A new look at what's in 'fracking' fluids raises red flags

Aug 13, 2014
Scientists are getting to the bottom of what's in fracking fluids — with some troubling results. Credit: Doug Duncan/U.S. Geological Survey

As the oil and gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") proliferates, a new study on the contents of the fluids involved in the process raises concerns about several ingredients. The scientists presenting the work today at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) say that out of nearly 200 commonly used compounds, there's very little known about the potential health risks of about one-third, and eight are toxic to mammals.

William Stringfellow, Ph.D., says he conducted the review of fracking contents to help resolve the public debate over the controversial drilling practice. Fracking involves injecting water with a mix of chemical additives into rock formations deep underground to promote the release of and gas. It has led to a natural gas boom in the U.S., but it has also stimulated major opposition and troubling reports of contaminated well water, as well as increased air pollution near drill sites.

"The industrial side was saying, 'We're just using food additives, basically making ice cream here,'" Stringfellow says. "On the other side, there's talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, 'What's the real story?'"

To find out, Stringfellow's team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of the Pacific scoured databases and reports to compile a list of substances commonly used in fracking. They include gelling agents to thicken the , biocides to keep microbes from growing, sand to prop open tiny cracks in the rocks and compounds to prevent pipe corrosion.

What their analysis revealed was a little truth to both sides' stories—with big caveats. Fracking fluids do contain many nontoxic and food-grade materials, as the industry asserts. But if something is edible or biodegradable, it doesn't automatically mean it can be easily disposed of, Stringfellow notes.

"You can't take a truckload of ice cream and dump it down the storm drain," he says, building on the industry's analogy. "Even manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down rather than releasing them directly into the environment."

His team found that most fracking compounds will require treatment before being released. And, although not in the thousands as some critics suggest, the scientists identified eight substances, including biocides, that raised red flags. These eight compounds were identified as being particularly toxic to mammals.

"There are a number of chemicals, like corrosion inhibitors and biocides in particular, that are being used in reasonably high concentrations that potentially could have adverse effects," Stringfellow says. "Biocides, for example, are designed to kill bacteria—it's not a benign material."

They're also looking at the environmental impact of the fracking fluids, and they are finding that some have toxic effects on aquatic life.

In addition, for about one-third of the approximately 190 compounds the scientists identified as in various formulas, the scientists found very little information about toxicity and physical and chemical properties.

"It should be a priority to try to close that data gap," Stringfellow says.

Explore further: Another concern arises over groundwater contamination from fracking accidents

More information: Title: Characterizing compounds used in hydraulic fracturing: A necessary step for understanding environmental impacts

Abstract
Hydraulic fracturing (HF), a method to enhance oil and gas production, has become increasingly common throughout the U.S. As such, it is important to characterize the chemicals found in HF fluid to evaluate potential environmental and human health impacts. Eighty-one common HF chemical additives were identified and categorized according to their functions. Physical and chemical characteristics of these additives were determined using publicly available chemical information databases. Fifty-four of the compounds are organic and twenty-seven of these are considered readily biodegradable. Twenty-one chemicals have high theoretical oxygen demands and are used in concentrations that present potential treatment challenges. Most of the HF chemicals evaluated were non-toxic or of low toxicity and only four were classified as Category 2 oral toxins and one as a Category 1 inhalation toxin according standards in the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals; however, toxicity information was not located for thirty-four of the HF chemicals evaluated. Volatilization is not expected to be a significant exposure pathway for most HF chemicals. Gaps in toxicity and other chemical properties suggests deficiencies in the current state of knowledge, highlighting the need for further assessment to understand potential issues associated with HF chemicals in the environment.

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Doug_Huffman
1.4 / 5 (9) Aug 13, 2014
LOL Re-research until the desired conclusion is reached. It is not possible to sustain an assertion of non-existence, as of harm in this case, without examination of the entire universe of discussion. Benoit Mandelbrot called reality "fractally complex" so any subset of the fractal set is as complex; yielding infinite grist for the progressives and Luddites to mill.
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (10) Aug 13, 2014
Sooooo...does anyone have an idea of how to get that gunk back up? Thought so.

Using a technology without a plan B is just stupid.

Re-research until the desired conclusion is reached.

So, what you are saying is: "let's dump stuff down without having a look what it is or what it does - everything is going to be peachy!"
Is that really your basic attitude to interacting with the environment? Really?
greenhope
4.2 / 5 (6) Aug 13, 2014
Does this include the proprietary ingredients that companies don't share? Does it consider the "new" nasty stuff that is created from the chemicals combining with what is naturally occurring in the ground? What you don't know CAN hurt you!
Doug_Huffman
1.4 / 5 (9) Aug 13, 2014
LOL Grind, Luddites, grind!
Watebba
5 / 5 (4) Aug 13, 2014
the scientists identified eight substances, including biocides, that raised red flags. These eight compounds were identified as being particularly toxic to mammals
Everyone of chemists knew, that the tobacco smoke contains tars and tars are known to be carcinogenic from 19th century - it was just covered before public. Analogously, the composition of fracking fluids has been known ten years before. Of course these connections were covered many years before public for to help the fracking industry in expansion. But every my post about toxicity of fracking fluids has been downvoted here into oblivion. From some reason even the layman trolls here don't want to hear the truth - despite they don't profit from cracking industry not least a bit. So why we should be surprised, when the shale gas lobby hides these facts before public?
antigoracle
1 / 5 (6) Aug 13, 2014
Sooooo...does anyone have an idea of how to get that gunk back up? Thought so.

No need to, it will find a way. Incidentally they have been pumping this stuff into the ground for decades in third world countries.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Aug 14, 2014
No need to, it will find a way.

How exactly (other than through your drinking water supply?)

Incidentally they have been pumping this stuff into the ground for decades in third world countries.

Third world countries don't exactly have a stellar environmental record. Gas/oil fields where this had been used have been out of the way so far (russian wastelands , middle East or north African oil/gas fields, etc. - so we any poisoning of groundwater would have gone unnoticed. But we're talking about using this stuff now in well populated areas (and agricultural areas).

Prepared to lay entire regions to waste for a few cubic meters of gas when non-polluting alternatives are readily available (and cheaper)?
alfie_null
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 14, 2014
I have this sense of being caught in the middle of two highly polarized views. A relative understanding of how much and how harmful (even if it's only a carefully thought extrapolation) would be more helpful than just being told over and over that the sky is falling. On the other side, every time an oil or drilling company exec opens his mouth to defend the practice, I'd like to see him wrap his lips around a brimming glass of the stuff.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.6 / 5 (7) Aug 14, 2014
I have this sense of being caught in the middle of two highly polarized views
Yah here is 2 from the same poster.
Sooooo...does anyone have an idea of how to get that gunk back up? Thought so...
versus
middle East or north African oil/gas fields, etc
So we pump dangerous stuff FROM the same place as we want to pump allegedly dangerous stuff TO. Have we ever been concerned about the dangerous stuff thats already there? No.
so we any poisoning of groundwater would have gone unnoticed
The only way fracking affects groundwater is from surface spills and casing leaks. It does not return from depth.
But we're talking about using this stuff now in well populated areas (and agricultural areas)
There arent many people or cows a few miles underground.
lay entire regions to waste
Stop frothing. Fracking fluids are not radioactive.
alternatives are readily available (and cheaper)?
There are no alternatives to fossil fuels for energy and transportation.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 14, 2014
Speaking of (actually) dangerous stuff in your backyard, how about these?

"Hydrofluoric acid is a solution of anhydrous hydrogen fluoride in water... usually shipped by railcar or in smaller tanks"

"chlorine, sodium and potassium hydroxides, sodium hypochlorite, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous hydrogen chloride... transported in bulk by rail in tank cars, by highway in cargo tanks, and by waterway in barge. For non-bulk distribution, CI is primarily focused on the highway transport of chlorine in 150-lb. cylinders and one-ton containers."

"gas-powered lawn mowers. But did you know when you put all those little spills together, it's estimated (by the EPA) to add up to more than the oil dumped by the Exxon Valdez – 17 million gallons! And that's in just one year."

-But aa isnt concerned because he didnt read about them with all that alarmist misanthropoetry verbiage found in euro newsrags.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Aug 14, 2014
The only bad thing about fracking is that it's keeping fossil fuels economic into the foreseeable future. The only danger with fracking (as there is danger in virtually all industrial activities) is a crack or leak "high up" in the injection process that could actually contaminate the water table. Once it's at depth the stuff might as well be on the moon...
EnergySage
not rated yet Aug 14, 2014
There ought to be more regulations for the potential threat fracking has on our groundwater supplies; oil and gas companies shouldn't have this kind of free reign. When it comes to pollution and elevated methane levels in our drinking water we cannot wait for the politicians to act. You can reduce your emissions and save generate cleaner energy with solar energy. Learn more about how you can reduce pollution while saving with solar. http://bit.ly/1k48oao
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Aug 15, 2014
There ought to be more regulations for the potential threat fracking has on our groundwater supplies;


Which regulations specifically. When someone says "more regulation is needed" it's like saying "more money is needed"....to what end though. Money qua money solves nothing, regulation qua regulation can be worse than nothing.

Do you want to ban all fracking? You'd better have more than the very thin evidence that it's doing anything bad at this point if you do.

Do you want full disclosure of the chemicals used? I wouldn't mind that one under very specific circumstances.

What exactly do you mean when you say that, because just saying it sounds like you really haven't given it much thought or you're perhaps a bit ignorant of the facts. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you actually have thought about it and can be more specific...
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Aug 15, 2014
Which regulations specifically. When someone says "more regulation is needed" it's like saying "more money is needed"....

It's not that black and white.

You could also argue that if someone says "less regulation is needed" then that will result in "more money is needed"...because it will result in companies just dumping and polluting (no regulation, so no incentive to be circumspect, which would just diminish profits). But in the end someone has to clean up the mess. And that someone is the taxpayer - always.

Regulations are there so that the taxpayer does not have to come in and clean up after big business has had its fun and metaphorically trashed the hotel room. You only need a nanny state if companies act in a way that proclaims: "We're too irresponsible. We still need a nanny. "
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
It's not that black and white.


Well, thank you for that opinion, but how effective would a regulation that stated drillers could only eat cream filled doughnuts when drilling be? How exactly does that address any problems with fracking you might identify?

I'm afraid it IS quite black and white. You need to be specific about what you want to do, why, and how you get there with which regulation. Not doing that more diligently is what as turned a significant portion of the public against a vast amount of regulation (be it beneficial or wasteful).

IOW, fine we may need a nanny, but whether or not it's Mary Poppins vs. Nurse Rached is quite black and white...
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
Mary Poppins only works if the kids already want to play nice (i.e. if you just want to protect kids from making dumb mistakes)
Companies might be greedy and evil - but they aren't dumb. What they (by all precedent throughout corporate history) need to keep them from going off the rails is Nurse Ratchet - with the Lobotomy gun pointed at their foreheads 24/7.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
How exactly (other than through your drinking water supply?)

Actually, this would be our luckiest scenario, as it may be detected early. A worst scenario is if it made it up the food chain, becoming more concentrated as it reached us.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
Mary Poppins only works if the kids already want to play nice (i.e. if you just want to protect kids from making dumb mistakes)
Companies might be greedy and evil - but they aren't dumb. What they (by all precedent throughout corporate history) need to keep them from going off the rails is Nurse Ratchet - with the Lobotomy gun pointed at their foreheads 24/7.


So, you just admitted my point really....

It absolutely DOES make a difference what regulatory approach we use and that absolutely is a black and white concept.
axemaster
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
It's sad how fracking manages to be bad in almost every way.

1. It leads to dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, threatening civilization.
2. It stop a direct switch from oil to renewables.
3. It sucks up federal money that ought to be going to accelerate renewables (primarily solar).
4. It very likely leads to permanent contamination of the water supply.

Let me put it this way - if reality were the Civilization game and you were the player, what would you do? Switching from oil to gas is very expensive, and it continues to cause damage - in the case of the water supply, irreparable damage. It makes a lot more sense to switch directly to renewables. The setup cost is higher, but the long term rewards and mitigation of environmental costs is well worth it.
eachus
not rated yet Aug 17, 2014
axemaster said:

1. It leads to dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, threatening civilization.

2. It stop a direct switch from oil to renewables.


I'll ignore the other points because they involve politics as well, but these two are just wrong. Fracking has already led to a significant reduction in CO2 production in the US. Gas cogeneration plants are cheaper to build and run today than coal burning power plants. Most of the energy from coal involves converting carbon to CO2, while most of the energy in natural gas comes from forming water. (CH4 + 2O2 --> CO2 + 2H2O)

As for the second point (well I do have to touch politics for a bit) "pure" electric cars are not selling. Hybrid cars like the Prius are much more popular. You can try burdensome government regulations to force people to buy the cars they don't want, or you can expect future cars to be either hybrid electric and H2 fuel cell cars, or fuel cells run from say methanol. Fracking will power such cars.
axemaster
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
My points were not wrong. Gas may produce 1/2 the CO2 of oil for instance, but that doesn't mean that by mining gas you're reducing the total CO2 produced. Fracking opens up a new carbon reserve for exploitation, period. Instead of switching from oil to renewables, now we are switching from oil to gas.

In terms of cars... Pure electric cars aren't selling because the recharging stations aren't in place yet. That's why Tesla released all their patents to the public domain - they want to stimulate growth in the infrastructure. Moreover, electric cars are capable of vastly superior performance compared to gas engines. As soon as the range and cost issues are solved, likely within the next few years, they will start taking over the market. Hybrids are destined to be little more than a footnote in history.