How to get a handle on potential risks posed by fracking fluids

March 9, 2016
How to get a handle on potential risks posed by fracking fluids

The latest skirmishes over hydraulic fracturing in Florida and California are, at their core, about water. Many fracking-related spills have been recorded, and opponents say that such incidents pose unacceptable threats to water supplies. But the issue is fraught with uncertainties. Scientists review what's known about the fluids in ACS' journal Environmental Science & Technology and conclude that a comprehensive assessment of potential risks requires full disclosure of fracking fluid contents.

The expansion of fracking in recent years has lowered energy costs for customers and is expected to continue its growth for the next several years, industry experts have reported. But the used to crack shale formations to release their gas and oil reserves are under increasing scrutiny. While many are considered harmless, others are known toxins or carcinogens. And there are substances that oil and gas companies use in fracking operations that they don't disclose publicly. But in a recent review article, Martin Elsner and Kathrin Hoelzer note several reasons why these companies should list all the compounds involved.

The researchers say transparency could go a long way toward improving these operations. Among other benefits, full disclosure could allow for better monitoring of waterways for potential contamination. It also could help in assessing what new compounds might form from underground chemical reactions. Although some fluid additives might be non-toxic to start, they could react with other substances once injected into a well and form new potentially harmful products, the team explains. A complete listing could also contribute to improving the treatment of wastewater from fracking operations to remove potential toxins before they can contaminate aquifers, rivers and lakes. In addition to knowing the starting materials, the researchers say cataloging naturally occurring compounds that seep into the fluids from underground deposits is critical.

Explore further: Toxins found in fracking fluids and wastewater, study shows

More information: Martin Elsner et al. Quantitative Survey and Structural Classification of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals Reported in Unconventional Gas Production, Environmental Science & Technology (2016). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b02818

Abstract
Much interest is directed at the chemical structure of hydraulic fracturing (HF) additives in unconventional gas exploitation. To bridge the gap between existing alphabetical disclosures by function/CAS number and emerging scientific contributions on fate and toxicity, we review the structural properties which motivate HF applications, and which determine environmental fate and toxicity. Our quantitative overview relied on voluntary U.S. disclosures evaluated from the FracFocus registry by different sources and on a House of Representatives ("Waxman") list. Out of over 1000 reported substances, classification by chemistry yielded succinct subsets able to illustrate the rationale of their use, and physicochemical properties relevant for environmental fate, toxicity and chemical analysis. While many substances were nontoxic, frequent disclosures also included notorious groundwater contaminants like petroleum hydrocarbons (solvents), precursors of endocrine disruptors like nonylphenols (nonemulsifiers), toxic propargyl alcohol (corrosion inhibitor), tetramethylammonium (clay stabilizer), biocides or strong oxidants. Application of highly oxidizing chemicals, together with occasional disclosures of putative delayed acids and complexing agents (i.e., compounds designed to react in the subsurface) suggests that relevant transformation products may be formed. To adequately investigate such reactions, available information is not sufficient, but instead a full disclosure of HF additives is necessary.

Related Stories

Toxins found in fracking fluids and wastewater, study shows

January 7, 2016

In an analysis of more than 1,000 chemicals in fluids used in and created by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Yale School of Public Health researchers found that many of the substances have been linked to reproductive and ...

Finding out what's in 'fracking' wastewater

March 18, 2015

In early January, almost 3 million gallons of wastewater from a hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") operation in North Dakota spilled into nearby creeks. The accident highlighted ongoing concerns about what's in fracking fluids ...

Recommended for you

Foreign farms increase the risk of conflicts in Africa

September 28, 2016

For the first time, researchers point to areas in Africa where foreign agricultural companies' choice of crops and management of fresh water are partly responsible for the increased water shortages and greater competition ...

Unusual martian region leaves clues to planet's past

September 27, 2016

Researcher Don Hood from LSU and colleagues at collaborating universities studied an unusual region on Mars—an area with high elevation called Thaumasia Planum. They analyzed the geography and mineralogy of this area they ...

Thirsty megacities poisoning rural groundwater: study

September 27, 2016

A massive drawdown of water beneath delta-based megacities across the world may be pulling surface pollution deeper into the ground, risking contamination and health problems for local populations, a new study said Tuesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.