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What The Frack – hydraulic fracturing explained

With the Mayan doomsday date, December 21 2012, drawing closer and predictions from psychics all over, I decided to pay a trip to a local psychic.
 
flickr | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
flickr | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Natural gas burns cleaner than both coal and oil, it emits less carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and the U.S. Energy Information administration says when used in a combined cycle-power plant, natural gas emits less than half of the CO2 coal combustion does. 

Extracting this natural gas, however, is not so easy. ProPublica reports that nine out of 10 natural gas wells in America use hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, to obtain the energy source. 

Both the process and the regulations surrounding the industry have become controversial. Many environmental groups claim rules and regulations are not adequate enough to protect the community and environment, while many corporations are claiming their technology is safe. 

PULP
PULP

Citizens of Colorado communities that experience fracking find themselves in the midst of a debate saturated with jargon and the need for complex scientific understanding. Understanding the law requires understanding the science, which is difficult. Environmental impacts, health effects, and regulations have taken center stage while essential information and statistics remain scattered and muddied with rhetoric. 

Pueblo County will likely never experience fracking but for places like the San Luis Valley, the eastern plains and western slope, natural gas exploration is no stranger. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2011, 80 percent of active natural gas wells were in just eight counties. 

Weld county has the most drilling with 17,388 wells. Other Colorado counties that have a significant number of wells include Garfield with 8,928, Yuma with 3,797, Las Animas with 3,066, and Rio Blanco with 2,095. Thirty-six other counties in the state have a combined 6,371 wells. 

Similar to national statistics, the COGCC says that over 90 percent of natural gas wells in the state use fracking. 

With drilling occurring in many Coloradoan’s backyards, and the debate around the subject is as complicated as the process, the biggest questions behind fracking have become what is truth, what is not and what is rhetoric. 

So, what is fracking, really?

Geologic formations, usually shale, limestone or sandstone, deep in the earth can hold pockets of natural gas. Decomposition of dead organisms within the rock creates the natural gas. In traditional drilling, gas makes its way naturally to porous rock where it can easily be sucked out of the earth. 

Due to the lack of permeability in the deep shale formations, the rocks must be fractured to release the gas. To achieve this, millions of gallons of water, accompanied by chemicals and sand are pumped into the earth with tremendous pressure, thus the term hydraulic fracturing.  

Fracking fluid, chemically and sand infused water, has become controversial for its ingredients. The chemicals are needed for lubrication of the casing as well as breaking down minerals in the earth. 

In 2012, ProPublica published a list of known ingredients of fracking fluid. Ninety-eight to 99.5 percent of the fracking fluid is water. However, what makes up the rest ranges from common household items to what ProPublica calls “just plain weird.”Methanol, pine oil, isoproponal (found in glass cleaners), diesel, instant coffee, lead, formic acid (used for tanning leather) and walnut hulls are among the ingredients found in the fluid. 

Fracfocus.com, a chemical disclosure registry used by 10 states to track the chemical lists, states that there is not a “one size fits all” formula for fracking fluid because every company, geographic location and well is different. Some chemicals may be used to lessen bacteria growth while others are used for lubrication. 

Fracfocus indicates the number of chemicals used in fracking fluid for any given well ranges between three and 12. 

It should be noted that a report done by the Harvard Law School in April indicates FracFocus makes it too difficult for states, including Colorado, to track if companies are submitting their chemical lists. It was reported by the Associated Press that FracFocus creates loopholes and makes it possible for operators “to avoid sharing information required by state law.”

Though regulations vary from state to state, Colorado law requires all operators to maintain material safety data sheets for any chemical brought to a well site. 

Operators are also obligated to “maintain a chemical inventory for any chemical used downhole, in cumulative amounts exceeding 500 pounds in any quarterly reporting period,” according to COGA. 

If physicians or health professionals request the chemicals used in fracking fluid, an operator must oblige. Trade secrets also must be handed over to the COGCC per Colorado law only if the director states the information is necessary in the event of a spill or public health impact, otherwise they are not can remain disclosed. 

COGCC keeps records, reports and inventories on file for at least five years.  However, state law dictates that chemical lists are kept on file for the life of the well plus an additional five years after the well is plugged and abandoned.  

Since the 1940s, when drillers first began using the process, fracking has occurred in around one million natural gas wells. They first started in limestone and sandstone formations but have since become more frequent in shale formations. 

COGA lays out a basic timeline for a typical site that uses fracking. Oil companies must first apply a permit from the state to drill from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee. COGA reports, “this includes well design, location spacing, operation, water management and disposal, air emissions, wildlife impact, surface disturbance, and worker health and safety.”

The COGCC strongly suggests an operator submit a Comprehensive Drilling Plan that lays out “foreseeable oil and gas activities in a defined geographic area, facilitate discussions about potential impacts, and identify measures to minimize adverse impacts to public health, safety, welfare and the environment.” Drilling plans are not mandatory, however. 

After the permit is obtained site preparation usually lasts seven to 14 days. On a plot of five acres, this process includes constructing roads and clearing the well-pad site.  

Regulations prevent drilling less than 150 feet from any property line, building unit, public road or aboveground utility line. If the area around a well is classified as a high-density area regulations become stricter.  

Next the well is drilled, this lasts three to four days for a vertical well and 10-15 days for a directional well. Wells are drilled with fresh water and bentonite clay. Casing is also installed at this time.  

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that “vertical well sections may be drilled hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface and lateral, or directional, sections may extend 1,000 to 6,000 feet away from the well.”

Colorado law requires three different types of casing to line the wellbore, the hole drilled by the bit.

Conductor casing, COGA calls this the first string of casing in the well, is cemented into place and is meant to keep soft formations closer to the surface from caving in and “to conduct drilling mud from the bottom of the hole to the surface when drilling starts.”

Surface casing, which comes after conductor casing, extends hundreds to thousands of feet into the ground. This casing extends beyond all known drinking water sources. 

Production casing is the innermost casing. This isolates the producing interval. 

This casing must pass a survey, the cement bond log which tests the hardness and quality of the production casing. 

The entire casing construction is tested with pressure greater than what is expected to occur with fracking to “ensure the finished wellbore’s integrity,” according to COGA. 

COGA reports that hauling lasts anywhere from 35-40 days, but depending on the time schedule and the contractor there may be days where there is no hauling after drilling. 

Propublica reports, “Roughly 200 tanker trucks deliver water for the fracturing process.”

Actual fracking only lasts one to three days on each well. This includes pumping the fluid through the casing as well as removing the pumps and trucks. 

Fracking begins with mechanical perforations through the casing into the production zone. Perforating guns punch holes through the casing and cement into the formation with charged explosives. 

“Once the perforations are complete, hydraulic pumps and blending equipment pressurize a mixture of water, sand, and other chemical additives into the shale formation to create small fractures,” COGA reports. 

After openings in the casings have been made, the combination of sand, chemicals and water are mixed and pressured down the casing into the shale formation to create cracks. 

These cracks are “propped” open by the sand, which remains after the fluid is depressurized and siphoned out of the well. 

In 2010, the EPA estimated that between 70 million and 140 billion gallons of water are used in natural gas wells in America each year. 

Once the shale formation has been fracked, the gas is released into a wellbore where it can be extracted for the next 30 years. COGA refers to this step as production and reclamation. 

Before the well is sealed, Colorado law says, “All oil, gas and water strata above and below the producing horizon shall be sealed or separated in order to prevent the intermingling of their contents.”

A powerpoint available on the COGCC website from May 6 states there have been 399 spills/released reported, 63 groundwater impacts, 22 surface water impacts, and zero water well impacts. 

The most common cause of these impacts are failure equipment (211 instances), followed by human error (62 instances). Produced water, or the water produced during fracking, is the most common contaminate. 

The possibility and examples of contamination to water has been the subject of much debate over fracking. The COGCC stated, in response to the documentary “Gasland”, each report of contaminated water is investigated and while there have been cases where thermogenic methane, related to oil and gas development, has been found in a well, contamination “is not present” or “the methane comes from biogenic sources.”

The Oil and Gas Conservation Act requires all operators using fracking to contribute $25,000 to the Environmental Response Fund, “a mechanism to plug and abandon orphan wells, perform orphaned site reclamation and remediation, and to conduct other authorized environmental activities.”

Even so, debate over fracking starts before the birth of a well and continues well after it has been plugged. 

The Colorado Hydraulic Fracturing State Review concluded in 2011 that regulations made by the state met standards set by STRONGER, a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization whose purpose is to assist states in documenting the environmental regulations associated with the exploration, development and production of crude oil and natural gas, were “generally met.”

Still, debate continues over whether or not the process of fracking is as dangerous as environmentalist organizations conclude it is, whether or not there are enough regulations, and whether or not these regulations are being followed.  For each region and each instance the worry is a little bit different. For those who don’t experience fracking near their communities, the information can be overwhelming. The topic is complex; as are the arguments. To have a conversation about fracking means starting with the basics.

by Kara Mason

 

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Written by Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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