Hydraulic Fracturing and Drinking Water: Looking for Answers

By Chris Faulkner Breitling Oil & Gas

In November 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would study the full lifecycle of water used for hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique used to extract previously unreachable oil and gas deposits, and the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water resources.

The EPA’s report has not yet been released, but the agency’s decision to undertake this extensive study underscores the fact that other studies conducted to date are often viewed as inconclusive or incomplete or have come under scrutiny for suspected industry influence. This poses a problem for all concerned, as pressure from environmentalists coupled with suspect data may result in misguided regulatory action, and, in the meantime, efforts of oil and gas companies to develop better methods may be stymied by lack of credible data.

CONFLICTING CONCLUSIONS, SUSPECTED INFLUENCE

At least a couple of the more prominent studies of fracking and its effect on the environment seemed as though they ought to help clear the way for local, state and federal governmental agencies to allow more fracking. The Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, in February published a report titled “Fact- Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.” The authors of the exhaustive study of the claims versus the facts concluded that there is little actual evidence of risk to aquifers.

“It appears that many of the water quality changes observed in water wells in a similar time frame as shale gas operations may be due to mobilization of constituents that were already present in the wells by energy (vibrations and pressure pulses) put into the ground during drilling and other operations rather than by hydraulic fracturing fluids or leakage from the well casing,” the study said.1 “None of the water well claims involve hydraulic fracturing fluid additives, and none of these constituents has been found by chemical testing of water wells.”

Even more exciting for the oil industry and those local, state and federal proponents who would like to tap the considerable economic benefits of increased oil and gas production in the U.S., the authors of the study conducted a thorough review of the claims of adverse health effects associated with the chemicals most commonly cited as potential pollutants due to fracking. Though the first well was fracked in 1947 and the practice has increased exponentially since then, the studies showed no direct evidence of health impacts associated with these chemicals in gas and oil workers or people living near fracking activity.2

Unfortunately, the lead author of the University of Texas study did not disclose a conflict of interest that now casts the study results under a cloud of suspicion. Charles Groat, a former head of the U.S. Geological Survey and now the associate director of the university’s Energy Institute, is also a paid board member of Plains Exploration & Production Co., an independent oil and gas company that uses fracking in its drilling operations. Groat maintained that he did not try to influence the other researchers and did not make any modifications to their findings.3 Other researchers involved in the study have confirmed that they felt no pressure from Groat, and the university has undertaken a full review of the study to determine whether its conclusions were unduly influenced.

A 2011 study by Duke University was also cause for celebration among fracking proponents, as it “found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids.”4 But a 2012 Duke University study seems to first support and then contradict its own earlier finding: “The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region; however, the presence of these fluids suggests conductive pathways and specific geostructural and/or hydrodynamic regimes in northeastern Pennsylvania that are at increased risk for contamination of shallow drinking water resources, particularly by fugitive gases, because of natural hydraulic connections to deeper formations.”5

The issues don’t get any clearer when the studies are backed by environmental groups. The Pacific Institute, a nonprofit organization whose stated purpose is to “create a healthier planet and sustainable communities,” tackled the question of fracking’s impact on water resources in its June 2012 report. Noting that there are numerous anecdotal accounts of various water sources polluted by fracking and/ or adverse health effects caused by fracking pollutants, the report states: “Most significantly, a lack of credible and comprehensive data and information is a major impediment to identify or clearly assess the key water-related risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and to develop sound policies to minimize those risks. … [T]he discourse around the issue is largely driven by opinion.”6

When journalists have attempted to verify some of the more dramatic accounts of adverse health effects, their results do little to clarify matters. Associated Press reporter Kevin Begos investigated claims made by environmental groups and Josh Fox, the maker of the anti-fracking documentary “Gasland,” in a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Begos was unable to get any form of confirmation from researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the Texas Cancer Registry, or Susan G. Komen for the Cure.7

CLARITY IS IMPORTANT FOR U.S. ECONOMY

Oil and gas companies have an obvious stake in the outcome of the EPA’s new study and others, but so do local, state and federal legislators, as well as all American citizens. Increased oil and gas production doesn’t only mean more profit for those in the industry; it can have a dramatic impact on the entire U.S. economy.

Take North Dakota, which is experiencing an economic boom due to drilling operations in the Bakken reserve. When unemployment across the U.S. rose to 8.3 percent in July,8 North Dakota enjoyed a rate of only 2.9 percent9 — that’s what experts call “fully employed.” This translates to about $1.5 billion in annual tax revenues and a projected state budget surplus of $858 million by fiscal year 2013.10

In Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry produced over 13,500 direct and indirect jobs in 2009. Pennsylvania State University estimated that the gas industry generates a value-added increase in spending of more than $1 billion. State and local tax revenues gained more than $1 billion in 2009.11

That’s just two states. The U.S. is very fortunate geographically in that it sits atop many more reserves of oil and natural gas, from which states such as Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Kansas, Alaska, Michigan, Indiana, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming can reap or are already reaping the benefits. But some states are getting cold feet. Under increasing pressure from environmental groups, New York has been reviewing increased regulation or a moratorium on fracking, and, citing concerns over drinking water, Vermont’s governor signed the nation’s only full ban on fracking in May.

Actions like Vermont’s don’t bode well for the health of the U.S. economy. Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University estimates that the U.S. could be sitting on 2 trillion barrels of oil reserves,12 which could not only turn the U.S. into one of the world’s top oil producers, but guarantee a period of wealth unparalleled in this country’s history. Don’t forget, much of the U.S. reserves are natural gas (an estimated 317 trillion cubic feet). As production of natural gas in the U.S. rises, gas and electricity prices fall.

Given the lack of any concrete data support-ing a ban on fracking, it is understandable that many states are allowing the practice and reaping the rewards. While we await the EPA’s findings, some known facts about the lifecycle of water in fracking may prove helpful.

WHAT WE DO KNOW

Most fracking operations require a large volume of water, from 2 million to 4 million gallons per drill operation. The EPA estimates that the 35,000 wells fracked in 2006 used from 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water.13 The water is obtained from municipal water systems, rivers and streams, most often delivered by tanker trucks making between 1,000 and 3,500 trips.

Both the amount of water used for fracking and the proper disposal of wastewater from fracking have raised concerns. Flow-back water from fracking cannot be reused or returned to rivers or streams untreated because it contains a potentially harmful mix of chemicals, metals and solids from both the original fracking fluid as well as “produced water.” Produced water is water already present in the oil or gas reservoir, which flows back up the well along with the fracking fluid. The flow-back water is typically very high in salts, with other constituents such as organic hydrocarbons, metals, chemical additives from the original fracturing fluid and naturally occurring radioactive material.

As this summer’s drought reminded us all, water is not an unlimited resource. Some companies already recycle the wastewater produced by fracking, using the recycling services of companies such as Eureka Resources in Williamsport, Pa.; Ecologix in Atlanta; and Fountain Quail Water Management in Roanoke, Va. Regardless of the company or the treatment method, recycling produces residual waste materials that must be handled and disposed of carefully. Most of the waste is stored in holding ponds and steel tanks and then sent to landfills or disposed of via deep well injection. Some innovative companies have used the highly concentrated brine wastes as deicing agents, where permitted by state governments. Fountain Quail has developed a new technology, dubbed “Nomad,” that produces distilled water from the briny water.

Eschewing the high-volume water fracking used for most drilling operations today, some companies are using a carbon dioxide foam process that employs only about one-tenth of the water typically required for fracking. In search of better fracking techniques that use less water, others have tried nitrogen, as well.

Developing new recycling technologies that yield a higher volume of usable water, as well as fracking techniques that use less water, will be important as fracking operations expand.

EPA WON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS

As the confusion caused by the pile of conflicting studies has already shown, no single study is likely to provide the final answer on the subject of fracking and its effects on drinking water and the environment. While we may all hope that the new EPA study will provide clear answers to our most pressing concerns, remember that the research is still in the early stages and scientific study takes time.

In the meantime, remember, too, that while oil and gas companies are naturally inter-ested in increasing opportunities for profit, they’re operated by executives with a simple human desire to do no harm. Reputable companies fully comply with state and fed-eral regulations, and many are also actively developing more sustainable practices designed to reduce water consumption and protect water resources from contamination. For a list of fracking additives currently in use, as well as information about measures taken to protect drinking water, go to www.fracfocus.org.

NOTES

1 Energy Inst., Univ. of Texas at Austin, Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in ShaleGas Development 20 (February 2012), available at http://energy.utexas.edu/images/ei_shale_ gas_reg_summary1202.pdf.

2 Id. at 31.

3 Jim Efstathiou Jr., Frackers Fund University Research That Proves Their Case, Bloomberg News, July 23, 2012, available at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-23/frackers-fund-university-research-that-proves-their-case.html.

4 Stephen G. Osborn, Avner Vengosh, Nathaniel R. Warner & Robert B. Jackson, DukeUniv., Methanecontamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing 1 (January 2011), available at http://www.pnas.org/content/108/20/8172.

5 Nathaniel R. Warner, Robert B. Jackson, Thomas H. Darrah, Stephen G. Osborn, Adrian Down, Kaiguang Zhao, Alissa White& Avner Vengosh, DukeUniv., Geochemical evidencefor possiblenatural migration of Marcellus Formation brineto shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania 1 (January 2012), avail­able at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/07/03/1121181109.

6 Heather Cooley & Kristina Donnelly, Pacific Institute, Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Resources: Separating theFrack from theFiction 30 (June 2012), available at http://www.pacinst.org/reports/ fracking/full_report.pdf.VOLUME 33 • ISSUE 7 • OCTOBER 24, 2012 5

7 Kevin Begos, Experts: Some Fracking Critics Use Bad Science, Associated Press, July 22, 2012, available at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/experts-some-fracking-critics-use-bad-science.

8 Shobhana Chandra, Jobs Gains Topping Forecasts Ease U.S. Slowdown Concerns, Bloomberg News, Aug. 3, 2012, available at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-03/u-s-july-payrolls-rise-more-than-forecast-unemployment-8-3-.html.

9 Dustin Hurst, Oil fields’ good fortune trickles down to North Dakota’s state coffers, Watchdog.org, July 27, 2012, available at http://watchdog.org/ 49632/montana-11709/.

10 Id.

11 Timothy W. Kelsey, Martin Shields, James R. Ladlee& Melissa Ward, Marcellus ShaleEduc. & Training Ctr., Pa. Collegeof Tech. & Penn StateExtension, Economic Impacts of Marcellus Shalein Pennsylva­nia: Employment and Incomein 2009 31 (August 2011), available at http://www.marcellus.psu.edu/ resources/PDFs/Economic%20Impact%20of%20Marcellus%20Shale%202009.pdf.

12 New Boom Reshapes Oil World, Rocks North Dakota, Nat’l Pub. Radio, Sept. 25, 2011, available at http://www.npr.org/2011/09/25/140784004/new-boom-reshapes-oil-world-rocks-north-dakota.

13 U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, Plan to Study thePotential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources 22 (November 2011), available at http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/ class2/hydraulicfracturing/upload/hf_study_plan_110211_final_508.pdf.

Chris Faulkner is the founder, president and CEO of Breitling Oil & Gas, an independent oil and natural gas company based in Irving, Texas. Founded in 2004, Breitling Oil & Gas employs state-of-the-art petroleum and natural gas exploration and extraction technologies for the development of onshore oil and gas projects.