a potential threat to drinking water in the area.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, oil and gas production at the surface and below ground can affect water quality, however, other studies point out that hydraulic fracturing and other methods of gas production do not represent such a threat.

A study by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin observed that many of the problems with hydraulic fracturing are caused by casing failures or poor cement jobs, and not by the process itself. The study also concluded that there is no evidence of toxic chemicals in water wells found in hydraulic fluids. Instead, most toxic substances are naturally occurring such as iron and manganese. These particles may be found in water wells as a result of vibrations and pressure pulses associated with gas drilling operations. In addition, the authors of the study said that the water wells in shale gas areas have shown high levels of methane before the development of shale gas. But for the residents who happened to live near drilling sites, shale gas development and production represents a threat to their livelihoods and health.

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This is a man protesting hydraulic fracturing in Dimock, Pa. Credit: Greenpeace, Les Stone

According to the nonprofit community association Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition of Luzerne County, Pa., shale gas development and production will transform their neighborhoods into industrial areas, and pollute their air and water. The association stated that gas wells may possibly be constructed next to homes, hospital, churches, or reservoirs. In addition, the drill sites may lower property values, raise the cost of rent for local residents, local tourism may decrease, and the crime rate might increase as prostitution and illegal drug use increases in the area.

The Size and Scope of Active Shale Gas Plays

Currently, there are 12 active shale gas plays located in five regions in the continental United States from the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf Coast to the Southwest region of the country to the Northeast. Some shale plays are larger and more developed than others. The three main shale gas areas in the United States are the Barnett Shale in Texas, the Haynesville Shale in east Texas and Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale which stretches into several states from Ohio to West Virginia and northeast into Pennsylvania and southern New York. Presently, the most active shale gas play in the United States is the Barnett Shale.

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This is drilling at the Barnett Shale. Credit: David R. Tribble

The Barnett Shale formation—stretching over 5,000 square miles and at 6,000 feet deep—lies in the Bend Arch-Forth Worth Basin in Texas. It was developed more than 50 years ago for oil and gas drilling and in less than a decade it has become the largest natural gas play in the state, with over 10,000 wells. In 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated it holds 26.7 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas. Today it is estimated to hold 5 trillion cubic feet of gas.

However, much of the untapped gas lies under the highly populated Forth Worth metropolitan area posing challenges for oil and gas companies to drill in such an urban setting. On the other hand, the Haynesville Shale stretches over 9,000 square miles and is 10,500 to 13,000 feet deep. It ranges from east Texas and northwest Louisiana to southwestern Arkansas. It is estimated to hold 75 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. At the present, energy companies have begun to lease property in north Louisiana in preparation for possible drilling and production.

The Marcellus Shale is the largest shale gas deposit ever discovered in the United States. It holds about 63 percent of U.S. reserves and stretches about 90,000 square miles from Pennsylvania and New York to West Virginia. In addition, it is about 9,000 feet deep. Within two years, more than 3,500 permits were issued in Pennsylvania and about 1,500 wells have been drilled. Yet, in those two years environmental problems have soared from methane leaks contaminating private wells, major spillage of diesel and fracking chemicals above ground to river pollution. The oil and gas industry, however, stated that there’s no evidence that fracking chemicals have contaminated drinking water, wells, or aquifers. But the EPA has reported several cases of “water quality incidents” in Alabama, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Most of the natural gas drilling occurs in remote rural areas, where local municipalities are not well-equipped to handle an increased demand from the gas boom or regulation of hydraulic fracturing methods such as zoning and air pollution.

Trade Secrets and Loopholes in Federal Laws

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, the current available state and federal laws in the United States are inadequate to protect human health and the environment. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA, of 1974 was established to protect the nation’s drinking water, the above ground and underground sources. In 2004, the EPA declared that the fracking process posed “little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water,” thus the following year Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulations.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from SDWA oversight, leaving 31 states in the continental United States—with significant shale gas reserves—vulnerable to toxic chemicals. Moreover, chemicals that are considered to be hazardous and are listed as such under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 are found in crude oil and petroleum such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene—these chemicals that are also used in natural gas production—are exempt from liability if spilled or released into the environment.

States do not require oil and gas companies to report the volumes or names of chemicals that are being injecting into the hydraulic fracturing process in the wellbore. In many states with hydraulic fracturing there are no disclosure requirements, in addition trade secret exemptions have created loopholes in federal and state laws thus allowing companies to deem information proprietary and prevent disclosure.

According to the NRDC, “hydraulic fracturing disclosure rules provide an exception to the reporting requirements when companies have confidential information that qualifies for ‘trade secret’ protection.”

Many state governments have detailed requirements and processes for trade secret protection. But some states have exempted the oil and gas industry thus allowing them to claim trade secret exceptions with no oversight. Currently, the oil and gas industry uses FracFocus.org—a website privately funded by the industry—to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, but it does not collect all information required by the states. The FracFocus site stated that companies have agreed to voluntarily disclose their frack fluid chemicals except for those that qualify as “trade secrets” under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Worker Safety Laws. According to the American Petroleum Institute, hydraulic fracturing fluids are 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand, and 0.5 percent additives. Nonetheless, the NRDC and other environmental groups state that information about fracking fluids should be made more comprehensive, transparent, and accessible to the public.

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This is the composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids according to FracFocus. Credit: FracFocus.org

A review of the PIVOT Upstream Group D-Frac database—using data from FracFocus and other sources—found that at least one chemical was kept secret in 65 percent of fracking disclosures by the oil and gas companies. According to the companies, they kept this chemical a secret because they needed to protect “confidential business information.” For the industry, disclosing the contents of their fracking fluid is like giving away their proprietary ingredients, thus putting them at a competitive disadvantage. But several environmentalists suspect that companies claim trade secret information to avoid disclosing their toxic chemicals such as methane oil and 2-butoxyethanol—an ingredient that is potentially hazardous. Companies also claim that if they disclose too much information it may interfere with their efforts in developing new and less toxic chemicals.

The Long-Term Impact of the Oil and Gas Industry

According to the IHS Global Insight, shale gas has dramatically transformed the outlook for U.S. energy supplies and the economy by creating jobs, reducing electricity costs, and stimulating federal, state, and local tax revenue. For example, in 2010, more than 600,000 jobs were supported by the oil and gas industry. In addition, the industry is expected to generate nearly 870,000 new jobs by 2015. For every direct job created more than three indirect jobs are created as well, according to IHS Global Insight. And jobs in the shale gas sector pay higher on average—currently at $23.26 per hour—compared to workers in manufacturing or transportation.

But according to a group of researchers at Cornell University, shale gas drilling may generate fewer jobs than expected. “Most of the created jobs are gone after the drilling phase,” noted researchers David West, Thomas Knipe, and Susan Christopherson, “which can be as short as a few months per well. Many of the expenditures associated with drilling actually occur out of state, benefiting regions that have historically specialized in extraction—especially Texas—rather than the host community.”

The industry promotes itself to be a job generator and an advocate for local investment. Instead, what the researchers found was that drilling crews spend about three months in the drilling phase then move on to a new area. The jobs that were mostly created were filled by workers who live and spend their paychecks in other states. Moreover, the facilities that were created for the drilling workers are left empty for years such as schools, hospitals, and housing, and left with a smaller population to support them.

For the oil and gas companies, shale gas development and production is beneficial for the country for three reasons: it creates millions of well-paying jobs, billions in state and federal revenue, and leads the nation to a clean and affordable energy future. One single well can produce energy for the next 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years, according to the industry. However, the EPA stated that “most of the shale gas wells have been drilled in the last few years, so there is considerable uncertainty regarding their long-term productivity.”

Chesapeake Energy, founded in 1989, is today’s second largest producer of natural gas, and the most active driller of new wells in the United States. At the present time, hydraulic fracturing is used in more than 99 percent of Chesapeake’s 12,200 wells. The chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids include a numbers of chemical ingredients found in several common consumer products such as laundry detergents, cleaners, and beauty products, according to the energy company. Since 2009, Chesapeake has been committed to reducing toxic chemicals in their fracking fluid through their Green Frac program. They have eliminated about 25 percent of the additives used in hydraulic fracturing fluids because the additives were not critical to the fracking process.

Another benefit in shale gas development is royalties. According to Rolf Hansen, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania, residents who own mineral rights to their property can sell leases to the gas industry for prices that range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars per acre, not including the 18 percent or more in royalty payments on production. Royalties can range between 12 and 20 percent.

Every day Americans are using about 62 billion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly 8,000 U.S. companies produce it. According to the EPA, “natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future. Responsible development of America’s shale gas resources offers important economic, energy security, and environmental benefits.”

But at the present, there is no comprehensive set of national standards in regards to the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing. Nor do federal or state laws seem reliable in regulating an industry that is granted many exemptions. Not only does natural gas development pose a potential threat to human health and to the environment if not regulated, it can also pose a threat to the renewable energy technologies. Currently, the EPA is undertaking a national study to understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The EPA released a progress report on the study and the agency expects to release a final draft of the report for peer review and comment in 2014.

To review the progress report visit, http://www.epa.gov/hfstudy/

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