Does Fracking Harm the Environment?

by Bill Freeman

Chinese-oil-well-via-Wikimedia-Commons The Petroleum Extraction Industry (PEI) provides the fossil fuel energy that regulates the heart beat of the United States economy. Over the past number of years, energy independence from fossil fuels has not been achievable in the United States (U.S.). This is why foreign imports are still necessary to meet our energy needs.

As a result, industry, government, and academia are investigating alternative energies. As part of this, over the past few years, the PEI has continued to develop an old technology: hydraulic fracturing (novices call this “fracking).

What is hydraulic fracturing? It is a technology used after the drilling of a new fossil fuel well that significantly improves its productivity, a treatment whereby the below-ground fossil fuel reservoir adjacent to the wellbore is fractured. This provides a high permeability pathway for the hydrocarbon fluids to flow from the below-ground reservoir into the wellbore and upwards to the surface for collection and processing at the above-ground production facility. Once the fracturing treatment is completed, the newly completed well is placed on permanent production for a number of years.

Hydraulic fracturing has the potential to help the U.S. achieve energy independence, even within the foreseeable future. According to geoscientist, David Middleton, “I think that it is technically possible that US crude oil and natural gas liquid production could reach 14.4 million BOPD by 2028 and peak at 15.7 million BOPD by 2032. If U.S. demand remained in the 18-20 million BOPD range, the United States could come very close to being self-sufficient in crude oil.”1 Much of what Middleton states is due to the “hydraulic fracturing” of tight shale oil formations. However, natural gas reserves are also significantly being increased in the U.S. as a result of hydraulic “fracturing” and assist in achieving energy independence, as well. “The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes.”2

Unfortunately, there is controversy about achieving energy independence by using fossil fuels. “Introduction of such a disruptive force has invariably drawn resistance, both monetary and political, to attack the disruptive source, or its enabler; hydraulic fracturing.”3 Resistance comes from a number of special interest groups who claim, “It threatens the profitability and continued development of other energy sources, such as wind and solar, because it is much less expensive and far more reliable.”3

The present administration and academicians now working on alternative energies accuse the PEI of continuing to recklessly provide fossil fuels to the public and industry that contributes to a) global warming and b) the potential endangerment of underground sources of drinking water (USDW’s) by drilling and fracture treating new fossil fuel wells. This accusation is being used to stop or significantly slow down the use of hydraulic fracturing.

But, I believe it is unproven that the human use of fossil fuels causes global warming. See the January 2013 AITSE Newsletter article by Professor Robert (Bob) Carter from Australia. Dr. Carter states, “The current scientific reality is that the IPCC’s hypothesis of dangerous global warming has been repeatedly tested, and fails. Despite the expenditure of large sums of money over the last 25 years (more than $100 billion), and the great research efforts by IPCC-related and other (independent) scientists, to date no scientific study has established a certain link between changes in any significant environmental parameter and human-caused carbon dioxide emissions.”4 Yet global warming concerns are used to justify the expensive switch from fossil fuels to alternative energies.

Hydraulic fracturing also endangers USDW’s according to environmentalists, academia, the news media, and the government. Their continuing attack on this technology retards the development and production of fossil fuel energy in the U.S., and suggest it is questionable whether or not the newly created fractures in the downhole producing reservoir actually provide a pathway for fluids to flow upwards from the reservior into USDW’s.

Actually, the contamination of USDW’s caused from the fracturing treatment is highly unlikely.3 Since state regulators require strict well construction requirements before fracturing is commenced, the probability of endangerment of USDW’s is one in one million well fracturing treatments, if the well producing reservoir is over 2000 feet in depth from the surface.  “Further, the height of any fracture created in the reservoir by treatment is limited by rock stresses, leakage of fracture fluids within the target fracturing zone, and the hundreds of natural rock barriers that border the hydrocarbon producing reservoir.”3 The average depth of the eight largest shale gas fields in the U.S. is about 8500 feet, thus makes the endangerment of USDW’s from hydraulic fracturing itself almost impossible.

Opponents of fracturing treatments also claim this technology may endanger surface water adjacent to the well site. This accusation is misguided because the term “hydraulic fracturing” is being misdefined. Many opponents of hydraulic fracturing lump above-ground “ancillary operations”, which are sealed with cement from the below-ground petroleum reservoir (thousands of feet below ground) where treatment fluids are injected, into the definition. Ancillary operations are those above-ground operations where fracture fluids are stored and mixed before and during injection below-ground into the shale gas reservoir. Leaks and spills can occur from these above-ground operations, but they are heavily monitored by PEI operators and rarely, if ever, cause below-ground problems. Incidentally, leaks and spills from above-ground ancillary operations can also occur during drilling and producing operations where well “fracturing treatments” are not being performed. Most, if not all, states already have regulations in place to monitor above-ground ancillary operations at PEI well sites. States have been regulating drilling and producing operations in the U.S. for decades to protect the below- and above-ground environments. 

In summary, hydraulic fracturing has been used for treating fossil fuel wells in the PEI since about 1950. Some conclusions about this discussion:

  • Hydraulic fracturing in wells more than 2000 feet in depth have an extremely low probability (one in one million fracture treatments) of endangering USDW’s. The average depth of the 8 major shale reservoirs in the U.S. is 8500 feet.
  • The definition of hydraulic fracturing does not include the above ground ancillary operations used at the well sites during fracturing treatments. Above ground ancillary operations are sealed off with casing and cement from communicating with the below ground fracturing treatment process. The states have regulated ancillary operations for decades at all drilling and producing well sites.
  • Fracturing has significantly increased the oil and gas reserves in the U.S. to ensure energy independence. This increase will significantly reduce the cost of energy to the public.
  • Environmental idealism, bunk science, overregulation, and citizen ignorance can destroy our achievement for energy independence.
  • Persons interested in fracturing technology should read the technical paper “Hydraulic Fracturing 101” by George E. King, Apache Corporation (80 pages). A copy can be obtained from the Society of Petroleum Engineers. In doing so, they will not only appreciate the complexity of this technology, but also will much better understand its very minimal environmental risk.

REFERENCES:

1)    Middleton, David: “North American Energy Independence by 2020”, Investor Discussion Board, August 30, 2012

2)    U. S. Energy Information Administration: “Does the U.S. Have Abundant Shale Gas Resources”, December 5, 2012

3)    King, George E, Apache Corporation: “Hydraulic Fracturing 101”, SPE Journal of Petroleum Engineers, April 2012

4)    Carter, Robert (Bob): “Global Warming: Anthropogenic or Not”, AITSE Newsletter, January 2013

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