March 5, 2012

What exactly is fracking?

Shale rock layers are often relatively thin—less than a hundred meters thick. Fracking allows a single well to descend 9,000 feet vertically and then bore horizontally through the shale layer up to distances of 1 1/2 miles.

After the boreholes are sealed with steel pipe, huge amounts of high pressure water (as in 5 to 7 million gallons per well) along with a plethora of chemicals and sand is rammed down this pipe. This force splits the shale apart, creating numerous small fractures usually about 1mm wide. The sand props these fractures open to allow the gas to escape.

Up comes the methane—along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals, salts and other substances that were also in the shale, among them naturally occuring radioactive materials. Yes, anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the water sent down the well during hyrofracking returns to the surface.

The industry acknowledges that the question of how to handle the flowback wastewater that comes from fracking is one of its most pressing problems. Some of it is “treated” before being dumped into nearby rivers, but they have not perfected gething the radioactive material out. Much of it is trucked to other states where it is injected into storage wells deep below the earth’s surface.

In Pennsylvania this problem is particularly acute. Pennsylvania now has about 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000. But the Quaker State only has less than 10 wells with geologic formations suitable for post-fracking wastewater storage. So they either send it to rivers after it goes to sewage treatment plants or they truck this dandy stuff to good neighbor, Ohio, that has permits for 194 storage wells. Thus, half of the water in Ohio’s injection storage wells come from Pennsylvania. In early January, Ohio joined Arkansas in imposing a moratorium on these wells after several minor earthquakes—11 since last March—in an area not known for seismic activity.

Scientists refer to this as “induced seismicity”-- kind of like “induced labor” I suppose. 2010 research at SMU found a link between injection wells in the Dallas Fort Worth area and nearby quakes.But the jury is still out on this.

The wells still only capture only about a quarter of the methane locked in the shale formations, although a higher recovery rate may be in the near future. Infrared video by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation last week shows that invisible methane emissions from drilling sites are not being adequately controlled. NOT a good thing for our atmosphere.

The Marcellus boom has brought a host of economic benefits to Western Pennsylvania — new jobs, booked motel rooms, busy food franchises, newly paved roads — and promises to bring more. According to a recent study by Pennsylvania State, the industry has already created 23,000 jobs, for construction workers, helicopter pilots, sign makers, Laundromat workers, electricians, caterers, chambermaids, office workers, water haulers and land surveyors. A recent report from MIT predicts the Marcellus could create nearly 200,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania.

Not to mention the usually happy landowners who receive bonuses and royalties when they lease their land to drillers. Many landowners have earned small fortunes. Last year, natural gas companies paid more than $1.6 billion in lease and bonus payments to Pennsylvania landowners, according to a report commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. Another of the largest natural gas companies paid more than $183.8 million in royalties in Texas last year. What’s not to like about that? Unfortunately, fewer than half the leases require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination after drilling begins.

Is fracking a new technology? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends on how you define “new.” Although a simpler form of fracking (the VERTICAL kind) has been in use since about 1950, horizontal fracking has only been applied in a large scale to natural gas mining since about 2000. About 90 percent of natural gas mines in the United States access rock that has been fracked.

The old-style vertical fracking required considerably less water than horizontal fracking. A vertically fracked well would use about 10,000 to 50,000 gallons of water, compared to 2.7 million (yes MILLION) gallons of water in today’s vertical fracking.

The oil and gas industry argues that the fracking technique has been used safely for years and advances in the practice have set off a revolution that is creating jobs and boosting U.S. energy security.