In our Spring 2014 Issue we took on some of the more interesting questions of debate surrounding the issue of fracking. As we stated in part one, “Research for this article has taken one of the more aggravating routes we’ve had to navigate in looking for the truth on an array of energy topics for our readers. The heap of misinformation on the topic of hydraulic fracturing is mind numbing and cutting through what frankly can best be described as “garbage reporting” proved to be a two month long process.”
In that issue, we covered some of the more common questions such as claims over fracking’s history, claims of fracking created earthquakes, the issue of the process overburdening water supplies, and fracking fluid and the environment. If you missed it, check out the online digital version. But the more controversial disputes such as waste disposal of fracking fluids, whether fracking has or could contaminate water aquifers, and whether fracking can lead to flammable water are now in the spotlight in this, Part Two of the Environmental Question of the Fracking debate.
Again, for each “claim” we have provided a standard approach. First we “listen” to what hydraulic fracturing supporters have to say about an issue. Then we give equal time to the opponents. Next, we cut through the rhetoric of both and look at the clear facts of each claim and deliver you the no nonsense truth. At the end of each issue, we provide a measured “grading” in our own “Fact Meter Scorecard” of truthfulness to lay out the bottom line answer to each.
The Fracking Process:
Does fracking contaminate groundwater? The Supporters: “In the studies surveyed, no incidents are reported which conclusively demonstrate contamination of shallow water zones with fracture fluids.”
“The potential for even a small amount of chemical contamination of underground or surface sources of fresh water from the specific act of fracturing, applied in adequately constructed wells with pay zone depths of greater than 2000 feet, is arguably less than one in a million fracs due to the self-limiting nature of fracturing leakoff and the numerous frac barriers found in ever deeper formation sequence. “
(from “Hydraulic Fracturing 101”, page 67; FracFocus.org)
The Opponents: ”Fracking,” a violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations, is known to contaminate drinking water, pollute the air, and cause earthquakes. If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas.”
(from “Natural Gas”; SierraClub.org)
“A New Study Confirms that Fracking Is Indeed Polluting Drinking Water in Pennsylvania. Though it has long been suspected, and it’s been documented both scientifically and anecdotally, we now have even more evidence that fracking does indeed increase the risk of water supplies being contaminated with stray gases. A new Duke University study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” all but confirms it.”
(from “Fracking is Indeed Polluting Drinking Water…”; Motherboard)
The Truth: At the outset, it should be understood that fracking opponents talk about fracking and the drilling process as being one in the same – they are not. This discussion is about claims that the fracking process itself is to blame for polluting water aquifers and drinking water. The quote above from “Motherboard” is a typical mis-statement about this very issue. The Duke study in fact did not confirm that “Fracking Is Indeed Polluting Drinking Water in Pennsylvania.” The study, entitled “Geochemical evidence for possible natural migration of Marcellus Formation brine to shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania” focused solely on methane pollution of well water. Its sole purpose was to “present geochemical evidence from north-eastern Pennsylvania showing that pathways, unrelated to recent drilling activities, exist in some locations between deep underlying formations and shallow drinking water aquifers.” The basic conclusion of the study dealt with the drilling process - not fracking - and its impacts to methane migrating into well water.
But are claims by supporters of fracking that there has never been an instance of fracking itself contaminating well water true? There are two points of consideration to be made here. First, has it happened? and second, could it happen, given time?
A Senate Hearing of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in May 2013 in which the two sides of the debate squared off on the topic seemed to result in an answer to the first question. In the middle of the 2½ hour long forum on “Shale Development: Best Practices and Environmental Concerns”, Committee Chair, Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, asked the definitive question:
The Senate Hearing:
“You testified [speaking to Marc Edwards; Senior Vice President of Completion and Production; Halliburton] that there’s not been a single incidence of contamination of a water supply [from fracking] to your knowledge. Is there anyone around this table that disagrees with that or has information to the contrary?”
“Yes, I disagree with that.” responded Deb Nardone, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign.
“OK, go ahead… and give me a specific incidence and where?” continued Senator Landrieu.
“Sure, absolutely… one of the things we said was trying to build public trust and confidence”
“I just asked for a specific incidence.” Senator Landrieu interrupted.
“We understand that there have been contamination issues”
“But where, in a water supply?”
“Methane contamination in Dimmick, Pennsylvania was looked at that it was deemed thermogenic gas not biogenic gas”
“Can I just stop you there? Mr. Edwards do you acknowledge that or no?” Landrieu redirected.
“Uh, Ma’am, with respect, under scientific rigor, we are talking about the chemistry that we pump into these formations … it is hard to understand how the chemistry can migrate through a significant volume of rock to contaminate ground water aquifers, so, as it relates specifically to contamination of aquifers from the hydraulic fracturing process, if we talk about methane, that is not a chemical we inject into the ground in the hydraulic fracturing process, so, I do reject that claim.” Edwards stated.
“I make this point Mr. Chairman [speaking to the Forum Chairman] … I keep hearing from environmental groups that there are many examples of contamination of ground water, and I keep hearing from the industry… that they don’t know of a single incidence, so, … before the environmentalists talk in generalities,” Senator Landrieu looked directly at the environmental lobby at the table, “I… ask you to come up with one site in the United States where drinking water has been contaminated, and please, do not give me theories, just give me one site?”
Amy Mall , Senior Policy Analyst, Land and Wildlife Program Natural Resources Defense Council responded:
“I just want to refer to an article that came out in Scranton Times Tribune last week which found that in Pennsylvania, 161 water supplies were damaged by oil and gas operations over about a five year period – this is according to the State Regulators… there’s no doubt that water has been contaminated by natural gas production as documented by state regulators in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado”
Landrieu broke in “OK, so we have completely differing testimonies… and I don’t want to have this debate here…”
Mark Brownstein, Associate Vice President & Chief Counsel of the U.S. Climate and Energy Program Environmental Defense Fund jumped in, conceding:
“I agree with Mr. Edwards… the act of hydraulic fracturing itself… the chances of that causing water contamination is in fact remote. What I think you are also hearing is that if wells are constructed improperly or if chemicals or waste water are mishandled at the surface, those can cause water contamination, those are part of the hydraulic fracturing process, and there are documented...”
Senator Landrieu finalized, “Yeah, water from the surface can seep in if it’s not handled correctly… but that is different than the fracking operations that are miles away from aquifers and I think it is important Mr. Chairman to understand this difference so we can understand these environmental concerns…”
This discussion is fairly indicative of the debate. Environmentalists point to methane contamination while assaulting the fracking process itself. In fact, it is not the fracking process at all they are referring to, it is instances of mismanaged drilling operations and waste water from fracking. Even in those cases, when pressed for one specific incident, the most renown members of the environmental debate failed to name one specific case.
Further, when looking at the Scranton Times article Ms. Mall referred to in her testimony, it seems she failed to mention that the article also stated that:
“Inspectors declared the vast majority of complaints - 77% of 969 records - unfounded, lacking enough evidence to tie them definitively to drilling or caused by a different source than oil and gas exploration, like legacy pollution, natural conditions or mining.”
Still, it should be noted that the remaining 23% were found to indeed be cases where naturally occurring methane released from pockets in the ground during the drilling process had contaminated water supplies. The article also concluded, “Drilling-related road construction contaminated water at two homes, while construction for a large water-storage pond called an impoundment contaminated another. Pipeline construction twice polluted water supplies with sediment. Stray cement or rock waste displaced by drilling, called cuttings, contaminated seven water supplies.”
Still – none from fracking. It is somewhat ironic that the foremost authorities on the anti-fracking debate - the Sierra Club and the NDRC - failed to point to one case where fracking itself may have caused ground water contamination. The “Ink” though actually did find one. Just one.
An EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) report stated that ground water contaminated with fracking chemicals was found near Pavillion, Wyoming in the Niobrara Play in 2011. The report indicated that “synthetic organic chemicals associated with fracking fluids” were present in deep water wells. Their implication was that this contamination likely came from pollution “migrating upward” from the source rock rather than from surface pits where waste was contained.
Fierce debate over the findings ensued resulting in the EPA backing off their claims. However, though no official conclusions ever came from the results of this report, it is very telling that the Wyoming Legislature began funding the construction of cisterns for “residents living near the Pavillion oil and gas field and affected by poor quality drinking water containing potentially harmful substances” in October of 2013, according to the Wyoming Energy News.
Frankly, it seems that fracking was in fact the cause of the contamination despite a lot of mud slinging against the EPA report which the agency ceased work on. In June 2013, they turned investigation over to the State of Wyoming.
The Bottom Line:
One instance versus the litany of claims saying fracking pollutes ground water. The bottom line is clear. Fracking, by and large, does not contaminate ground water. But because of the Pavillion report, we must concede that contamination of fresh water sources due to fracking may have happened. Regardless, the vast amount of evidence indicating that fracking almost exclusively takes place well below water aquifers is cause to state that such contamination seems to be a one in a million shot.
Almost Entirely False: Our score: 1% true, 99% false. The Fracking Process: Considerations
Looking at the Pay Zone The Danger Zone
This takes us to the next question. Could fracking lead to ground water pollution? The problem is that no one can speak of fracking as a one size fits all operation. Each major shale play lies at different depths, as do the fresh water aquifers above them. The Energy Ink created graphic on the following page takes these depths into consideration and cross-compared them to both typical fracture migration and the maximum recorded fracture.
Studies on the migration of fractures from hydraulic fracking operations indicate that fractures, in some cases, have travelled well beyond the target zone. The maximum recorded height of a fracture taken from thousands of operations in the Marcellus, Barnett, Woodford, Eagleford and Niobrara shale, was one instance of a fracture extending 1929 feet above the horizontal bore. The paper which presented this study though indicated that the probability of a stimulated hydraulic fracture extending vertically more than 1600 feet is about 1 in 100. Cases where fractures extend well beyond their target zone are due to miscalculation and thus over pressurized hydraulic stimulation of the target zone. When properly applied though, pressures only create fractures far enough to break the target formation and no further.
It should be noted, that even though our graphic to the right indicates each play at its shallowest, typical “pay zones” where most fracking takes place in these plays are well below the shallowest point of the shale. What the graphic shows is a “worst case scenario” for each play where, if fracking took place at the shallowest portion of a play, and the process resulted in an overpressurized frack leading to the maximum recorded height of a fracture, contamination could result… in two plays.
Many company’s engineers are artists in calculating pressures that only hit the “pay zone”. Some companies though, don’t always get it right. Longer than intended fractures can occur when frack fluid pressure is miscalculated and overpowers the shale formation being fracked. Regardless, in each worst case scenario, most of the shale plays being fractured in the U.S. lie well below 2000ft from their associated fresh water aquifer. The Bakken is one of the deepest where the “pay zone” is an average of 10,000 feet below the surface and some 6,250 feet below the deepest level of the eastern North Dakota fresh water zone at the play’s most shallow point. In the Bakken then, it is quite impossible for the fracturing process to ever contaminate fresh water, even if the fracking process is done in a manner that results in larger than intended fractures. It is thus literally nearly impossible in the Bakken, the Marcellus, and the Eagle Ford, and highly unlikely in the Niobrara.
Though the Niobrara reveals a very remote possibility, and perhaps one case of contamination actually happening, there is only one play of actual concern. According to our research, the Antrim Shale Play in Michigan, at the most shallow point where fracturing can take place, lays only 600 feet below the surface. Its deepest water aquifer reaches depths of 600 feet. It is clear then that if fracking occurs in a shallow portion of the “pay zone” where the water aquifer is at its deepest, just a minor pressure miscalculation could easily force fracking fluid into the water table.
Additionally, as many activists argue, it should also be understood that natural fractures do exist where a man-made (stimulated) fracture could meet, then follow. What this means is that fracking fluids can seep into natural fractures and travel upward. Still, the longest natural recorded fracture in the previously mentioned study extended at its maximum 3,600 feet – still well below the water table of every major play in the United States.
The final issue of “could it happen” is based mostly on speculation. Given time – say ten to twenty years, can frack fluid left in the ground slowly make its way toward the surface and thus contaminate drinking water decades after the well was fracked? Though it is true that up to 40% of fluids used in the process can remain in the ground after fracking, dozens to hundreds of formations of rock above the fracture keep the fluid in the ground from migrating toward the surface. Though dozens of studies confirm this, the most reliable is a paper published by the National Ground Water Association which has no apparent political motivations. Their conclusion was essentially that fracking fluid might migrate into ground water - if given a million years to do so.
The Bottom Line:
Let’s be clear. The claim at hand is that fracking contaminates ground water. No documented case could be identified by the environmentalists at the table during the Senate hearing and only one claim was to be found by the Ink’s research. Whether it could happen in the future is a matter of where the fracking occurs and whether or not it is done responsibly. As to whether irresponsible drilling and handling operations may be to blame for water contamination, that is another argument altogether, which comes next in this article. But a warning should be heeded in Minnesota: Due to the nature of the Antrim play and the potential for over pressurized fracking stimulation, this play could pose a major threat to the industry’s track record. Companies may want to consider FracFocus.org’s assessment stated at the outset of this article. When “applied in adequately constructed wells with pay zone depth of greater than 2000 feet” the possibility of water contamination is virtually non-existent.
The Scorecard: This is rather subjective and thus does not need a scorecard. If fracking occurs at proper depths, then the answer is definitive: No, fracking will not lead to polluted ground water in the future. If shallow plays are fracked, and done so with the inevitable overpressurization that can occur... then yes, it can, and will happen. The Fracking Process:
Have spills of Frack Fluid contaminated drinking water supplies? The Supporters:
The only opposition the Ink could find to this argument was in relation to specific reported incidents. By and large, there is no argument in supporting claims that spills and mishandled frack fluids on the surface do not contaminate drinking water supplies.
Potentially hazardous chemicals and fluids used in the fracking process are stored on the surface in tanks or pits. If not stored properly, they can leak or spill. Fluids can be stored at a centralized facility near multiple wellpads and then be transported to the well location by trucks or by pipeline. This transit period is another opportunity for leaks and spills. Fracking fluid can also spill during the fracking process. Leaks on the surface from tanks, valves, pipes, etc. as a result of mechanical failure or operator error at any point during these processes have the potential to contaminate groundwater and surface water.
Natural Resources Defense Council. “Water Facts.”
Countless stories of accidental spills of frack fluids and contaminated waste water litter the news. The Colorado Oil and Gas Information Service reported that nearly 1,000 accidental spills occurred over a three year period. That’s an average of about one spill a day. Of these, 18% negatively impacted ground water and 8% polluted surface water. According to Energy Wire, some 1,129 spill “incidents” were reported in North Dakota in 2012. An overabundance of snow in 2011 caused pits containing waste water to overflow.
The most recent debacle in North Dakota was the discovery of illegally dumped radioactive “filter socks” (long bags used to filter out solids in flow back water) in an abandoned gas station. As quoted in the Bismarck Tribune, Divide County Sheriff’s Deputy Zach Schroeder flatly stated “This is a vacant building filled with toxic waste.” Due to their radioactive nature, there aren’t even legal sites for dumping socks in North Dakota – they have to be transported out of state to regulated sites. Among the thousands of reported accidental spills, there are dozens of reports of illegal dumping. That only accounts for those that have been caught.
The Bottom Line:
This is an easy one, but frankly a bit difficult to accept considering that spills of frack fluids are happening at an alarming rate. There is simply no defense for the industry here. The data can’t be denied.
Though it may be the hauling and shipping companies that are responsible for the handling of fracking fluids and waste products, every company involved in the production process bears responsibility for creating a careless culture in which spills are seen as the price of doing business. In the haste to increase production and profits, the “Go Fever” that has gripped every shale play in the nation has resulted in a developing environmental catastrophe. Though most companies are doing a good job... some are not.
Our score: 100% true, 0% false. The Fracking Process:
Has oil and gas drilling operations led to flammable tap water? Background. The controversial documentary film “Gasland” which appeared on HBO in 2010, features several negative claims in pressing an anti-fracking agenda. The most controversial of those claims was that the process of drilling wells to frack for gas released methane gas into several water aquifers from which local residents draw their drinking water. The claims go further in stating that this migration of methane has been so significant, that some residents can literally light their water on fire. Claims of flammable water from drilling span several states, including North Dakota.
Some terms to know. Methane is a natural hydro carbon gas. Biogenic methane is created by the decomposition of organic material as is commonly seen in wetlands and is found closer to the surface. Thermogenic methane is created by the thermal decomposition of buried organic material. It is found in rocks buried deeper within the earth and is produced by drilling an oil and gas well. Thermogenic methane is generally associated with oil and gas development, while biogenic methane is not.
No. Drilling has not contaminated well water with methane. “The anti-hydraulic fracturing movie Gasland has been proven to be a scam… In Gasland’s most poignant scene, a man is filmed lighting his tap water on fire. The movie asserts that hydraulic fracturing has made this possible by contaminating nearby water sources. [Researchers] however, discovered and proved residents in the man’s neighborhood have been able to light their water on fire since at least the 1930s, long before people began producing natural gas in the area. The gas mixing with groundwater appears to be a natural phenomenon.”
Heartland.org “Gasland Producer Misled Viewers on Lighted Tap Water”
“…a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire… They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground... The average concentration of the methane detected in the water wells near drilling sites fell squarely within a range that the U.S. Department of Interior says is dangerous and requires urgent “hazard mitigation” action, according to the study.”
Propublica.org “Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking”
Again, when activists talk about fracking they are usually referring to the drilling which takes place prior to fracking. Of course, most activists aren’t educated enough on the process to be able to explain the difference as the “Ink” did for our readers in our Spring Issue. Simply, fracking is not part of the “flaming water” issue. And again, even though the Pro Publica article has “fracking” in its title, they admit that “The researchers did not find evidence that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing had contaminated any of the wells they tested.” The real question then is whether the drilling process - not fracking - can lead to methane contamination of well water.
This is probably the toughest of all the issues regarding fracking and the environment we’ve had to research as it is clear that many misleading accusations have been levelled by both sides of this argument. The documentary, “Gasland”, contains half truths and misrepresentations presented as fact within the context of questionable research gathering. However, some companies being accused of polluting ground water through drilling have quite frankly launched disturbing campaigns of litigation and intimidation against their accusers.
The problem then with the issue is that liars on both sides have filled the field with “contaminated” research. “Gasland” leads the way with such questionable methods. The State of Colorado Oil and Gas Commission (COGCC) actually makes clear where the problems lie with the film. In their words:
Gasland features three Weld County landowners, Mike Markham, Renee McClure, and Aimee Ellsworth, whose water wells were allegedly contaminated by oil and gas development. The COGCC investigated [these] complaints from all three landowners… We concluded that Ellsworth’s well contained a mixture of biogenic and thermogenic methane that was in part attributable to oil and gas development… However... we concluded that Markham’s and McClure’s wells contained biogenic gas that was not related to oil and gas activity. Unfortunately, Gasland does not mention our McClure finding and dismisses our Markham finding out of hand.
The simple truth. Many of the claims made in Gasland were not properly investigated as indeed, in some cases, flammable tap water from biogenic gases have been present in well water for decades. However, despite two of the three cases being dismissed by the COGCC, it can not be denied that one of those contamination cases was indeed the result of drilling operations. So, yes, drilling for gas through methane rich layers can release thermogenic gas into water wells where it then contaminates water… and can in some cases be lit on fire.
There are no clear conclusions to be made here other than yes, flammable tap water can occur from drilling. But what is unclear is how many of the reported cases are valid, and whether valid cases are a result of irresponsible drilling practices or simply by way of the correct drilling method itself.
Additionally, the concept of thermogenic versus biogenic methane is unclear to some degree as well. Activists argue that biogenic gas can be released into an otherwise “clean aquifer” during drilling.
The Bottom Line:
For once, the “Ink” can’t draw firm conclusions here. The research is contradictory. Yes, it is fact that in some instances, drilling has led to methane contamination of water supplies and flammable water. In other instances, it is not so clear. The point then is this: Activists say it happens all the time. Supporters of development say it never happens. It seems the truth is somewhere in the middle, but we frankly aren’t entirely sure where.
Our score: 50% true, 50% false. Fracking and the Environment:
A Final Word from the Editor
Energy Ink supports fracking. But we also support the truth, regardless of how it may be received by anyone in the industry, or by those firmly against it. It is clear that when done at appropriate depths with proper safeguards, fracking is as safe as any other industrial operation. When errors occur, the environment suffers.
I’ve given presentations on various energy issues to groups which included hardcore Republicans and devout Democrats. Every presentation finds me having to defend the truth to at least one angry individual in the audience. One liberal angrily called me a liar. One conservative said I was full of various ranching by-product. But ultimately, the vast majority of those I’ve spoken to get it. They understand that our publication has no political agenda and they truly appreciate an honest assessment of the energy industry. We hope you do too. Thanks for being a reader.