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The big frack

hydraulic fracking explanation chart

While hydraulic fracturing is hardly new, it’s growing and so is the controversy surrounding the practice

by Jamey Dunn

Large-scale projects to extract oil and natural gas using a method that is the subject of national scrutiny may soon come to Illinois, bringing both controversy and economic stimulus with them.

Hydraulic fracturing, which is commonly referred to as fracking, is nothing new. The practice was pioneered in the late 1940s and has been used in Illinois for decades.

Hydraulic fracturing is achieved by pumping water mixed with sand and chemicals through a well into rock that holds a carbon fuel, such as oil or natural gas. The water creates pressure, which fractures the rock or opens up pre-existing cracks. The sand holds the cracks open so the gas and/or oil can be extracted. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons. Disinfectants may be added to discourage the growth of bacteria, lubricants may be added to cut down on friction and other chemicals may be used to thicken the water so that the sand spreads through it instead of settling to the bottom of the well.

What is new about recent fracking projects is their scale.

Fracking is coupled with horizontal drilling, which was first used in the 1930s and became common in the 1970s. Horizontal drilling allows gas and oil companies to drill down into the earth and then permeate rock along a horizontal line, which is sometimes miles long. Fracking is done incrementally, often a hundred feet at a time.

“It’s sometimes portrayed as some new technology. That really misses the mark,” says Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil & Gas Association. “It is bigger, and it is different.”

David Morse, senior petroleum geologist and head of the Coal and Petroleum Geology Section at the Illinois State Geological Survey, agrees. “We’ve certainly fracked oil wells for the last 60 years in Illinois. What makes this fracking different is definitely the scale.” Morse said that while previously fracked wells may have had about 100,000 gallons of fluids pumped down them, new larger wells could potentially have 1 million to 5 million gallons pumped into them. The fluids are pumped deep into the ground through wells that are sealed with concrete, and industry officials say there is no danger of the water reaching the groundwater supply thousands of feet above.

Fracking combined with horizontal drilling is now all the rage in the world of natural gas for a number of reasons. Natural gas prices have dropped as the prices of oil and other fuels have spiked, making natural gas competitive with other forms of energy.

Richards says that traditionally a specific set of geological conditions was needed to drill for oil and gas, which would have to flow out of a source rock, typically shale, and then collect in a permeable reservoir rock. A cap rock, which the oil and gas cannot penetrate, would also have to be present to hold the fuels in the reservoir rock. But with horizontal drilling and fracturing, energy companies can tap directly into the source rock. “You’re cutting out the middle man; you just go directly to the source.”

The combination of the two technologies has some thinking that there is a chance to reach oil and natural gas in Illinois that was previously too difficult or not economically viable to go after. Energy companies across the nation have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease mineral rights in Illinois. So far, the leasing has been concentrated in Wayne, Hamilton and Saline counties in southeastern Illinois, and it is not yet clear where and when fracking may come to other parts of the state. Two rock formations in Illinois, the New Albany Shale in the southeast and the Maquoketa Group shale in the north, have the potential to hold carbon fuels.

“Land prices and bonuses [that] companies are offering are double and triple what we have seen in the past,” Morse says.

While the companies hope to pump out oil and gas, Richards says there are no guarantees. Right now, all that is known about the areas they are leasing is that they have geological conditions that make finding such resources likely. Richards estimates that there is a grouping of 10 to 12 Illinois counties — extending as far north as Jasper and Effingham counties — that have the right shale conditions for natural gas. “This has a chance to be an enormous economic development for a part of the state that sometimes struggles to attract good jobs,” he says. “We don’t know what will come of this. We think there’s probably going to be some drilling fairly soon.”

Morse says companies are eager to jump in before something valuable is found and the price of leasing potentially increases. “It’s kind of like lemmings. They don’t want to be left behind because then it’s too expensive,” he says.

Richards says some areas over the shale formations that are currently producing oil might have gas that could be reached through fracking, but not all. He says that in central Illinois, the shale is not deep enough and would not have undergone the right levels of heat and pressure to create gas. “In Champaign, there isn’t any potential for shale gas development,” he says.

While anecdotal evidence of the dangers of fracking abounds, so do arguments about the science of proving environmental risks.

Fracking has been blamed for air and water pollution in other states. Critics of the practice point to Dimock, Penn., a small rural town that has become the focus of the national debate over fracking.

Dimock residents say their well water has been contaminated by local fracking wells. They list health problems that range from vomiting and open sores to cancer that they suspect were caused by contamination.

However, preliminary results from an Environmental Protection Agency study found that water from 11 homes tested by the EPA did not contain dangerous levels of any pollutants. The EPA did find sodium, methane, chromium or bacteria in some of the samples, and arsenic in two of them, but said that none reached unsafe levels. The EPA plans to retest the homes where arsenic was found and continue to study water in the Dimock area. Several environmental groups have disputed the release of the EPA’s early testing.

John Hanger, who served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of environmental protection from 2008 to 2011, maintains that no fracking fluid has contaminated drinking water by returning from the depth of the state’s gas wells. “Gas drilling has some impact on water, as any construction projects, but it would not make the top 10 list of impacts on Pennsylvania’s waters,” Hanger says.

However, he says methane gas accidentally released while wells were drilled in the area did migrate into 18 water wells belonging to residents. While methane is not toxic, it is dangerous at certain levels because it is flammable. At least two explosions in Ohio, one of a well and one of house, were caused by methane likely released by the drilling process or a faulty fracking well. Methane is also a greenhouse gas.

Methane occurs naturally as a result of decomposing organic material and can make its way into water wells. Morse says it can also be present as a result of coal mining.

Researchers who conducted a three-year study for Garfield County, Colo., one of the most heavily fracked areas in the country, found links between fracking and methane turning up in some wells.

“[The study] challenges the view that natural gas, and the suite of hydrocarbons that exist around it, is isolated from water supplies by its extreme depth,” Judith Jordan, the oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, who has worked as a hydro geologist with DuPont and as a lawyer with Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, told ProPublica. “It is highly unlikely that methane would have migrated through natural faults and fractures and coincidentally arrived in domestic wells at the same time oil and gas development started, after having been down there ... for over 65 million years.”

The University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health found after studying data collected by the county that residents living within half a mile of fracking operations were exposed to air pollutants that were more than five times the amount the federal government deems hazardous. “Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural gas development that has focused largely on water,” Lisa McKenzie, the study’s lead author, told the Denver Post.

In 2011, EPA officials said it was likely that fracking chemicals had infiltrated an aquifer in central Wyoming. But after questions were raised about the agency’s draft report on its findings, the EPA agreed to work with the state to do more testing.

Officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources say a system of disposing of water used in fracking by injecting it deep into the ground caused at least a dozen earthquakes in the northeastern part of the state. The department has tightened up regulation of the disposal process. Much of the water disposed of in Ohio is trucked from Pennsylvania.

These are just some of the examples of the debates over the risks and consequences of fracking that are taking place in other states. Morse says he understands why people in Pennsylvania and other areas across the country have been upset by fracking. “There are people who have been damaged in places like Pennsylvania.” But he says many accounts in the media and told by environmentalist groups are exaggerated and lack the science to back them up. “It’s absolutely atrocious, the lies that they’re telling and blaming it all on fracking.”

Morse, Richards and Hanger all emphasize there are no energy sources that come without risks, but they say that the risks involved with fracking can be reasonably controlled.

“Generally, most people actually have a relatively incomplete understanding of energy choices and their impacts,” Hanger says. “If the media put as much of a microscope on oil production and coal production [as it has on fracking], the population would be screaming about ending oil production and ending coal production. There isn’t a perfect energy choice out there to turn to.”

He points to environmental concerns over renewable energy sources, which he also supports. “I’ve been attacked by birders that say I have killed birds by supporting wind farms. That’s right. I have. I have supported an energy choice that does that.”

Hanger says natural gas can be used to supplement some renewables such as solar and wind power that can provide intermittent energy. “A gas plant can in fact be turned on and off regularly to firm up renewables.”

With the potential for fracking coming to the state, Illinois lawmakers are looking to tighten up regulation. Legislators are currently working on Senate Bill 3280, which they say has support from the gas and oil industry, farmers and environmentalists. “To my knowledge, there has never been a massive frack done in Illinois, not even close. And I know that the legislature is trying to anticipate what if,” Morse says. The focus of the regulation in Illinois and other states is on disclosure of chemicals that companies are adding to the water they pump into wells.

“The main problem that has arisen in other parts of the country is water pollution,” says Terri Treacy, a conservation field representative for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. “What has been happening across the country is denial that the gas companies had any wrongdoing. So that’s why there’s a push for chemical disclosure.”

The idea behind disclosure is that any potential water pollution could then be linked to a nearby mining operation if the chemicals match up. Treacy says it would give those affected by any leaks or spills recourse that others, such as Dimock residents, did not have.

She says a registry would not require companies to give the amounts of chemicals they are using, thereby revealing secrets to competitors. Treacy says it would be “sort of like your ingredients on food. Companies are required to list what kind of ingredients there are but not give the recipe.”

Richards says that the oil and natural gas industry supports chemical reporting and notes that many companies already do it voluntarily. “If that is what is needed to make people have a comfort level, then let’s get on with it.”

He adds, “We’re not afraid of the truth here because the truth is that this can be done responsibly.”

Treacy says areas that may see more drilling should also consider the toll that increased traffic might take on their infrastructure, as well as other concerns. “Where’s the water going to come from for these wells? It takes a lot of water to drill a well,” she says.

Richards agrees. He says new wells will bring jobs and economic stimulus to a region of Illinois battling high unemployment rates, but they will also bring “challenges,” such as increased wear and tear on infrastructure. “Like any construction activity, we’re going to have to do things to be good neighbors and good stewards of the Earth.”

Hanger says that any state considering fracking should make sure it has a well-staffed environmental protection agency that is prepared to enforce the rules.

“They need to make sure the industry is strongly regulated and reasonably taxed,” Hanger says of those crafting regulations to specifically address the new technology. “They need to pay attention to the water withdrawal issue. They need to pay attention to the water disposal issue. They need to pay attention to the [oil and gas] well design issue.”

Treacy says that her organization is working with the industry and others on regulation, because a full-out ban does not seem like a political possibility. “We feel like we’ve been asked, ‘Why aren’t we coming out for a ban?’ Bluntly, we feel like legislation to make it safer at this stage is more likely than getting a ban.”

But some southern Illinois residents say that the risks involved with fracking are too great. “We’re from the region this is going to impact. It’s just too dangerous,” says Liz Patula, coordinator of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). She points to the Canadian National Farmers Union’s call for a moratorium on fracking in Canada, as well as bans in New York municipalities. The state of New York is considering a moratorium as well.

Patula is concerned that potential environmental damage, such as water pollution, would cause harm that lasts for decades. “It just makes no sense to be taking this ridiculously enormous risk in terms of something where there’s no taking it back.”

Patula says her group plans to reach out to farmers in the area and hopes to bring farmers from Pennsylvania to share their stories with residents of southern Illinois. “Obviously we need jobs, but we’re talking about jobs that are literally putting our life resources at risk,” she says. “We’re talking about maybe jobs for the next 20 years, but then what do our grandkids do?”

Illinois Issues, May 2012

 

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Frac or Frack?

The rhetoric over fracking is so heated that — like any pervasively controversial issue in the country — even the terminology is at stake. People in the industry take issue with the slang term “frack” because it has traditionally been “frac” in their parlance, and “frack” is a little too close to a certain other four letter word beginning in “f,” giving the slang a profane association. “It’s a co-opted word and a co-opted spelling used to make it look as offensive as people can try to make it look,” Michael Kehs, vice president for Strategic Affairs at Chesapeake Energy, told CBS News.

“Frac” makes sense, because the term comes from fracturing, as in hydrolic fracturing, but more than one news editor has taken issue with the idea of expecting the spelling “fracing” not to rhyme with “racing.” The two terms are used interchangeably. But “frack” and “fracking” have become the predominant terms in news coverage — and the preferred spelling for the Associated Press, which generally sets the bar for such decisions — even as the oil and gas industry have moved way from using it altogether, instead opting for longer technical terms such as “hydraulic fracturing.”