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Fracking Could Work If Industry Would Come Clean

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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VANCOUVER—Resistance to hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. has risen steadily in recent months. Citizens and politicians are worried that fracking deep shales to extract natural gas can contaminate groundwater, trigger earthquakes and release methane, the potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. But a panel of experts not tied to industry told a large audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting here yesterday that the primary concerns can be solved if drilling and gas companies would impose tougher controls on their own operations, and if regulators would stiffen safety rules and crack down on violators who break them.

That realistic but optimistic tone arose primarily from conclusions made in a new study released a day earlier by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. The study of shale drilling and gas extraction in Texas and Pennsylvania determined that three basic operations at the surface of wells have the greatest potential to taint drinking water with chemicals or methane. “We did not find that fracking the shale itself was likely to contaminate groundwater,” said Chip Groat, a geologist and professor of geoscience at the university who led the study. “We did find contamination from surface spills and leaks” at the top of the well.

The main culprits were above-ground spills of chemicals used in fracking; poor installation of metal casings and concrete in the top of the well that are supposed to prevent chemicals sent down the bore hole that later come back up, as well as the methane itself, from leaking; and sloppy handling of that “flowback” water plus other wastewater when it is transferred and stored in open pits or closed tanks.

Several concrete steps (pun intended) could clean up this act, according to David Layzell, head of the University of Calgary’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economics.

  • Impose tougher regulations on how wells are constructed, and increase inspections and penalties when it’s done badly, to prevent leaks.
  • Clean and recycle the wastewater so it can be used again, instead of dumping it into ponds, which can leak, or injecting it back down into deep rock formations under high pressure for permanent storage, which has been linked to earthquakes.
  • Require well operators to capture methane that now escapes from the top of the well into the atmosphere, which Layzell estimated at 4.0 to 7.5 percent of the gas that flows back up the well.

Groat added that industry and regulators must show that “these curable issues can get cured,” in order to build public confidence that fracking can be done cleanly and safely. “I would think the gas industry, in its own self-interest, would want to do that,” Groat said.

Layzell also called for more basic research, so industry and the public have a much more exact picture of how fracking changes the environment. “How much methane is already in groundwater” before fracking begins?” he asked. “How much methane is actually leaked at the well head? There is a crying need for better baseline data.” The panel agreed that the science of fracking lags behind the spread of the technology—and that it’s high time to catch up.

Photo of drilling tower in Lycoming County, Pa., courtesy of Ruhrfisch at WikiCommons

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 3:18 pm 02/18/2012

    Companies that regulate themselves are non existent. West Virginia allows the gas companies to regulate themselves, thanks to the Bush administration, and even do their own scientific research on the safety of fracking to the environment. The gas company’s reports are riddled with lies, deceit and deception. The gas companies, and the GOP, can find no proof that fracking contaminates ground water, causes wells to explode, causes kitchen faucets to catch on fire, causes earthquakes or releases methane into the atmosphere. West Virginia, who has always been pro fossil fuel; just like Texas, takes those reports as gospel and allows the gas companies to drill wherever they want. Without stiff federal and state regulations, these companies are having a free-for-all and the people, mainly children, suffer from chronic diseases, deformities and brain damage.

    If you are actually nave enough to think that these companies are going to regulate themselves, then you are living in a dream world.

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  2. 2. marjham 6:21 pm 02/18/2012

    ….” the primary concerns can be solved if drilling and gas companies would impose tougher controls on their own operations, and if regulators would stiffen safety rules and crack down on violators who break them.”

    Wow. This “panel of experts not tied to industry” need to aquire a greater grasp of reality before they paint this very real issue with their enthusiastic naïveté.

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  3. 3. tuned 7:26 pm 02/18/2012

    Is the Texas study contaminated with oil money?
    Those affected by it already or in the zones of frakking may be as leery of it as I.
    The list of chemicals posted by the EPA( EPA/600/R-11/122/November 2011/www.epa.gov/research ) is a Frankenstein horror recipe of cancers/poisons the slightest of which is deadly (arsenic, cyanide, benzenes…).
    The Texas study seems unaware of how frakking works at the point of impact.
    Many of the hazards are also lighter than water solvents and may rise UP gradually, as of course methane can.

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  4. 4. tuned 7:28 pm 02/18/2012

    Also, last time I heard of unregulated businesses they were drug cartels. Feel safer?

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  5. 5. PeteBruce 9:28 pm 02/18/2012

    This statement on the University of Texas website lays out $1.5 million in funding from Houston based ConocoPhillips, given to the Energy Institute.

    http://giving.utexas.edu/2010/11/01/conocophillips-energy-research/

    I’m not sure what criteria satisfy the requirements for being “experts not tied to the industry.” But this seems to be evidence of some tie…

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  6. 6. scottmcnally 9:48 pm 02/18/2012

    @Jamesdavis – Can you highlight some instances where these reports are deceptive and decitful? Or give some examples of how they lie? I hear this all the time, but I haven’t heard of anybody point out any specific lies.

    @tuned – I think you are missing the point of this article. How its written: Water contamination is caused mainly by bad drilling and cementing jobs (not fracking). Gas drillers need to get their act together and have more complete drilling and cementing procedures so that they don’t contaminate water. If they do this, there will be less resistance to drilling.
    It also says, “if regulators would stiffen safety rules and crack down on violators who break them.”

    How you read it: These evil oil people are corrupt with money and don’t want any regulation. They are like drug dealers.

    Are we reading different articles?

    @marjham – how are they enthusiastically naieve?

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  7. 7. babby 12:49 am 02/19/2012

    When big bucks are involved, industries MUST be regulated stringently. The dollar signs in their eyes blind corporate types to all other considerations.

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  8. 8. engineer.sci 4:53 am 02/19/2012

    Realizing the money, political pressure, and complexity of the study proposed and the ease with which model, measurement, and analysis can be manipulated — can there be any doubt of railroading whether the actualities are minor or horrific?

    Perhaps we really need to look at what present and future energy is being used for in terms of needless product duplication and products, premature obsolescence, etc. What order of magnitude in the system is pure waste? Is it worth the dangers to maintain the present levels of production?

    Lemmings into the sea is not progress. We must think about what we are doing, not just harder — but more fundamentally.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 7:19 am 02/19/2012

    scottmcnally:
    “Water contamination is caused mainly by bad drilling and cementing jobs (not fracking). Gas drillers need to get their act together and have more complete drilling and cementing procedures so that they don’t contaminate water.”

    I suspect that independent gas drillers’ procedures are regulated by operational costs and narrow profit margins. In that sense gas drillers already “have their act together,” thanks you.

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  10. 10. JamesDavis 8:07 am 02/19/2012

    “scottmcnally “, you are one of those people who live in a dream world, aren’t you. You cannot be nave enough to believe that these companies are going to post their findings in a journal of any kind, do you? You have to attend one of their specially called community meetings where the company CEO, or scientist, as they like to be called, gets up and tells the people that there is no danger in fracking around their water table because the drill goes through the water table and is then sheeted with a tube to keep the fracking fluid from getting into the water supply and gravity keeps it from coming back up through the ground. It is impossible, they say, for the fluid to get into the water, and the abnormal amount of methane that clouds the water a brown color is a natural occurrence and has nothing to do with the fracking. You would have to be a stupid idiotic moron to believe that, when your water was not like that before the fracking started.

    If you attend their community meeting, you have to sign a paper stating that you will not disclose, under pendently of law, to any media outlet what you hear or see because it is the company’s right to keep their fluid formula private and safe from the prying eyes of other companies. You also are not allowed to have any recording devices on you, camera or take notes, and they also stock the audience with company employees with an IQ of three year olds who every now and then stand up and cheer the company for providing them a job, with good benefits. So if you, “scottmcnally”, want to see reports, you will have to attend one of their community meetings.

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  11. 11. JamesDavis 8:21 am 02/19/2012

    P.S. “scottmcnally”. The community meetings are never held in the community where they are extracting the gas, oil or coal; it is held hundreds of miles away and starts at around 7:00 AM. So, if you want to attend one of their meetings; pack you a suitcase.

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  12. 12. N a g n o s t i c 12:27 pm 02/19/2012

    JamesDavis, but what do you think of fracking?

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  13. 13. SuperString 12:30 pm 02/19/2012

    @scottmcnally. As you can see, a die-hard cadre of warmists and fossil fuel haters abound in the comment section of reports like this; you gain nothing save an anger set at slow-boil attempting to point out positive aspects of fossil fuel reclamation industries such as “fracking”. That being said, they are all intelligent, well-informed posts that raise valid points. Their loathing of the industry, however, leaks worse than the poorly sealed shafts and well-heads they decry. And rightly so I might add; the industry has little incentive on its own to correct the pollution-inducing defects inherent in their well-head designs and until they ARE corrected fracking SHOULD halt. We need energy, true, but we need the clean ground water and environment more. I hope they can because natural gas DOES burn cleaner than any other fossil fuel. P.S.@JamesDavis. Sir, please clean up your spelling to two otherwise excellent posts: A nave is an area behind the altar of a church. You clearly meant naive. Good Luck to all, and remember to turn the lights out when you leave.

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  14. 14. N a g n o s t i c 12:43 pm 02/19/2012

    scottmcnally, commentary at scientificamerican.com tends to be heavily weighted towards the left end of the spectrum, and is infused with much Green and animal-rights sentiment. Those exhibiting these anti-corporate views are very quick to demonize anything having to do with the petroleum industry, and would rather see no fracking at all. They’re not interested in cleaning it up.

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  15. 15. JamesDavis 1:44 pm 02/19/2012

    “N a g n o s t i c”, there are better ways of extracting natural gas, which my home is heated by, than exploding the fragile shell rock around water tables and communities. West Virginia is even looking into what it would cost to convert all the government vehicles over to natural gas and anyone else who want to convert theirs, they will pay for. I will never convert my vehicle because I want to get away from the gas pumps and use natural clean sunshine to charge my electric car that is zero polluting while I am driving it, but WV will not give any incentives to help install solar like they will to convert your vehicle to NG. We do not need NG, so I can find no good reason to frack for it. I can convert my home over to solar and save myself a fortune on gas and electric bills, and my electric car is already saving me a fortune on gasoline and oil costs and the usual ICE upkeep costs.

    @SuperString, sorry about the spelling error…sometimes my fingers get tangled up when my spellchecker gives more than 500 different spellings.

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  16. 16. r2vettes 1:17 am 02/20/2012

    Okay, so I’m blinded by the big bucks. I have land in the Haynesville Shale(NW LA.) I get my regular royalty checks as do so many others here. No one here complains. The eyebrows that have been raised locally are from outsiders. The well water is regularly tested. There are responsible drillers here. So many rags to riches stories in this area. No bad economy either. Unfortunately we are awash in Chicken Little’s who proclaim the sky is falling. There are so many travel trailer parks which house otherwise out of work people who have come to reap the benefits of a good economy and jobs.

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  17. 17. r2vettes 1:20 am 02/20/2012

    Does anyone here even have a clue how deep the fracked wells are drilled? Can anyone imagine 20,000 ft.?

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  18. 18. OntCanuck 9:07 am 02/20/2012

    This on one hand is good to hear that things could be done well. The reality is that the U.S. government under the Bush team wrote them a blank check making it impossible to sue them for these very problems. How can you get a group who only care about the bottom line to do things the right way when they have already made it impossible to deal with them. The larger question is how can any government supposedly for the people sell them out so cheaply when there is no reason at all!

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  19. 19. InquiringConstructivist 11:44 am 02/20/2012

    r2v,
    I live on a hill. I can see the other side of town, another hill. It is 4 miles away. It is very easy to imagine 20,000 feet because I can see a house over there that is 20,000 feet away. I can imagine running a pipe from my house to that house, and filling that pipe with fluids. I can imagine being careful and double checking and triple checking the seals on my end to make sure I don’t spill anything, but I can also imagine making the mistake of hiring a drunken idiot who doesn’t know how to attach part Q to part 24B, just like she can’t pluralize a proper noun like Chicken Little without throwing in an extra apostrophe incorrectly, and because the assembly wasn’t perfectly assembled, the seal blows and my house is covered in diesel and surfactants.
    In conclusion, by making a stupid spelling mistake, you’ve proven that even brilliant analysts like yourself make mistakes, so why should we trust that mediocre riggers wouldn’t make any mistakes?

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  20. 20. scottmcnally 8:56 am 02/22/2012

    Jamesdavis – You say your home is heated by natural gas. You also say there are better ways to get it. What are the better ways?
    Do you understand that the cause of underground water contamination is almost always the result of bad drilling and cementing jobs? Do you disagree that this is the cause?

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  21. 21. PaulRoden 12:32 pm 02/24/2012

    Asking the gas and oil drillers to self regulate is like asking foxes to guard the hen houses, it won’t work. Besides, they have the Haliburtton Loophole to exempt them from any Federal Regulation. And in PA, they can come in and supercede any local ordinance by a municipality. For a pittance of an “extraction fee” they can make of with millions for a hundred years of gas that will destroy our environment. Drill casings only last at best 100 years. Who is going to monitor and pay for the mitigation? Where is all of this water to be used in the anticipated 50,000 gas wells in the Marcellus Shale going to come from? Who is going to clean up the water and the sludge from any water treatment plant that the “produced water” brine and “flowback” is taken to? The waste water is supposed to be deep well injected which is now causing earthquakes. A well blowout in Bradford County PA, contaminated local streams and the water shed of the Susquehanna. The state of Maryland is now suing Chesapeake Energy who took 13 hours to send an emergency response team to deal with the well blow out. Safe, cheap economical, I don’t think so. And the industry is just getting started. Before we permanently destroy the Delaware Water Shed, I suggest reading the November 2009 issue of Scientific American by Jacobson and Delluchi. We can transition to a renewable energy economy without fossil fuel or nuclear energy. Fracking is just like nuclear power. It is too dangerous, too expensive and unneccesary for our energy needs.

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  22. 22. singing flea 2:22 am 05/22/2012

    “Groat added that industry and regulators must show that “these curable issues can get cured,” in order to build public confidence that fracking can be done cleanly and safely. “I would think the gas industry, in its own self-interest, would want to do that,” Groat said.”

    Why would the gas industry care in the first place? The industry is run by people that are only in it for the money. They know better then anyone that it is never going to be a sustainable industry. It is a winner takes all strategy before sanity catches up and these greed mongers get booted back to hell. All it will take is a few more nasty screw ups and the public pressure to stop it will go nation wide. It is already getting thumbs down in many parts of the country.

    People have a lot more tolerance for corporate irresponsibility when it happens in remote places like the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but when it happens in their own turf, they get smarter real quick.

    The real question that has not been truthfully answered by the gas companies is how long will these well casings last. The fact is that they are not plugging the holes with the same material that they drilled them out of. Unless it can be proven that the wells can be plugged for millions of years after they bore through the rock and fracture it all, which it impossible, we are all just being told one lie after another (just like BP did in the gulf and is still lying about the long term damage).

    It’s a classic case of when, not if, a catastrophic failure will occur. With tens of thousands of wells already drilled it will be too late to do anything but curse our generation for the future inhabitants of this polluted wreck of a planet.

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