Monday, 16 December 2013

Fracking Wars

Fracking Wars, Fracking Casualties

By Richard Heinberg

This article is an excerpt from Richard Heinberg's new book “Snake Oil”:
How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
News item, dateline February 14, 2013: Ben Lupo, 62, owner of Hardrock Excavating in Poland, Ohio, was charged with violating the Federal Clean Water Act by ordering an employee to dump thousands of gallons of brine and fracking waste discharge into a tributary of the Mahoning River. Lupo faces up to three years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and a year of supervised release if convicted. He has pleaded innocent.
Fracking opponents in Ohio seized upon the Lupo incident to call for a ban or moratorium on drilling. Fracking supporters insisted this was merely an isolated case; further, they said, the fact Lupo was caught and prosecuted simply showed that existing regulations were sufficient and effective.
It would be reassuring to know the Lupo incident did indeed represent a unique or rare occurrence, and that fracking is otherwise as safe as a walk in the park. The oil and gas industry, after all, claims to be making serious attempts to address environmental problems as they arise—finding better ways to dispose of or recycle wastewater, building better well casings, and exploring methods of capturing fugitive methane.
But fracking by its very nature implies a wide range of environmental risks, of which failure to properly treat wastewater is only one. Remember: as society extracts fuels from lower and lower levels of the resource pyramid, it must use ever more extreme measures, and more things can go wrong. Further, as we have just seen, the high per-well decline rates associated with shale gas and tight oil wells mean that drillers must frack relentlessly in order to maintain production rates; therefore environmental risks are multiplied thousands, tens of thousands, and ultimately hundreds of thousands of times over.
Across America, hundreds of grassroots groups with names like New Yorkers Against Fracking, Save Colorado from Fracking, Blackfeet Anti-Fracking Coalition, No Frackin’ PA!, Don’t Frack Ohio, and Ban Michigan Fracking have sprung up and formed mutual support networks. Many of the people who start or join such groups had never previously thought of themselves as environmentalists but are compelled to action by methane in drinking water, sickened livestock, bad air quality, or constant truck noise.
In response, the industry has mounted a public relations offensive. The pro-fracking website energyfromshale.org insists, for example, that “hydraulic fracturing technology has a strong environmental track record” and that “properly designed and constructed oil and natural gas wells present low environmental risk to our groundwater.”
Why has there been such a massive grassroots backlash against fracking? In this chapter, we’ll look at the evidence for fracking’s impacts on water, air, land, and climate. Reader warning: it ain’t pretty.
Everyone agrees that fracking takes water—lots of it. A single well-pad cluster might require more than 60 million gallons. Where does all this water come from? Sometimes drillers buy water from wells on leased property, sometimes they pump it from nearby streams or rivers, sometimes they purchase it from municipal water systems. In the dry states of the American southwest, future drilling could draw water from the Colorado River at a rate equivalent to that of an additional large city, yet the region already faces the prospect of serious water shortages. As climate change results in more widespread and severe drought conditions, finding water for shale gas and tight oil production is likely to pose an ever more vexing conundrum. One arid county in New Mexico has already banned fracking due to its fierce water needs. That’s only the start of fracking’s water problems. After water has been injected deep underground in the hydrofracturing process, most of it is pumped back to the surface. At that point, the water carries with it not only a secret cocktail of chemicals added so that it can accomplish its mission, but also highly corrosive salts, carcinogenic benzene, and radioactive elements like cesium and uranium, all leached from rock strata miles underground.
What’s a fracker to do with all this toxic wastewater? There are several options. Drillers can inject it into deep wells—either older abandoned oil or gas wells, or holes newly drilled for the purpose. Wastewater can also be held in large evaporation pools or sent to municipal treatment facilities. Each of these options is problematic. Underground injection simply means taking precious freshwater out of aquifers or rivers, polluting it, and then burying it so that it can never be used again. Evaporation pools poison birds and are prone to leaks and spills. Municipal water treatment plants are poorly equipped to remove the pollutants in fracking wastewater, especially when many of those pollutants are company secrets. An additional problem for wastewater treatment plants is the radioactivity released in fracking: reports from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made public in 2011 showed that fracking wastewater is too radioactive to be dealt with safely by municipal treatment plants, raising the specter of entire cities drinking radioactive water so that residents can continue burning natural gas. Increasingly, fracking operations recycle most of their water, using wastewater from one well in the next well’s initial hydrofracturing. This helps with the problems of sourcing water for operations and disposing of waste, but it is far from a complete solution. While the industry says it is aiming for 100% recycling, that goal is probably unattainable for purely practical reasons; currently, recycling efforts achieve about 50% efficiency. New sources of water are still needed, and toxic effluents have a way of leaking and seeping.
In October 2011, the EPA announced plans to develop standards for disposing of fracking wastewater; as of this writing, those standards have yet to be issued.
Fracking wastewater can make its way into streams and rivers, impacting both municipal water supplies and wildlife. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents how chloride from fracking wastewater ends up in Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams, even when the wastewater has been treated at municipal facilities. The same study also found that waterways are impacted by increased amounts of total suspended solids (TSS) from shale gas drilling. High TSS levels decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen in streams, raise water temperatures, and block sunlight. The study found that 18 well pads in a water-shed increases TSS concentrations by 5%. For perspective, consider that 4,000 well pads have been constructed in Pennsylvania since the beginning of the fracking boom.
Shale gas drilling also runs the risk of contaminating water tables. Drillers guard against this by isolating water tables from wells with cemented-steel well casings.
However, well casings sometimes fail. The industry claims that casings fail less than 1% of the time, yet independent research suggests the failure frequency may be much higher, perhaps in the range of 6–7%.
Eventually (speaking now in terms of centuries and millennia) all well casings will leak. When a well reaches the end of its useful life, operators install cement plugs in the borehole to prevent migration of fluids between the different rock layers. This may render the well safe for decades to come, but seismic activity can dislodge even the most carefully placed plugs. According to a paper by Maurice B. Dusseault, Malcolm Gray, and Pawel A. Nawrocki, published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers in 2000, “Oil and gas wells can develop gas leaks along the casing years after production has ceased and the well has been plugged and abandoned.” The most frequent reason for such failures is probably cement shrinkage, leading to fractures that are propagated upward by the slow accumulation of gas under pressure behind the casing.
Once again, the high rates of drilling required in order to maintain overall field production rates in shale gas and tight oil plays serve to amplify risk: even if just 1% of well casings fail, for the more than 65,000 current wells in fracking country that translates to 650 instances of likely contamination. If failure rates are 6%, that raises the number to 3,900. Actual instances of water table pollution resulting from well casing problems are documented, despite industry efforts to deny, distract, and evade: for example, in 2007 the faulty cement seal of a fracked well in Bainbridge, Ohio, allowed gas from a shale layer to leak into an underground drinking water source; the methane built up until it caused an explosion in a homeowner’s basement. Other such tales would likely be more commonly heard were it not for the industry’s insistence on nondisclosure agreements when landowners whose water has been contaminated settle lawsuits with drillers.
Anecdotes about flammable tap water or dying house pets can be emotionally compelling, but at the end of the day, decisions about whether to allow or ban fracking must be based on scientific studies and statistical analyses addressing the question of whether and to what degree drilling actually impacts the water we drink. Such studies have been slow to appear, partly because of industry efforts to withhold or suppress information. Nevertheless, according to one report, published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, drinking water samples from 68 wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays were contaminated with excess methane. The study found that average methane concentrations in wells near active fracturing operations were 17 times higher than in wells in inactive areas. Methane concentrations varied according to proximity to the drilling sites. Subsequent tests confirmed the findings. While more research is needed, initial findings suggest that fracking and water safety just don’t mix.
Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is colorless, odorless, and nontoxic—though in significant concentrations it is highly explosive. When methane is inadvertently released in gas or oil drilling, it reacts with atmospheric hydroxyl radicals (OH) to produce water to produce water vapor and carbon dioxide, which are likewise nontoxic. However, other chemicals often present in natural gas at the wellhead—including hydrogen sulfide, ethane, propane, butane, pentane, benzene, and other hydrocarbons—can degrade air quality significantly. In addition, emissions from trucks, compressors, pumps, and other equipment used in drilling contain a complex mixture of benzene, toluene, and xylene, as well as other volatile organic compounds. Drilling activity and truck traffic create high levels of dust, while flaring of methane also contributes to air pollution. Some chemicals associated with drilling combine with nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone. It is often difficult to trace the exact causal connections between oil and gas drilling, air pollution, and human health impacts; however, people who work at or live near fracking sites have complained of a wide variety of new illnesses with symptoms including skin rashes, open sores, nosebleeds, stomach cramps, loss of smell, swollen and itching eyes, despondency, and depression.
Read the rest at source countercurrents.org