Fracking does not cause water pollution, according to a front-page article in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. On this point there is consensus among regulators, academics and environmentalists.
This got my attention. Over the course of four years, I have interviewed many regulators, academics, and environmentalists while gathering information on my book, Under the Surface. I continue to interview them for this blog. Yet, I am yet to see much of anything that I would characterize as consensus on the risks and merits of fracking. How could I have missed this?
The answer is in the Journal’s definition of fracking. It limits the discussion to certain boundaries the industry is comfortable with. When talking of fracking, the industry, and in this case Journal reporter Russell Gold, focuses on what happens in bedrock a mile or more underground. This is famously depicted in the graphic of a drill bit boring through a cross-section of the earth. It starts out vertically, and then, as it approaches the pan-cake like shale layer, turns horizontally to intersect the pay zone along its length. The drill string is removed, and the bore is filled with pressurized chemical solution that, with a few blasts at calculated intervals along the horizontal leg of the well bore, fractures the surrounding layer of rock, initiating the flow of gas into the bore. The process is too far underground, the argument goes, to impact the water table in a much shallower zone and separated by layers of rock.
But there is something critical missing from this view of fracking. It fails to take into account how all that chemical solution got that deep into the ground to begin with, and what happens to it after it is regurgitated with brine and other waste. This all involves legion logistical and mechanical functions that take place above the ground. Chemicals must be trucked to the well pad, where they are staged, mixed and prepared for the injection. Then they are transported through a network of hoses and couplings, at pressures of 10,000 pounds per square inch, into the well bore and through the water table. Several million gallons of chemical solution, handled and mixed above the site, is used for each well bore, and the process is repeated six or more times at each well pad. Afterward, the fracking waste, called flowback, has to be collected, contained and disposed of.
The Wall Street Journal article does not account for above ground mishaps, like the three that happened in a 24-hour period at Doug Heitsman’s farm in Dimock Pennsylvania in the summer of 2009. A contractor for Cabot Oil and Gas was fracking a well with a product called LGC-35 CBM, a lubricant that reduces resistance in the line. The substance was mixed at a location a mile or so up a hill and fed into a pipe that runs down the slope to the well pad. The elevation of the fluid in the mixing station and powerful compressors raised pressure in the system necessary to push the fluids to the end of the lateral bore hole deep in the ground, and in this case, it was too much for the equipment. A coupling at the base of the operation blew out, and 5,000 gallons of the chemical flooded the pad and washed into a nearby wetland, polluting the water and killing fish. The coupling failed again, twice, within the same day. This is but one example of things that can go wrong when fracking, and when they do, they are generally attributed to mechanical failure or human error, rather then the process itself.
The Wall Street Journal story goes on to explain that the real problems associated with shale gas development are related not to fracking but to the integrity of cement casings to seal off the well bore from the aquifer in the shallow zone. In support of this assessment, the article sources Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund, and Mark Boling, executive vice president and general counsel of Southwestern Energy Co., who both cite problems of cement as a primary issue. But why does this concern come at the exclusion of above ground spills and disposal problems associated with fracking? Gold provides the answer in this tidy summary:
The energy industry has been struggling to convince critics that fracking is safe. If the industry can persuade them that the chief pollution risk is poorly constructed wells—and that risk can be minimized—it might encounter less resistance from the public to expanding oil-and-gas production.
That’s fair enough. But if mishaps related to the logistics of fracking are not counted as part of drilling, cementing, or fracking, how do we count them? The industry strategy, perhaps, is to leave them out of the tally altogether.