The Weekly Beaker: Don't be frackin' crazy
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012 23:09
“Don’t be frackin’ crazy.” That’s what the sign in my window says. But despite this obvious bias, I am going to give an objective scientific account of how hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, works. Then I’ll get biased.
Conventional and unconventional drilling techniques tap into natural methane reserves located deep in the earth. Methane is a desirable energy alternative to fossil fuels because it’s cheaper and burns more cleanly than coal. Economic benefits include creating jobs and accruing a domestic energy source. But if methane leaks without being burned, it is quite harmful to the atmosphere—it traps 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.
Conventional drilling has been used since the 1800s to recover natural gas thousands of meters under the earth’s surface. This procedure involves drilling straight down or at an angle into pockets of methane in shale deposits and extracting the gas. It has a relatively high ratio of extracted energy to energy used, making it an attractive drilling option.
However, the United States has mostly exhausted the natural gas accessible through conventional drilling. Remaining gas reservoirs are thinner and more diffuse, and conventional drilling isn’t precise enough to reach them. This is where unconventional drilling—fracking —comes into play.
Fracking expands conventional techniques in two important ways. The first is horizontal drilling. After engineers drill to the stratum of the gas deposit, they drill sideways into rock formations. Then, in order to fracture the rock and release the hard-to-reach methane, a mixture of water and chemicals are blasted into the well bore, cracking the shale and allowing methane to bubble into a well where it is harvested.
A fracked well typically uses between two and nine million gallons of clean water, transported by about 200 tanker trucks. It is combined with chemicals which prop open and lubricate the fissures in the rock and prevent bacterial growth. About half of this mixture stays in the ground and the other half is regurgitated and then (in theory) stored, treated and disposed of.
The use of these chemicals was scrutinized because many drilling companies kept their proprietary formulas confidential. But in 2011, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released an informative report. About 750 chemicals are used by drilling companies and 25 of them are classified as hazardous under the Clean Air Act, nine of the chemicals are on the blacklist of the Safe Drinking Water Act and 14 are known or potential carcinogens, like benzene. Harmful subterranean chemicals like arsenic and mercury present at these depths sometimes wash up in the flowback as well.
In West Virginia, 75,000 gallons of fracking wastewater were released into a forest over a two-day testing period, with roughly the same result as taking a bath in hydrochloric acid. Within two days, all ground vegetation had died; in 10 days, tree leaves began turning brown (in June); and in two years, more than half of the trees had died.
The most problematic part of fracking is the lack of regulation and the number of errors in procedure due to negligence or ignorance. Of course, the wastewater is supposed to be treated before being disposed of. But in reality, sometimes the wastewater is simply dumped into rivers. Sometimes it’s stored in a pit; then it rains, and the pit overflows.
The well bore is supposed to be lined with foolproof concrete to seal in methane for collection. In reality, the cement cracks and unsafe methane levels have been reported in many homes’ drinking water. In one of the most memorable scenes of Gasland, the documentary that brought fracking to national attention, a Colorado man’s faucet water erupts into flame as he holds a lighter near. Methane also leaks into the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse gas effect.
And despite linking both fracking and wastewater disposal to increasing numbers and magnitudes of earthquakes, in 2009, only 3 percent of the 75,000 fracking wells in the country were seismically monitored.
How long can the end justify the means? Natural gas burns cleaner and costs less, but we must vandalize the earth to harvest it. The issue transcends politics and enters the realms of our wellbeing, the future and the conservation of the natural ecology which has sustained humans for as long as we’ve existed.