Hydro-fracking: Fact vs. fiction

Nov 05, 2012

In communities across the U.S., people are hearing more and more about a controversial oil and gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing – aka, hydro-fracking. Controversies pivot on some basic questions: Can hydro-fracking contaminate domestic wells? Does it cause earthquakes? How can we know? What can be done about these things if they are true? A wide range of researchers will address these and related critical questions at the GSA Annual Meeting this week.

"When people talk about contamination from , for instance, they can mean a lot of different things," says hydrogeologist Harvey Cohen of S.S. Papadopulos & Associates in Bethesda, Maryland. "When it's what's happening near their homes, they can mean trucks, drilling machinery, noise." These activities can potentially lead to surface water or groundwater contamination if there are, for example, accidental fuel spills. People also worry about fracking fluids leaking into the aquifers they tap for domestic or municipal water.

On the other hand, when petroleum companies talk about risks to groundwater from hydro-fracking, they are often specifically referring to the process of injecting fluids into geologic units deep underground and fracturing the rock to free the oil and gas it contains, says Cohen. This is a much smaller, much more isolated part of the whole hydraulic fracturing operation. It does not include the surface operations—or the re-injection of the fracking waste fluids at depth in other wells, which is itself another source of concern for many.

But all of these concerns can be addressed, says Cohen, who will be presenting his talk on groundwater contamination and fracking on the morning of Wednesday, 7 Nov. For instance, it has been proposed that drillers put non-toxic chemical tracers into their fracking fluids so that if a nearby domestic well is contaminated, that tracer will show up in the well water. That would sort out whether the well is contaminated from the hydro-fracking operations or perhaps from some other source, like a leaking underground storage tank or surface contaminants getting into the groundwater.

"That would be the 100 percent confident solution," says Cohen of the tracers.

Another important strategy is for concerned citizens, cities, and even oil companies to gather baseline data on water quality from wells before hydro-fracking begins. Baseline data would have been very helpful, for example, in the case of the Pavillion gas field the Wind River Formation of Wyoming, according to Cohen, because there are multiple potential sources of that have been found in domestic wells there. The Pavillion field is just one of multiple sites now being studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to learn about past and future effects of hydro-fracking on groundwater.

The same pre-fracking science approach is being taken in some areas to evaluate the seismic effects of disposing of fracking fluids by injecting them deep underground. In Ohio and Texas, this disposal method has been the prime suspect in the recent activation of old, dormant faults that have generated clusters of low intensity earthquakes. So in North Carolina, as well as other places where fracking has been proposed, some scientists are scrambling to gather as much pre-fracking seismic data as possible.

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More information: gsa.confex.com/gsa/2012AM/finalprogram/

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wiyosaya
3 / 5 (2) Nov 05, 2012
IMHO, typical brain-dead attitude which amounts to contaminate the ground water, then acknowledge that the contaminate is there - when - in case of fracking - it will be too late to clean it up.
LariAnn
3 / 5 (4) Nov 05, 2012
IMHO, typical brain-dead attitude which amounts to contaminate the ground water, then acknowledge that the contaminate is there - when - in case of fracking - it will be too late to clean it up.


It's a new take on the old idea that it is better to apologize for the damage done than to ask permission to do something that could be damaging.

Too bad that they don't take the attitude that 'if in doubt, don't do it'. If companies are held totally responsible for the problems their activities cause, they will think a lot harder to come up with solutions that won't result in problems. Otherwise, it's profit first and let the devil take the rest.
ab3a
4 / 5 (4) Nov 05, 2012
There are several issues here:

1. We need energy, NOT EXCUSES.
2. Water delivery is a matter of energy, not fresh water supply.
3. If not 'fracking, then what? Would you rather pollute the air with coal? Would you prefer the horrific risks of nuclear energy? How about the toxic and energy intensive process used to make a solar cell?

These snide, "didn't study this or didn't study that" remarks overlook the fact that none of the previous technologies were studied before they were deployed either. We can know that we need to look for certain things when we deploy, but we can not afford paralysis by analysis while the price of energy goes through the roof.

The bottom line is this: Does it cost more energy to clean up the water than we would get from fracking? If so, don't do it.
lengould100
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
The central issue is can we continue to trust the system we've always used up to now, which is essentially "companies are allowed to do whatever they can convince regulators to allow, backed with threats of dire consequences if their activities cause problems". -- OR -- do we need a new system -- OR -- should we simply never allow anything (NIMBY^2) ?

IMHO, we're making too much progress toward the third option, but I agree that the first one has/is failing, largely because (at least a subset of) companies, rather than putting effort into figuring out how not to do harm, are putting the effort into how to avoid consequences.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
If not 'fracking, then what? Would you rather pollute the air with coal?
As part of the IAP Course on COLD FUSION at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Mitchell Swartz, JET Energy, and Prof. Peter Hagelstein demonstrated a significant energy gain greater than 1400%. They used the same technology, like Fleischman and Pons did before twenty years - which means, the scientists lied about it whole one human generation. We wasted twenty years - for absolutely nothing - the scientists will be forced to accept the existence of cold fusion anyway under even much more critical financial and energetic situation.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
The comical is, the demonstration of cold fusion is very simple: it's essentially just a hot nickel wire heated in the hydrogen atmosphere. Whole world is following these demonstrations with rapt attention - but no-one is willing to replicate it. No organized or even governmental commission for cold fusion research exists in any country. With compare to it the fracking technology is already very complex and difficult. With the perspective of recent droughts the destruction of drinking water sources with hydro-fracking could become pretty double-edged decision. In connection to global warming it could depopulate whole areas of USA and make them inhabitable for decades.