The Fracking Fallacy

by Emil Morhardt

The December 4, 2014 issue of the scientific journal Nature takes the position that the current abundance of natural gas in the US derived from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing may be a much shorter-term phenomenon than most analysts have thought. In both an editorial and an opinion piece (not however in a scientific paper) the journal takes issue with the US Energy Administration’s (USEA) assessment that natural gas production in the US will continue to grow for a quarter century, at least. Nature relies on the opinions of a team of researchers at the University of Texas, and cites a 2013 paper (Patzek, 2012)) by members of the team which now consists of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers, and economists. That paper examines extraction data from 2,057 such wells in the oldest US shale play, the Barnett Shale in Texas, and concludes that they started to decline at an exponential rate in ten years or less, and goes on to predict the total amount of gas that will be produced by their overall sample of 8,294 wells; 10–20 trillion standard cubic feet over the next 50 years. Continue reading

Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals

by Shannon Julius

Hydraulic fracturing requires a large quantity of fluid; most estimates place the amount at 2 to 4 million gallons per well. This fluid is composed of 90% water, 8–9.5% proppants (sand which is needed to keep fractures open once hydraulic fracturing occurs), and 0.5–2% chemicals. Companies that perform hydraulic fracturing invest time and resources into creating their fracturing fluid formulas, so they insist on keeping those formulas proprietary because revealing the information could cause the company to lose its competitive edge. However, some common fracturing chemicals have been identified and are known to cause adverse human health effects, so keeping the composition of fracturing fluid confidential could be dangerous in the case of an emergency situation. Even in normal operating circumstances, these fracturing fluids could theoretically make their way into surface water or groundwater because hydraulic fracturing creates new flow paths through deep shale formations and speeds up the natural flow of fluids closer to the surface or aquifers. Maule et al. (2013) investigated recent efforts to regulate the disclosure of fracturing chemicals. Current systems in place include a voluntary reporting website, limited state regulation, and no federal regulation. Regulation efforts have faced problems of exemptions or loopholes, inadequate or incomplete information reporting, lack of enforcement, and competing state and federal interests. Continue reading

Fracking: Fix it or Forget It? Global Gas and Oil Prices Falling.

by Emil Morhardt

Daniel E. Klein, an energy industry consultant, writes an interesting piece about fracking problems in Natural Gas & Electricity, an industry newsletter. His approach is to look at the prognostications of the Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook (AEO)—pretty much the bible of energy projections—as they have changed from 2000 to projections of where we will stand in 2040. For example, there wasn’t much shale gas until 2005 and in 2005 the AEO predicted that US natural gas imports would increase sharply in the near future. The 2014 projection, however shows the opposite: a steady increase in US exports, at least through 2024. Similarly, “peak oil” in the US has also been reversed by shale oil production, with the crude oil production in 2013 the highest in 25 years, and imports falling sharply, at least so far. Yesterday, the news was that OPEC was debating, on the one hand, decreasing oil production, so as to increase global oil prices and therefore revenues (four members wanted that), or letting production stand so as to lower prices even further to put price pressure on American fracking operations. The latter option won, at least until June when OPEC meets again, but in the short term oil prices will have little effect on American oil operations. Continue reading

Fracking in South Texas: Spatial Landscape Impacts

by Emil Morhardt

In a Master’s thesis from the University of Texas at Austin, Jon Paul Pierre presents an interesting analysis of the effects of development (which includes a good deal of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing) in the Eagle Ford Shale play in South Texas, where more than 5,000 wells have been drilled since 2008. What he sets out to do is assess the spatial fragmentation of the landscape from the construction of drilling pads, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure. He used 2012 aerial photography with a 1-m resolution obtained from the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), and over laid on that the locations of well pads, pipelines, and other infrastructure, then used Geographical Information System (GIS) tools to characterize the types of areas being disturbed. Continue reading

Shale Gas Well Drilling and Wastewater Treatment Impacts on Surface Water Quality in Pennsylvania

by Shannon Julius

Shale gas development can affect surface water quality by means of runoff from well construction and discharge from wastewater treatment facilities. Olmstead et al. (2013) conducted a large-scale statistical study of the extent to which these two activities affect surface water quality downstream. This study is different than most current literature related to the regional water impacts of shale gas development in that it focuses on impacts to surface water bodies as opposed to groundwater bodies. Researchers consulted online databases to retrieve locations of shale gas wells and wastewater treatment facilities within Pennsylvania. These were spatially related to downstream water quality monitors using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Concentrations of chloride (Cl–) and total suspended solids (TSS) were used as indicators of water quality because both are associated with shale gas development and are measured by water quality monitors. Shale gas wastewater typically has a high concentration of Cl–, which can directly damage aquatic ecosystems and is not easily removed once dissolved in water. TSS, which harm water quality by increasing temperature and reducing clarity, can potentially come from the construction of well pads, pipelines, and roads associated with well drilling, especially when precipitation creates sediment runoff. Results of the study suggest that wastewater treatment facilities are responsible for raised concentrations of Cl– downstream and that the presence of gas wells are correlated with raised concentrations of TSS downstream. Continue reading

Marcellus Shale Gas Wastewater Management

by Shannon Julius

Since 2008, the Marcellus shale formation has become the most productive region for extracting shale gas in the US. Managing wastewater for these operations is a challenge not only due to their size and distribution, but also because of the different types of contaminants that are present in various types of wastewater. Rahm et al. (2013) retrieved data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Oil and Gas Reporting website from 2008 to 2011 to look for the trends and drivers of Marcellus shale wastewater management. After analysis using internet resources and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the authors found that there was a statewide shift towards wastewater reuse and injection disposal treatment methods and away from publicly owned treatment works (POTW) use. These wastewater management trends are likely due to new regulations and policies, media and public scrutiny, and natural gas prices. Research also shows that Marcellus shale development has influenced conventional gas wastewater practices and led to more efficient wastewater transportation. Continue reading

Instead of Flaring Natural Gas at Fracked Oil Wells, Use it to Treat Fracking Fluid

by Emil Morhardt

Seems like a good idea. Yael Rebecca Glazer just suggested it in a Masters Thesis in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. A major issue with fracking is that sometimes a lot of the fracking fluid that was pumped down the well to create the fractures comes back up, sometimes along with additional “produced” water, sometimes twice as much as was pumped down in the first place. On top of that, it is often so contaminated that it exceeds the capabilities of industrial treatment facilities, so it gets trucked to a nearby injection well and is reinserted. But injection wells are not always handy, and anyway, the water itself would be valuable if it weren’t so polluted. Meanwhile, although a fracked well might producing mainly oil, there is also often a fair amount of natural gas produced; but if there isn’t enough gas to make it economical to capture it and sell it, it is commonly flared—burned right there at the wellhead. This converts the natural gas to CO2 without using the energy released for anything at all. Maybe, thought Ms. Glazer, that free energy could be used onsite to power wastewater cleanup technologies that normally wouldn’t be considered because of their high energy costs. It also occurred to her that since lots of these wells are in the sunny, windy southwestern US, local photovoltaic panels or wind turbines might supply energy as well. This latter option is attractive when there are no convenient transmission lines to take the power offsite, even though solar or wind energy is abundant. Continue reading

Try Not to Live Too Close to a Fracked Well

by Emil Morhardt

If you happen to live within 1 km of a hydraulically fractured well in Pennsylvania, and you get your water supply from a well, you stand about twice as large a chance of having skin and upper respiratory problems than if you live 2 km or farther away; you have over 3 health symptoms, on average—people further away have only 1.6. Looked at another way,13% of people living near fracking operations have upper respiratory problems, versus 3% living farther away; and 39% of the same group of people have upper respiratory problems versus 18% living further away. That is the disturbing result of an epidemiological study of almost 500 people in an area of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, just published in a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Rabinowitz et al. 2014). Continue reading

Biotic Impacts of Fracking

by Emil Morhardt

How does shale-bed energy development, including hydraulic fracturing, affect ecology? There have been a number of studies looking into this, and a new review paper by Sara Souther at the University of Wisconsin and seven colleagues at a diverse array of other institutions summarizes the current knowledge and where the gaps are in it. Their legitimate fear is that much damage will be done before much is known about the issues, and there is plenty of experience with other rapid industrial development to warrant concern. As an example, consider the damming of nearly all the rivers on both the east and west coasts of the US with little attention paid to the consequences for salmon.

The big issues they identify are subsurface and surface water contamination by fracking Continue reading

Methane Migration from Shale Gas Extraction Contaminates Drinking Water in Pennsylvania

by Shannon Julius

Perhaps the biggest environmental and health concern related to shale gas development is the possibility of contaminants leaking from the well shaft into nearby groundwater supplies. The first sign of such leakage would be stray methane in groundwater, as methane is a small enough molecule to move through tiny spaces and easily dissolves in water. Jackson et al. explored the possibility of stray gas contamination by testing for concentrations of methane, ethane, and propane in drinking water wells of homes in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania. The researchers generally found higher amounts of dissolved gases in drinking water wells less than one kilometer from a natural gas well. Statistical analysis showed that distance from gas wells was the most significant factor for Continue reading