Monday, November 18, 2013

How Hydraulic Fracturing Contaminates Aquifers

An essay in pictures:

How and why hydro-fracking
commonly contaminates underground sources
of drinking water.

With a focus on Franklin Forks, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, we will present a few science and evidence-based information on physics and geology, and draw some conclusions at the end.

  • Section I. Understanding Potential Energy
  • Section II. Understanding Water Volumes, Visualizing an Underground Frac job.
  • Section III. Understanding the local geology near Franklin Forks.
  • Section IV. Putting it all together
  • Section V. Conclusions:

Section I. Understanding Potential Energy

First, a physics lesson.

Energy can be translated between forms,
such as translating kinetic energy into potential energy.

But energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

This is how a pendulum works:

Another way to visualize this is if we imagine a giant lifting a ball on to a mountaintop:
With work, Kinetic Energy can be transformed...

 ... into Potential Energy

Potential Energy is a system waiting to
release stored energy via the path of least resistance,
so we can expect the ball to come rolling down the mountain
any time now!
A slingshot is another way to transfer kinetic energy
into stored (potential) energy. When you apply force and stretch the
rubber band, energy is stored in the chemical bonds of the rubber,
which is wanting to release and send the payload flying!
The reason why a shock absorber on a car works is that an initial shock is absorbed by compressing a spring.
This energy is then slowly released due to the action of a gas-charged cylinder and a piston.
LESSON from Section I:

If you put energy into a system, that energy doesn't vanish. It can be translated into other forms, such as heat, or as stored (potential) energy.

Section II. Understanding Water Volumes, Visualizing an underground frac job.

Ferris Wheel at Pleasure Pier in Galveston, TX is BIG!
at ~100' in diameter.
Another view of Ferris Wheel at Pleasure Pier in Galveston, TX
100' in diameter.

According to Skytruth, the average frac in Pennsylvania is 4.3 Million Gallons of water.

4.3 million gallons is a sphere about 103' in diameter. Let's call it 100'.

Cabot's typical horizontal well in 2012
was 4,100 ft long, with 17.7 frac stages (let's call it 18 stages).
WPX was the operator in Franklin Forks, but let's assume they are doing about the same.
Fracking the Oliver Well Pad, Susquehanna County, PA (Chief)
Fracking involves massive pumping trucks all working in concert
to generate explosive pressures underground.
Photo: Vera Scroggins:

Average PA frack = 4.3 Million gallons.
4.3M / 18 stages = 238,888 gallons.
This is the volume of a sphere 19.7' in diameter.
(Let's call it 20'ft)

Now think about this 100' diameter sphere made up of
18 smaller 20' diameter spheres,
each holding ~240,000 gallons.
Each of these represents one frac stage.

A schematic diagram of an 18 stage frac job, using 4.3M gallons of water.
Each frac uses as much fluid as sphere 20' in diameter.
Assuming a lateral length=4,158', the center point between each frac stage is 231'.
NOTE: Image is not to scale. Actual distribution of fluids likely not spherical.
LESSON from Section II:

Hydraulic Fracturing involves massive amounts of fluids, and tremendous energy at the surface. This energy at the surface is converted into heat, and stored, potential energy underground.

Section III. Understanding the local geology near Franklin Forks.
According to maps by the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research,
the depth of the Marcellus Shale in Northern Franklin Twp. Susquehanna County is 5,000-6,000'ft.

According to maps by the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research,
the depth of the Marcellus Shale in Northern Franklin Twp. Susquehanna County is 5,000-6,000'ft.
(detail, Susquehanna County map, with yellow star at Franklin Forks contamination site)

The Depue 8H well in Franklin Forks was 4604'ft deep (TVD).
Strange: in Franklin Forks, the Marcellus is 5,000-6000'ft. deep.
Did WPX miss the Marcellus by 400'-1,400'ft?

TVD, Total Vertical Depth is the linear vertical depth
from the well pad to bottom-of-hole independent of curved path.

The following graphics were taken from an industry-funded presentation, with the depth of the Depue 8H well added:

According Molofsky,, GSI Environmental,
cross section of the area near Franklin Forks.
According to this chart, the Depue 8-H at 4,604'ft was drilled
into the Tully Sandstone formation, not the Marcellus.

According Molofsky,, GSI Environmental, the Upper Devonian
strata above the Marcellus in the region of Franklin Forks is marked
by "Large Scale Faults",
Combining two graphics from Molofsky,, GSI Environmental.
Upper Devonian Formation in this area marked by "Large Scale Faults"

"Large Scale Faults" in upper Devonian strata near Franklin Forks.
(from Molofsky,, GSI Environmental)
LESSONS from Section III:
The Upper Devonian strata above the Marcellus near Franklin Forks, in Susquehanna County PA is marked by Large Scale Faults. The shale depth in this area is between 5,000 and 6,000 ft. HOWEVER-- the operator in the area, WPX (Williams Company) drilled one early well, the Depue 8H, only to 4,604', which according to the above charts, seems to be the Tully Sandstone formation, not Marcellus.

Section IV. Putting it all together

According to this article by Haliburton's Kevin Fisher, fractures commonly can extend 1,500' above the horizontal well bore:

Haliburton's Kevin Fisher reveals that fractures can extend >1,500'ft above the
horizontal bore depth. (July 2010, AOGR)
So, 4604'  (depth of Depue 8H) - 1,500' (Fischer upward fracture distance) = 3,104'.

Matt and Tammy here say their well is ~160' deep:

3104'ft - 160'ft = 2944'ft ==> This is all that fluids/gas must travel to contaminate the aquifer.
This is only 3x the distance reported in Fisher's data as being observed.

And in Franklin Forks, this was through the Upper Devonian layer which was marked by "Large Scale Faults".

According Molofsky,, GSI Environmental, the Upper Devonian
strata above the Marcellus in the region of Franklin Forks is marked
by "Large Scale Faults", as well as intra-layer Detachment / Decollement zones.

Each frac stage releases ~240,000 gallons into the surrounding rock.
This volume is equal to a sphere ~20' in diameter.

Fluids injected want to find a path of least resistance back to the surface.

According Molofsky,, GSI Environmental, the Upper Devonian
strata above the Marcellus in the region of Franklin Forks is marked
by "Large Scale Faults", so these could be the path of least resistance
for methane and fluids under extreme pressure to return to the surface
and contaminate shallow aquifers.
At 4,600'ft down, the hydrostatic pressure alone is ~3,500 psi.
This does not include the lithostatic or overburden pressure,
caused by the weight of the rocks.

I'd estimate the combined static pressure
at that depth is about 7,000-10,000 psi.
This is approximately the pressure of a fuel-air bomb.Note that the hydraulic fluids must overcome this
static pressure in order to fracture the rock. This is why the fluid pressures underground are typically ~15,000 psi.
(many industry sources cite this number)

This pressure gradient creates stored (potential) energy
in the injected fluids.
The pressures involved in hydraulically fracturing rock are similar to a fuel-air bomb.

Fluids injected at these depths contain stored (potential) energy,
which wants to release, by moving up through the pressure gradient
into areas of lesser pressure (like shallow, water-bearing strata).
It's like a ball on top of an inverted mountain.
LESSONS from Section IV: The fluids injected underground in the Hydraulic Fracturing process are under extreme pressures.

The energy expended at the surface is translated into stored (potential) energy in the fluids, which want to release this energy by returning to the surface via the Path of Least Resistance, which is likely natural faults and fissures in the surrounding geology. 

V. Conclusions:

Duke found 81.3 mg/L methane in the Manning's well

PA DEP found 38.9 mg/L and 58.4 mg/L
methane in the Manning's well

Methane concentrations this high form a serious risk of explosion.

Methane was not the only contaminants found in the water wells in Franklin Forks. Also found: Barium, Iron, Aluminum, Magnesium, Manganese, Arsenic, Chlorides, Total Dissolved Solids exceeding safe levels.

Far from being a fringe scenario, water contamination from the drilling operations in Franklin Forks seems likely, once we understand the geology and the physics.

Extreme pressures are induced into large volumes of fluid underground by expending tremendous energy at the surface. Like the energy transferred into the rubber band of a slingshot, or like lifting a heavy weight up, this energy is not lost, but STORED. 

The "charged" fluids pumped underground do not want to stay there, and will find the way back to the surface using the path-of-least resistance, which in the case of Franklin Forks, is likely to be the fault-network in the Upper Devonian formation which lies above the Marcellus.


But you're not a scientist! What are your credentials!?

Lastly I want to address this common criticism. This is used even towards academics which try to explain phenomena outside their primary discipline.

e.g., typical attack-job from Gas Industry PR people:
"Dr. X is a CHEMIST! He's not qualified to speak about GEOLOGY!!"

But this demonstrates a lack of understanding about how science works.

 Before science, there was only the clergy and theocracy. The High Priests were the only ones qualified to interpret or even read the Truths of the Holy Word of God. Recall: Martin Luther's great heresy in 1522 was to translate the Bible into the common language of the people.

But during the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution held that TRUTH was not only the purview of the clergy, but the COMMON PERSON. Science at is root is based on OBSERVATION and REASON.

I submit this information to you NOT because I am an authority. I am not. But I do have eyes and reason, and so do you.

I encourage you to independently verify any claims I have made here. If you find errors, please let me know and I will make corrections.

William Huston


james wright said...

Bill: You have totally ignored something in your analysis: fluid absorption. You are assuming everything is solid below the surface. It is virtually impossible to conclude that all that material is impermeable. You have also made those 20 ft water balls WAY out of scale as well as the distance between them and the distance from the surface. Suggestion: unless you have an advanced degree in engineering like myself and others, stop pretending you are one. Your repeated use of "could", "likely", etc are not the kinds of descriptors engineers use.

Joan Itaska said...

This is an excellent analysis. You've done a lot of work and illustrated it with very visual, easy to understand graphics.

Bill Huston said...

Hi James, couple of questions:

1) What is your "advanced degree in engineering" exactly, and from what university did you obtain it?
2) Is "James Wright" your real name?
3) If you are saying I've made a factual error, please state it clearly. I am always happy to correct errors.

I did state that the drawing was not to scale. In fact, if you search for images of "hydraulic fracturing", you will find that NONE ARE TO SCALE, so please don't single me out.

The point of the diagram is to give people a sense of the amount of fluids involved, and how they are distributed.

As I stated at the end, if you are using the "appeal to authority", then you lack a basic understanding about how science works. Science is not about a clergy which speaks the holy truths. Science belongs to everyone who has eyes (for observation) and a brain (for reason). Have a nice day!

james wright said...

Bachelors in Electrical engineering from RPI. This level of education makes it very easy for me to differentiate between BS and real science. My real name?? I would never divulge it as I have seen Vera in action on Youtube with Phelim McAleer with her cursing and insults - I do NOT want her or shill Silberman-Gorn in front of my house with her and her ever present camcorder. My compliments on the quality of your presentation, but the "not to scale" must be on every pic or a large letter disclaimer at the top (good engineering practice). As far as a "sense of the amount of fluids involved" you will find it difficult at best to even see the water balls if done to scale. Try it and see. Again, good job on presentation, but lacking in technical robustness (i.e. omission of strata permeability and other factors).

Bill Huston said...

Bachelors in Electrical engineering? How does that relate to geology?

Again, the shape of the sphere was only used to give people a sense of the volume of water, and to give a sense of mass for the slingshot graphic, which illustrates a sound scientific principle (force due to extreme pressure gradient).

I didn't mention permeability of the shale, because it is not statistically significant.

The NYSDEC's SGEIS document has at least 100 references to permeability, and in every case saying that shales are LOW permeability, beginning with the sub-title:

"Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and Other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs"

Here are a few more:

"Permeability (a measure of a material‟s ability to transmit fluids) is also low in shales and is typically between 0.1 to 0.00001 millidarcy (md).7 Hill et al. (2002) summarized the findings of studies sponsored by NYSERDA that evaluated the properties of the Marcellus Shale." (p.315)

"Shale is a natural, low permeability barrier to vertical movement of fluids and typically is considered a cap rock in petroleum reservoirs (Selley, 1998)" (p.562)

... many others.

I only asked you your real name to establish your credibility. For months you have left abusive comments on my blog, which I seldom post because they contain no valid question, or substantive comment. Just insults. As you have done above.

No one is going to come to your door. To suggest that Vera or Isaac or I have every done that is absurd, false, and defamatory. (

Don't think you can get away which such crimes by posting anonymously.

Again: You misuse the word "shill". There are EXTREMELY few people fighting toxic shale gas mining in NY who are paid, and Isaac is one of them, and from what I understand, it's not much.

However, calling someone a "shill" who is doing public service work is just not correct.

A SHILL is someone who works in PUBLIC RELATIONS or ADVERTISING who is PAID to sell a product, and is paid from the profits. Energy in Depth are shills. Exxon's "gas blonde" Brooke Alexander is a shill. George Stark, Bill desRosiers, Susan Oliver, Tom Shepstone, Phelim McAleer are shills.

Because you are writing using a FAKE NAME, I would say there is a near-certain probability that YOU are either a) Gas industry PR, b) a pro-gas leased landowner, or c) owner of a business who is making lots of money from Gas development.

SO if anyone should properly be called a SHILL, i.e., someone who promotes a DEADLY industry because they are PAID to do so, it is YOU sir.

...Have a nice day :)

james wright said...

Bill: You're correct, electricity is not geology, however, there is significant overlap between all engineering disciplines regarding mathematics and the sciences. Because of this, anyone with an engineering degree is able to quickly UNDERSTAND fully most concepts in other disciplines other than their own. This is something a layman cannot do due to lack of education (this is not meant to be derisive). As far as strata permeability, why do you just focus on shale? There are other types of sedimentary layers between the shale and the surface that can either inhibit migration of gas or frack fluid or absorb them. Lastly, I do own land that is not leased. When everyone in this country starts to believe that it is somehow evil to supply the world with energy and make some money from doing so, we are doomed as a civilization. Think of your plane. Check out today's Press page 5....good reading.

Bill Huston said...

Yes, "james", scientific principles are interdisciplinary. I first became aware of this when I realized the formulas used to describe a mass on a spring were the same formulas used to described resonant tank circuits used in electronic oscillators. I've seen many examples of this over the years.

Yet, to imply that I am a "layman" is a slur since you have no idea what my background it. This also purports a kind of "cult of credentialism" which I've written about many times.

I am college educated and have worked in engineering fields for 30+ years, including ~14 years in IC design.

But-- I have known a few TOP engineers who were self-taught, no or little college. If we look through history we find many similar examples.

All engineers study calculus. Did you know Leibniz was self-taught? What about Michael Faraday, who discovered some very important principles about the electromotive force and radio waves? Did you know he was an autodidact? What about Buckminster Fuller, one of the greatest interdisciplinary scientific minds of our modern era? 100% self-taught. Leonardo da Vinci? Thomas Edison? Was he unqualified to practice science? The Wright Brothers? Have they been "thoroughly discredited" because their lack of formal education?

I want to remind you that is is YOU GASSERS who are commonly attacking people's credentials (or lack of) and insulting people because they either "don't have an engineering degree" or else they are a PhD/professor talking about something outside their core discipline, as you have done in comments many times on my blog, and in this thread.

This argument is specious and unsound and demonstrates a lack of understanding, of not only the history of science, but how the practice of science fundamentally works.

I have personally studied the philosophy of science for 30 years, both inside the academy and on my own. So please stop trying to discredit me and others by this BULLSHIT argument. I have eyes (to see) and a brain (to reason) and this is ALL that is required to practice science. I make errors, and so do PhD's. I am always happy to correct my errors. This does not invalidate my entire body of research and reporting.

Yes, I saw the paper. I'm glad to see they reported that study was industry funded. Just goes to show when they try hard, and know they are being observed, when using green-completions, they can keep emissions down. HOWEVER, they are NOT using green-completions in PA mostly. They are still flaring, and they are still venting pipelines, which are major sources of emission. (The paper only studied emissions from the well site and not downstream sources).

james wright said...

Bill: I did not infer you were a layman and I apologize if that is how you took it. However, referencing desmogblog is hardly an exercise in scientific analysis. Why is it that your side finds NOTHING advantageous about nat gas extraction? The list of criticisms and negatives is literally endless: truck traffic, noise, spills, methane emissions, bright lights, diesel fumes, casing failures, aquifer contamination, no gas in NY (that's a rich one that a lot of people are smiling about), cutting down trees, pipelines, etc, etc, etc. The fact that you can say nothing positive about speaks volumes about your agenda and intent and the public at large recognizes this. If you want to be really worried about something, why is it that the aging Indian Point Nuclear Plant 38 miles above NYC on the Hudson is ignored by your side? If this plant melted down, it would make a major fracking accident look inviting.

Bill Huston said...

> Why is it that your side finds NOTHING advantageous about nat gas extraction?

Natural gas, and petroleum engineering, is miraculous. I am not anti-gas or anti-oil. Certainly our lives have been enhanced by all of the myrad products which come from the miracle of petroleum chemistry.

It's pollution I'm against. It's the destruction of our communities I'm against. I'm against bullies coming in from out of town, and taking over, and destroying our local democratic control, as has happened in Pennsylvania.

It's not just the Montrose is a "Company Town". It's Susquehanna County, and Bradford County, and the entire state government all the way to Harrisburg.

The people are terrified to speak out from being BULLIED by PR Operatives LIKE YOU. The regulators don't do anything (making tons of cash from Permit Fees!), and the people can't even call the police to help, because most of the force is working for the gas industry P/T as security guards.

FACE IT: Peak oil is real, and to keep this hydrocarbon gravy-train going requires reckless and cavalier yahoos cutting corners and getting exemptions from every environmental regulation on the books. WE MUST get off fossil fuels ASAP or it is GAME OVER for the climate. Just google Vostok Cores, 400 ppm, and Cambrian Extinction and see what comes up.

GET LOST, SHILL or I will file criminal harassment charges against you, and we will subpoena web logs and find out WHO you really are and WHO you are working for. LAST WARNING-- LEGAL NOTICE.