Current Affairs in Hydraulic Fracturing Methodology, Environmental Concerns, and Regulations

Current Affairs in Hydraulic Fracturing Methodology, Environmental Concerns, and Regulations

NOTE: We here at Enviro Equipment Inc. thought it might be nice to do something different with our blog this time, so we decided to print a condensed version of a paper one of our employees, Kyle T. Shores, recently wrote for a 400 level Geology course he is taking. We chose to use this paper as the basis for a blog post because not only is it exceptionally well-written but it deals with an environmental topic in the news a lot these days; hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “Fracking).

Hydraulic fracturing is a method of extracting natural gas and oil typically from a shale formation and allows for greater recovery of natural gas trapped in relatively impermeable rock formations. The technology involved is fairly old, dating back to patents filed in the late 1930s through the 1950s. However, recent advancements in hydraulic fracturing methods and procedures has propelled this extraction technique to the forefront of energy production in the United States. (However), hydraulic fracturing has spawned numerous claims (of) environmental (problems including) groundwater contamination, water resource management, waste water disposal and air quality. The hydraulic fracturing industry is not regulated under federal law and their fracturing wells are not (covered) in the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Process and Methods:
The method of horizontal hydraulic fracturing was invented to compensate for the extremely low permeability of gas and oil bearing (rock) formations. According to a report on water management attributed to hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling can replace between 3 or 4 vertical wells because the extent of contact with the shale formation is greatly and increased. The entire hydraulic fracturing procedure is performed in several phases and can be repeated as long as the well produces lucratively.

Environmental Concerns:
Major environmental concerns involve groundwater contamination and water resource management; other risks include explosion hazards and air quality in the vicinity of the drilling sites. The potential for water contamination can occur in a couple situations associated with hydraulic fracturing. One situation is during the fracturing process where there is the possibility of leaking from the gas wells. Contamination can occur either from the injection fluid or natural gas itself and seep out into adjacent aquifers. A study on drinking water wells in Northeast Pennsylvania and Upstate New York was conducted in areas practicing hydraulic fracturing and also areas that were inactive drill sites (which) concluded that overall methane concentrations were 17% higher in areas that were practicing hydraulic fracturing compared to areas that were not.

This study also addressed other possible mechanisms of groundwater contamination. This could occur (through the) leaking of faulty well casings in either fracturing or deep storage wells. The handling of fracturing materials at the surface continues to be an area of concern. Surface use and storage increase the possibility of spills onto the land surface, or leaks to the subsurface, resulting in the contamination migrating towards groundwater resources.

Water resource management is another issue that needs to be addressed when hydraulic fracturing is being practiced. Standard practice of obtaining this water is from public water supply. This can be problematic when the waste water or ‘produced water’ exists in large volumes (as) the treatment of this contaminated water is extremely difficult, requires massive amounts of energy, and is very expensive.

There is lack of strict regulation on the industry. The loose regulatory standards were put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2004 (when the) EPA studied hydraulic fracturing following a court order after claims that a hydraulic fracturing operation contaminated a public drinking well. Essentially, the EPA reported hydraulic fracturing was completely safe and no further studies were necessary. Following the EPA’s decision, Congress passed The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (which) exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulatory actions under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This allowed no federal regulation over keeping groundwater clean and safe. Currently, there is still no federal regulation over hydraulic fracturing. Very limited regulation lies exclusively at the state level. Presently, the EPA is scheduled to release a new report on the safety of hydraulic fracturing sometime in 2012.

Hydraulic fracturing is a highly complex operation that is expanding in its practice. A variety of environmental concerns has made the technique highly controversial. Modeling the fracturing process is especially difficult and simplification of the process is required to study it on any conceptual level. A multitude of claims towards groundwater contamination have been attributed to hydraulic fracturing, however, the federal government has yet to take an official stance on the matter.

For a coexistence of hydraulic fracturing and society in the future, more regulation on the federal level must happen along with more transparency on the industry level. Also, to protect groundwater resources, there is a great demand for more economically feasible wastewater treatments. Another possibility is the discovery of more environmentally friendly fracturing fluid ingredients. Given the energy burdens of our modern society, hydraulic fracturing will not disappear nor will the necessity of environmentally safe practices.

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Nazrul I. Khandaker (not verified)
July 26, 2012

Very well-written paper supported by pertinent facts. I would like to focus on Kyle’s concluding remarks and urge everyone to push for conducting more fundamental research and best approaches in relation to hydrofracturing techniques and ensuring environmental sustainability. It is a complex issue and given the urgent need for energy resources and rising cost, we simply can not eliminate this. “For a coexistence of hydraulic fracturing and society in the future, more regulation on the federal level must happen along with more transparency on the industry level.”

Charlie (not verified)
October 29, 2012

I just wonder when we are going to figure out that Water is our most vital resource. I understand that gas and oil are essential, but our bodies are made up of more that 70% water and we kind of need it. So this isn’t some tree hugging protest, its more of a “hey, lets at least take care of that resource, because our life depends on it,” statement.

roncepts (not verified)
May 11, 2013

This is a purely financial play. The gas is going to LNG plants, port facilities (there’s a huge boom) and then shipped overseas for bigger profits– China, Europe, etc. With regard to the gas fracked off federal & state public lands, I’d say that’s a real nice way to treat our natural resources!