Thursday, February 24, 2011

What the Frack is Hydraulic Fracturing?

(and why you should be very concerned)
blog by: Alisa

Clean, natural gas: it’s the stuff of energy independent dreams. It’s also the stuff of land, water, and health contamination nightmares. Natural gas has been touted for decades as the solution to American dependence on foreign oil. You wouldn’t get any argument from me; we’ve sucked ravenously at the teat of Middle Eastern oil long enough. The U.S. spends an average $700 billion ($700,000,000,000 – that’s a lot of zeros) annually on foreign oil, which equates to roughly 70% of the annual oil consumption in America. Yes, by all means, let’s find a way to break that cycle and keep that money here at home. Doing so would create jobs and stimulate the national economy, two things we desperately need to pull away from the slump.

However, this solution isn’t as clean and natural as some folks would like us to believe.

About 60 years ago, the process of hydraulic fracturing (also known as ‘fracking’)  was developed to open up the land deep underground in order to gain access to oil and gas reservoirs trapped under rock formations, like shale and coal beds. These formations are typically anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 feet below the surface where the earth is not permeable enough to cost-effectively extract the deposits.  Enter the dawn of hydraulic fracturing. The process is fairly straight-forward: a wellbore is drilled down vertically and then horizontally into the rock bed. A casing (a tube as long as the well) is inserted into this opening, and then cement is pumped through the end of the casing until it is forced back up the wellbore, around the casing, forming a barrier which is supposed to keep gas and fracturing fluids from seeping out into the rock around the wellbore and into aquifers. Any residents or businesses who rely on water from wells would have their wells fed from underground aquifers, so it makes perfect sense that land and aquifers must be kept free of contamination. After the well has been formed and cemented, millions of gallons of water, proppants (either small ceramic beads or sand), and a chemical mixture is injected into the well at a very high pressure. This pressure breaks through the end of the well and is forced out into the rock, fracturing the rock open, pushing the sand and chemicals into the cracks to keep the fractures open, and allowing the trapped oil or gas deposits to flow into the well and up to the surface for collection. Simple and efficient, right?

So what’s the big deal? Why are so many people up in arms about the gas & oil companies that are setting up their rigs all across America (and around the globe)? It isn’t just about the trucks that take over their roads. It takes about 200 tanker trucks to bring the water used to fracture a single well. (In the county where I live, there are 7, 825 wells.) It isn’t just about how close a drilling outfit can set up a rig near a residence. They typically maintain a 500 foot distance from living quarters, but, technically, they can come as close as 150 feet away from a home if they wanted to do so. The 150 foot distance is a safety precaution; in case their 150 foot tall well rig falls over, it won’t crush the house. No, the major complaint that residents living in a drilled area have is the chemical cocktail that is fed down the well during the fracturing process.  These chemicals are considered to be ‘proprietary secrets,’ protected from being disclosed.  These chemical ingredients contain KNOWN CARCINOGENS and are injected into the ground, and sometimes they make their way into the local aquifers, and they are protected secrets.

The people who live around the wells are not afforded this same protection. If their domestic water wells become mysteriously contaminated and unfit to drink or bathe from, the burden of proof is on them to prove that the contamination is connected to the nearby drilling operations. However, and here is the insidious genius of protecting those chemical cocktails, no one can prove that their wells became contaminated by fracking solutions because there is no one outside the drilling company who has the right to know what was injected into the ground. The unfortunate humans and animals who drank contaminated well water have a myriad of illnesses ranging from rashes, nosebleeds, organ failures, respiratory system failures, and brain tumors. Livestock farmers have awakened to find their cattle lying dead around their fields. Goats give birth to young that cannot stand because their joints are full of toxins. Sheep give birth to gruesome-looking, malformed lamb heads.

Don’t believe this is happening right here in America? Look it up. Oil and gas are the only two industries which are allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to inject hazardous materials either directly into or near drinking water supplies. Unchecked.  No monitoring by the EPA. At all. How did this happen? Do you remember Vice President Dick Cheney? Before he took office, he was the CEO of Halliburton, the company which patented the hydraulic fracturing process and is today one of the top three manufacturers of hydraulic fracturing fluids. In 2004, the EPA did a study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing fluid, and concluded that it posed little or no threat to drinking water supplies. Would you be surprised to learn that Halliburton staff were actively involved in the review of that study?

The conclusion that fracturing fluids posed no threat to life or land led to the 2005 national energy bill exemption of fracturing fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act.  What does that mean? It means the drilling companies can inject anything and everything they want (except for diesel fuel) into the ground, and no one can ask them what it is or if it’s safe. The reason they aren’t allowed to use diesel fuel is because one of its components is benzene. Benzene is produced both naturally and by human activity, and was determined by the Department of Health and Human Services to cause cancer. Definitely should not put that stuff into the ground. And yet in January of 2011, it was revealed that 12 drilling companies injected 10.2 million gallons of straight diesel fuel into wells in 19 states over the last five years. Go back and read that last line again. If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, read it again. Still not scared? On top of the straight diesel fuel, they also injected 21.8 million gallons of fracking fluids containing not less than 30% diesel fuel. Not one of those 12 companies applied for a permit to use diesel fuel. And no regulators seemed to be aware that this was happening every day.

While drilling companies do recover some of the fracking fluids once the wells become operational, roughly 50% to 75% of those fluids remain underground. Meanwhile, the toxic fluids which are recovered are are considered to be ‘produced water,’ and is disposed of in a few different ways. Some of the produced water is trucked away to be treated or cleaned and reused, some of the water is injected into what is known as an underground disposal well, and the rest is left to evaporate in collection ponds. Often, these ponds have liners which are damaged, allowing the fluid to seep through cracks and holes. Some ponds have had no liners at all. Even with a liner in pristine condition, the method here is to allow the toxic water to evaporate directly into the air. Think about that for just a moment. Yes, it’s true, and yes, it’s as scary as you think. Residents who live near these evaporation ponds have reported becoming ill with respiratory illnesses. They also suffer excruciating headaches and sometimes blackouts.

Another unintended consequence of fracking the land is the release of flammable gases, such as methane. Basements can fill up with methane gas seeping up from underground, and some people can light their domestic well water on fire. Seriously. Sure, they could invest in bottled water for themselves and their pets, but what if they have livestock or crops to water? What should they do when they want to take a bath or shower? More than one home owner has been told that methane is a naturally occurring gas and that there’s no way to prove the methane that is making them sick was released by the fracking process.

What is the solution? It’s simple. Repeal the exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act and force the drilling companies to disclose every single component of their fracturing fluid liquids. If it’s toxic, ban it. They can find something else to use, but they won’t spend the money to find or produce it until they are forced to do so. What else can be done? Hold the drilling companies liable for spills and contaminations. Spills happen much more frequently than the public hears about. In just my county alone, there were 420 spills between the years of 2004 and 2010. Three of those spills affected groundwater sources, and six other spills affected groundwater and surface water (ponds, creeks, lakes, rivers, etc).

But it gets worse. The drilling companies haven’t limited themselves to only the destruction of American land and water. Hydraulic fracturing is used around the world: Canada, Poland, Russia, France, Australia, Sweden, Britain, Italy, New Zealand. It has pretty much gone global.
Oh, and I almost forgot…. there are a growing number of people who suspect that this underground shifting (the fracturing) is causing earthquakes. The state of Arkansas is a prime example of this suspicion. Fracking is being used in a number of places around the state, and their seismic activity has spiked quite a bit in the past five years. It could be a coincidence, but it could also be yet another unintended consequence of an industry gone amuck.


  1. Kim responded: I had no idea what fracking was before this blog Alisa -or that these fluids remained underground. These drilling companies need o change the way they are doing things. Carcinogens injected into the land = cancer causing chemicals in our water? Terrible.

  2. Alisa responded: It isn't limited only to contamination of the water, it also contaminates the land itself (surface and sub-surface) as well as the air. The air is contaminated by the toxic chemical soup evaporating directly into the air from the holding ponds, and also by a process known as 'venting.' When a well first begins to bring gas up to the surface, that initial gas is typically too dirty to be of any use to anyone. It is too dirty because it blended first with the more concentrated frack fluids. The oil company's solution to this useless by-product is to light it on fire and burn off that dirty gas directly into the air. The heat from this burn pushes the burned gas high into the air where the resultant burned frack fluid ash is allowed to rain down on the surrounding land or be blown who knows where on the wind. It might fall on someone's lawn. Or onto crops which provide the fruits and vegetables people will purchase at markets. Or on animals peacefully grazing in a pasture. Or onto a surface water source, such as a river, delivering the affected water far and wide.

    Fear is the only thing which will push people into action.So far, the general consensus has been, 'If it isn't happening in my backyard, it won't affect me or my family or my way of life.' That is a short-sighted misconception. Beef and milk from cows who graze within walking distance of a well will be delivered to markets far and wide. Expand that to include chickens which provide meat and eggs. Lambs. Pigs. It can get pretty frightening. And then there's the water. It's not only domestic wells that are affected. Affected underground water sources make their way sometimes to rivers. Ash from the venting process falls directly into rivers. For example, the Colorado River provides a major drinking water source to Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and California (every drop of water treated for Los Angeles' water utility comes from the Colorado River). The numbers of those who can potentially be affected start to grow exponentially. Like I said, it's a nightmare, and every single one of us on the planet needs to wake up. Right NOW.

  3. I inform now all the french press i can.I will use this article with your permission !Everybody has to know that!

  4. Yes it is true that oil firms are competing to earn money but if the main source of fresh water is contaminated by using hydraulic fracturing process what people will drink after some times when all ground water get contaminated.

    Henry Jordan

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