See also: http://williamahuston.blogspot.com/2013/07/fracking-shale-as-waste-storage.html
I came across this in Richard Averett's Gas Drilling News newsletter from June 9:
I came across this in Richard Averett's Gas Drilling News newsletter from June 9:
This is the conclusion of a three-part series inspired by the North Carolina General Assembly’s decision to make the disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking a crime here in the Tar Heel State, purportedly to protect the trade secrets of the drilling companies. In Part I, I reviewed why I do not believe that the identities of these chemicals qualify as trade secrets. In Part II, I gave my opinion on what I believe to be the actual motivations for the legislation. This week, I want to direct your attention to an important part of the fracking process that gets very little media attention, the fate of the water and chemicals that are extracted from the well after the underground rocks have been broken. Hundreds of different chemicals are used in the fracking process, many of which are toxic and/or carcinogenic. (For a full list of the typical chemicals used in fracking and their functions please open this link, http://fracfocus.org/chemical-http://chapelboro.com/columns/
use/what-chemicals-are-used). Much of the concern
about fracking stems from the fear that these toxic substances could migrate
underground from the zone where the fracking occurred into underground aquifers
which are utilized for drinking water and/or agriculture. This risk is valid and
there have been a number of documented cases where this appears to have
occurred, with a notable case in Pavillion , Wyoming . (1) But what about the 40% of the fracking liquids which are pumped out
of the well? Where do they go and what sort of risks to they present?
When water is extracted from the well after the
fracking process, it contains a portion of the chemicals it started with, plus
others which are absorbed from the underground rock formations, particularly
hydrocarbons and toxic heavy metals. Depending on the location of the well, some
of the heavy metals may be radioactive. From here forward, I’ll refer to the
mixture of liquids extracted from the well as fracking wastewater.
This is perhaps the best article I've seen about the composition of fracking fluids I've seen.
Fracking Gag Rule Part I: Trade Secret?
By Jeff Danner
Posted May 26, 2014 at 9:06 am
I was in the middle of writing a column about the unique benefits and properties of fertilizer made from seaweed when I got distracted by the North Carolina General Assembly. A Republican-led senate committee has proposed to make it a felony for a citizen to disclose the names of the chemicals used by drilling companies in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process. The purported rationale is that drilling companies claim that the mixtures of chemicals they use are confidential trade secrets. As I will outline below, this claim borders on the absurd.
I have written about fracking several times in the past. For a thorough review of the technology and potential environmental risks please read my previous column, To Frack or not to Frack. For the purposes of this column, here is a very brief summary of fracking. When companies drill for oil or gas, everything is much easier if the deposits are contained in underground rock structures which are relatively porous. The porosity makes it easy for the oil and gas to move from place to place and thus to be extracted to the surface. As time has passed in the United States and around the world, oil and gas deposits contained in porous rock formations have been significantly depleted and drilling companies have started to exploit deposits which are present in low-porosity formations. To extract the oil and gas from these low-porosity rocks, the rocks must first be broken by fracking.
Fracking involves first drilling a hole straight down to the depth where the oil and/or gas deposits reside and then drilling horizontally through the non-porous rocks. Next, millions of gallons of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into the well. Since the temperature below ground is much higher than the surface, the water expands, which creates incredibly high pressures which then fractures the rock. The sand stays within the rock formation to help keep the smaller fissures created in the fracking process open. About 40% of the water and chemicals used in the process are pumped back out to the surface, while the other 60% remain underground.
The chemicals used in the fracking process have several purposes. A partial list includes:
• preventing the sand from clumping together too soon or too tightly,
• reducing the viscosity of the mixture so that it will flow through small cracks,
• preventing corrosion of the metal pipes used in the well, and
• killing bacteria in the water.
Many of the chemicals used in fracking are not soluble in pure water. If these chemicals can’t be dissolved or at least suspended in the water, the fracking process would not work. Therefore, in order to stabilize the chemicals in the water, it is necessary to add some hydrocarbons to the mixture as a co-solvent. Many of the issues and controversies surrounding the environmental risks of fracking are related to the hydrocarbon co-solvent.
The hydrocarbon co-solvent which is typically used is called petroleum distillate. Without going into a lengthy explanation of how an oil refinery works, petroleum distillate consists of a mixture of small to medium size hydrocarbons which were either present in the oil when it was extracted from the ground or created by “cracking” larger hydrocarbons into smaller ones during the oil refining process. Gasoline, kerosene, and diesel are all examples of petroleum distillates. Petroleum distillates generally contain hundreds of different types of hydrocarbon molecules, including known carcinogens such as benzene.
If you are running an oil refinery and want to maximize profits, you operate the equipment so that you manage to sell most of your petroleum distillate as gasoline, kerosene, or diesel. However, because of the nature of petroleum as well as the limitations in the specifications for products like gasoline, the refinery will end up with some distillate left over, for which there is no good commercial outlet. The refinery may be able to sell a portion of these leftovers as paint thinner, but much of it is effectively just waste. It is this waste distillate which is being used across the country as the co-solvent hydrocarbon for the fracking process.
With that background in mind, let’s first examine the claim that the recipes for these mixtures of fracking chemicals used by the drilling companies represent valuable, proprietary trade secrets. Our first hint that this claim is suspect stems from the fact that the technology involved in suspending sand in water and keeping pipes from corroding is neither novel nor complicated. There is certainly some art in calibrating the concentrations of the chemicals to adjust to local geology, but no esoteric or novel science is involved.
Our second hint is that the drilling companies do not invent or own the recipes for the fracking chemicals themselves. Rather, they rely on the one of the four large U.S. oil field services companies – Schlumberger, Halliburton, Flour or Baker-Hughes – who dominate the market. To the extent that a rationale might exist for maintaining trade secrets on fracking chemicals, it would presumably stem from protecting these four companies from one another. Given that all of these companies have been working on the same projects in the same places for decades, they already know exactly what each other are doing. Therefore, the suggestion that a citizen of North Carolina could cause financial harm to Halliburton by disclosing which anti-corrosive chemicals it is using does not pass the smell test.
So if Halliburton and the other companies don’t really need this to be protected by the North Carolina General Assembly, what is the real purpose of this proposed gag rule? I will give you my thoughts on that next week in Part II of this series. The week after in Part III, I will conclude the series by addressing the fate of the 40% of the water and chemicals which are pumped back up to the surface during the fracking process. It seems that the seaweed column will just have to wait.
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Fracking Gag Rule Part II: The Real Reasons
As I write this column, Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) are fast tracking a new law which makes it a Class 1 felony to disclose the identities of chemicals used in fracking here in the Tar Heel State. The purported rationale for this law is that identities of these chemicals are closely guarded and valuable trade secrets for the drilling companies. In Part I of this series, I reviewed how and why chemicals are used in the fracking process ,and why I think the suggestion that the identities of the chemicals used represent valuable trade secrets is absurd.
If I am correct that the legislation is not really motivated by the need to protect the alleged trade secrets of companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger, what are the actual motivations for the drilling companies to advocate for this law? Below are my opinions.
I believe the oil companies and their lobbyists are pushing this gag rule legislation for four reasons, all of which are related to the use of petroleum distillates in the fracking process. If you want the full story on the use of petroleum distillates in fracking, please read Part I of this series. For the purposes of this column you need to know four things about petroleum distillates:
1. They are a low-value byproduct of the oil refining process.
2. They contain hundreds of different small-to-medium-sized hydrocarbons.
3. They are needed as a co-solvent to allow the other chemicals used in fracking to remain stabilized in the water and sand mixture which is pumped into the wells.
4. They contain small concentrations of known carcinogens.
Reason Number 1: Characterizing Petroleum Distillate is Cumbersome
The composition of petroleum distillates is complex, since they contain hundreds of different chemicals. Furthermore, the composition of the distillates continually changes based on the type of oil being refined as well as on changes in the operating conditions of the refinery. Therefore, if the drilling companies had to disclose the chemicals used in each of their thousands of fracking wells, it would require a lengthy and detailed laboratory analysis accompanied by a substantial amount of paperwork. They could do this work – they just don’t want to.
Reason Number 2: Benzene
All petroleum distillates contain benzene, a widely known and feared carcinogen which can cause leukemia. Public disclosure that a drilling company was injecting benzene into the ground beneath our drinking water aquifers would cause alarm.
The drilling companies could point out, correctly, that the potential exposure from the small amount of benzene used in fracking is significantly lower than the amount of benzene which one routinely inhales while pumping gas. (Benzene is used in gasoline to improve the octane rating, which makes your engine run better.) However, I suspect this sort of argument would fail in the court of public opinion. People would just stop listening after “benzene.”
Reason Number 3: Water Pollution Monitoring
If fracking really does take place in Lee and Moore Counties, government agencies and non-governmental organizations will test for water pollution in nearby streams, lakes, and wells. Since, as I pointed out in Part I, everyone already knows what chemicals are likely to be used in fracking, it will not be difficult to know what to look for.
For example, let’s say the Lee County chapter of the Sierra Club detects hexane in Oldham’s Lake outside of Sanford. If a comprehensive list of the chemicals injected into specific wells was available, then it would be fairly easy to locate the source of the pollution. You, my gentle reader, may think that’s a good idea. It would appear that the drilling companies do not.
Reason Number 4: Free Disposal
Of my four proposed “true reasons” for the gag rule, this last one is the most speculative, but to me, the most interesting. As I have explained, the petroleum distillates used in fracking are a low-value byproduct from oil refining. In fact, their value is so low that it is not really worth the effort and expense to try to sell them as paint thinners or fuel additives. Therefore, if you were an oil refinery owner and operator, you probably wish they would just magically disappear.
When the implementation of fracking took off in the U.S. around the year 2005, it created a new and (if you were a refinery owner) exciting outlet for petroleum distillates. So oil companies who are supplying the distillates to the drilling companies have an incentive to maximize the amount of distillate used in fracking, even if it is more than is required as a co-solvent. To the extent that the amount of petroleum distillate used exceeds the amount necessary as a co-solvent, it represents a kind of free and legal chemical dumping. Without having access to the data on the exact concentrations of the chemicals used in fracking, it is not possible for me to be sure that this is happening. However, the incentives to do it are clear and compelling.
There are so many things wrong about this gag rule, I find it hard to organize my thoughts. So please forgive me for resorting to bullet points:
• The reasons that legislators provide for any law should correspond to the actual reasons for the law. It seems abundantly clear to me that this gag rule law has nothing to do with shielding trade secrets. Rather, it seems clear that it is motivated by some combination of the reasons I listed above. Saying otherwise, as the Republicans are, is deceptive and dishonorable.
• With the exception of vital national security concerns, government should always be as transparent as possible. We all live here, farm here, and drink our water here. If the NCGA is going to allow the injection of chemicals underground, it should require full public disclosure.
• As a citizen of North Carolina, I am not at all comfortable with the NCGA deciding to utilize the criminal justice system to address a civil matter such as alleged financial harm to a corporation from disclosure of purported trade secrets. If any of my readers are versed in the law and policy in this arena, I would very much like to hear from you.
I’ll conclude this series next week with an exploration of an aspect of the fracking process which gets far less attention than it deserves: the fate of the water and chemicals that are pumped out of the well after the fracking process is completed.
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Fracking Gag Rule Part III: Wastewater
By Jeff Danner
This is the conclusion of a three-part series inspired by the North Carolina General Assembly’s decision to make the disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking a crime here in the Tar Heel State, purportedly to protect the trade secrets of the drilling companies. In Part I, I reviewed why I do not believe that the identities of these chemicals qualify as trade secrets. In Part II, I gave my opinion on what I believe to be the actual motivations for the legislation. This week, I want to direct your attention to an important part of the fracking process that gets very little media attention: the fate of the water and chemicals that are extracted from the well after the underground rocks have been broken.
Before we proceed, let’s quickly review the fracking process. First, a drilling company locates what it believes to be an underground deposit of oil and/or gas contained within non-porous rock. (If the rock was porous, fracking would not be necessary.) A vertical hole is drilled straight down to the depth of the deposit and then multiple horizontal holes are drilled out from the bottom of the vertical hole. Next a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is pumped into the horizontal holes where high temperatures and pressures combine to fracture the rocks. Approximately 40% of the water and chemicals are pumped back out of the well to the surface, while the sand and the remainder of the liquids stay underground forever. Once this is accomplished, extraction of oil or gas from the well can commence.
Hundreds of different chemicals are used in the fracking process, many of which are toxic and/or carcinogenic. (For a full list of the typical chemicals used in fracking and their functions, please open this link.) Much of the concern about fracking stems from the fear that these toxic substances could migrate underground from the zone where the fracking occurred into underground aquifers which are utilized for drinking water and/or agriculture. This risk is valid, and there have been a number of documented cases where this appears to have occurred, with a notable case in Pavillion, Wyoming.
But what about the 40% of the fracking liquids which are pumped out of the well? Where do they go, and what sort of risks do they present?
When water is extracted from the well after the fracking process, it contains a portion of the chemicals it started with, plus others which are absorbed from the underground rock formations, particularly hydrocarbons and toxic heavy metals. Depending on the location of the well, some of the heavy metals may be radioactive. From here forward, I’ll refer to the mixture of liquids extracted from the well as fracking wastewater.
When fracking wastewater is extracted from the well, it is usually first collected in a temporary, open pond. Both of the adjectives describing the ponds should concern you. Since the ponds are intended to be temporary, there is an incentive to make them just sturdy enough to do the job, with little safety margin for the unexpected. In addition, open ponds often overflow in heavy rains. Spills of fracking wastewater from a pond have a far easier path to pollute our drinking water sources than the wastewater left underground.
Once the wastewater is contained in the pond, the drilling company needs to figure out what to do with it. Given that it is called wastewater, people often think we could send it to a municipal wastewater treatment plant. We can’t. Municipal wastewater treatment plants remove solids with filtration and then clean the dissolved organic material (poop) by letting bacteria eat it. Fracking wastewater includes many dissolved chemicals which bacteria cannot eat.
The fracking wastewater can be cleaned using an expensive, energy-intensive process, the details of which I will omit for the sake of brevity. Given that there are millions of gallons of wastewater produced from each well, the drilling companies are always on the look-out for less expensive solutions for its disposal. A common, less expensive approach is to inject the wastewater into either an old oil or gas well or into a new well drilled explicitly for wastewater disposal.
In Oklahoma, where fracking began in earnest in 2008, there are now thousands of fracked wells, and wastewater injection is a very common disposal technique. The combination of shattering the underground rock by fracking and pumping wastewater into disposal wells has had a dramatic effect on seismic activity. The graph below shows the absolutely stunning increase in the incidence of earthquakes registering 3.0 or higher on the Richter Scale since fracking began in Oklahoma, from a historical rate of one or two a year up to the current level of one or two a day! The geographic correspondence between the earthquakes and the drilling activities (they are in precisely the same places) is nearly exact, leaving very little doubt that fracking and the injection of the wastewater are the cause.
Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to email@example.com. Think that this column includes important points that others should consider? Send out a link on Facebook or Twitter. Also, please note that I am taking a rare vacation from writing. This will be the last Common Science until June 29th.
(1) Reports in the general media will usually cite higher rates of the incidence of drinking water contamination from fracking than you will see in my columns. I’d like to explain why. The vast majority of fracking-related water contamination events reported in the media are situations where the water has a higher than normal level of methane (the primary component of natural gas.) While I understand the rationale for including them, I do not.
First of all, since methane is everywhere, it is present at some level in all drinking water. Furthermore, it is biologically inert. So even if you are ingesting some in your drinking water, you body will not interact with it in any way. Therefore, it can’t hurt you.
Furthermore, since methane is not very soluble in water, your maximum exposure is limited. Due to this low solubility, I would like to note that I feel strongly that the famous scene in the movie Gasland where a man lights his kitchen faucet on fire was a fake. As far as I can tell, it is thermodynamically impossible.
I only count situations where a chemical added to the fracking process, many of which are quite harmful, ends up in drinking water. These situations have been less frequent than methane contamination, but they are far more troubling.