Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas extraction is a highly controversial mining process. Both fracking supporters and opponents passionately plead their case. Those in favor of fracking claim the practice is a safe and environmentally sound way of extracting fossil fuels. Those opposed claim fracking is a dangerous procedure that compromises the area’s drinking water supply.
Both pro- and anti-fracking camps have their points and often rely on scientific research and literature to support their positions. People in the middle are often skeptical of wordy reports with unfamiliar and confusing terms. They also have no particular dog in the fight and assess fracking information based on its source and who commissioned the studies.
Remaining impartial is difficult for some. It’s human nature to lean toward a side that reflects personal values and experience. But no matter which way you lean on the fracking debate, it’s impossible to overlook that ground and surface water is the central figure in all hydraulic fracturing operations.
Background Information on Hydraulic Fracturing
Although the theory of hydraulic fracturing sounds simple, fracking’s mechanical operation is complicated and very expensive. Fracking requires big equipment, deep depths, and huge water volumes under immense pressure. However, the financial returns of tapping otherwise inaccessible oil and gas reserves make fracking the extraction method of choice for many of America’s carbon fuel fields.
Hydraulic fracturing technology and techniques started in the 1940s, when readily available gas and oil deposits near the Earth’s surface began depleting. Geologists well knew that massive amounts of fossil fuels lay trapped in sedimentary rock layers lying one or more miles below the ground level. These engineers already mastered the art of vertical drilling to great depths. Now, they experimented with an advanced technique called directional or horizontal drilling.
Directional drilling allows gas and oil well drillers to bore straight down to a geological formation, like sandstone or shale, that’s proven to contain enormous gas and oil reserves. Once at the desired level, engineers turn their drill equipment and horizontally cut through the fuel-containing substrate. That can run on for miles, and it’s only the deposit’s size that limits how much drilling takes place.
Because the rock formation is tight and without seams or fissures as in found in coal deposits, these inventive experts devised a way to mechanically split the rock formations to release gas and oil. To do this, they injected a water-based solution and pumped it under intense pressure. This hydraulic process caused the rock to shatter or fracture. Now, all the drill team had to do was pump out the fuel.
Technical Problems With Early Hydraulic Fracturing
Some early problems faced these professionals. First, to get to the fuel-containing rock layers, they had to pass through the area’s natural groundwater level. This native supply, which held drinking water, lay in wells or underground aquifers anywhere from 10 to 1,500 feet. This region required containing the well shaft in steel or concrete casements to ensure contaminated fracking water didn’t mix with the groundwater table.
Second, the well engineers needed to remove their introduced fracking water and contain it back on the surface. The challenge was making sure the polluted hydraulic fracturing water mix stayed contained on the top. They couldn’t allow it to leach into pure surface water or back into the ground where it would seep into the natural groundwater system.
The third challenge for fracking companies was dealing with their stock of contaminated fracking fluid. Most of the hydraulic mixture was plain water mixed with silica, sand, or mud. That was relatively harmless, but not so with the chemical additives placed in the fracking slurry to enhance its performance. Fracking water residue contained toxic amounts of acid, salt, detergents, alcohol, lubricants, and disinfectants. Fracking water, also known as slickwater, also picked up underground pollutants like radon and methane.
Over the years, scientific advancements designed reasonably effective wastewater management techniques. Recovered hydraulic fracturing water can be stored in closed-contained tanks and ponds and treated to remove harmful substances. Some slickwater is clean enough to be reintroduced into the area’s potable supply. Often, recycled fracking water gets reused in new fracking operations.
The serious environmental problem with fracking is preventing slickwater pollutants from contaminating existing drinking water supplies in surrounding locations. That can be civic water reservoirs where fracking operations are close to communities. It can be underground wells and cisterns used by nearby farms. Or, surface water passing through fracking locations can be easily compromised by toxic fracking water and pass on to downstream drinking water sources, a risk that applies to streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes.
The 2016 Environmental Protection Agency Hydraulic Fracturing Report
Since the early fracking days, concerned environmentalists and water protection stewards expressed concern that hydraulic fracturing operations were a serious threat to drinking water. That concern applied to both surface water and groundwater supplies. Fracking opponents argued that no matter how careful fracking operators claimed to be, there was no safe way to mitigate the unnecessary risk hydraulic fracturing posed to critical freshwater supplies.
Responding to water protection interest groups and the hydraulic fracturing industry, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned a study into fracking water pollution. The research and assessment phase started in 2010 and issued a first or preliminary report in 2015. A second and final report in late 2016 addressed errors and flaws previously made. These releases resulted in a controversial overturn of specific wording that altered the EPA’s original finding of how realistic the threat from fracking water really was.
The EPA report is officially titled "Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States." Not surprisingly, critics claim the report unfairly supports the "big money" oil and gas industry. Others in the fossil fuel lobbying camp claim the report unfairly blames the industry for reckless disregard of human health in search for profits. In the middle is the EPA administration that admits they erred in the first report and attempted to soften the mistake in their second release.
The EPA report errors come down more to a play on words than their investigation process or information. The first report of 2015 concluded that hydraulic fracturing "posed no widespread, systematic risks" to drinking water. That conclusion didn’t pass the EPA’s own advisory board or peer reviews. The modified 2016 report concluded that fracking "impacts drinking water resources under some circumstances."
The Dimock, Parker County, and Pavilion Cases
That dramatic turnaround partially came from three well-known and documented American cases where fracking allegedly polluted drinking water in Dimock, Pennsylvania, Parker County, Texas, and Pavilion, Wyoming. For years, collective rural and urban citizens in these mid-America locations took the fracking industry to task over polluted wells and reservoirs.
The Dimock, Parker County, and Pavilion complainants had a credible case, which they put to the EPA during their five-year study. To the complainants’ dismay, the first EPA report made no mention of their claims, despite their cases being among the most provable links between fracking and polluted drinking water. Feeling the pressure, the EPA made a brief mention of the Dimock, Parker County, and Pavilion claims in "text boxes" but buried them well inside the many-page report.
These three cases being neglected by the EPA and then briefly mentioned angered many anti-fracking individuals. The EPA already had a reputation and credibility issue going into the study. It appeared they represented the official federal government policy on supporting oil and gas fracking and didn’t have an objective agenda. The national energy policy clearly reflected a move toward American self-sufficiency in harvesting national fossil fuel reserves.
Fracking happened to be the quickest, easiest, and cheapest extraction method. No one denied this, but the shell game around how seriously fracking threatened drinking water supplies continued. The EPA outlined their views about effective and responsible hydraulic fracturing in their report.
Drinking Water Impact Within the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle
The EPA carefully worded the final report to ensure readers knew their information was subject to "uncertainties and data gaps." That left them unable to give forceful and sound conclusions about how detrimental fracking was to adjacent potable water supplies. In an attempt to offer useful and tangible information, the report qualified the risk as ranging in "frequency and severity" that "depended on the combination of fracking water cycle activities and factors." They identified these activities and factors as the following:
- Withdrawing water used for hydraulic fracturing from local drinking water supplies during drought times or when water availability was low, including places where limited or declining groundwater occurred.
- Accidental spills when fracking chemicals and fluids were unintentionally released, and large polluted water volumes and chemical concentrations reached groundwater resources.
- Hydraulic fracturing fluids were injected into wells that had inadequate mechanical integrity and allowed liquids or gasses to move into groundwater supplies.
- Hydraulic fracturing fluids were directly introduced or injected into groundwater resources.
- Inadequately treated fracking wastewater was discharged into clean surface water.
- Untreated fracking wastewater was discharged to or stored in unlined pits and resulted in contaminated groundwater.
The EPA highlighted that one or a combination of all these activities and factors could compromise unpolluted drinking water reserves anywhere in reasonable proximity to hydraulic fracturing operations. They did not attach blame to any particular corporation or identifiable entity. Rather, the EPA described an overall fracking system that could easily fail without proper safeguards and oversight. They broke the fracking system into five distinct stages in the water handling cycle:
- Stage 1: Acquiring water used for hydraulic fracturing. Initial fracking operations require large water volumes. Often, this source is local potable drinking water supplies, like aquifers, wells, and surface reservoirs like lakes and rivers.
- Stage 2: Mixing fracking water with chemicals. Additives like surfactants, detergents, and cutting agents help the pumping and pressurizing process.
- Stage 3: Injecting hydraulic fracturing water. High-pressure injection forces fracking water into cracks, fissures, and pores in sedimentary substrates, allowing them to crack and release fossil fuel.
- Stage 4: Collecting wastewater from fracking operations. Slickwater containing natural and man-made pollutants needs to be collected and pumped back to the surface for treatment and disposal.
- Stage 5: Managing wastewater back on the surface. This process is cumbersome and expensive. Fracking water needs safe storage while treating and reintroducing it into the environment as pure and potable water.
Removing Chemicals From Polluted Hydraulic Fracturing Water
Just the thought of having dark water from a hydraulic fracturing operation infiltrate your drinking water is enough to make most people sick. It has to be a nightmare for folks like those in Dimock, PA, Parker County, TX, and Pavilion, WY. Their fight against the oil and gas companies continues, and they’re bound to be a drop in the bucket as hydraulic fracturing activities continue to grow across America.
According to an article in Live Science, there were approximately 276,000 natural gas wells across America in 2000. By 2010, that jumped to 510,000 wells, and the latest figures from the Department of Energy (DOE) indicate that 13,000 new wells come online annually. The DOE estimates that in 2014, over 15.3 million Americans lived within a mile of a fracking site drilled since 2000.
Three of America’s largest hydraulic fracturing areas are the Bakken Formation of the Great Plains from Canada down to Texas, the Marcellus Shale reaching from New York to Virginia and the massive gas field in the Great Lakes region. The Marcellus Shale is America’s richest and most accessible frack site. It’s known as the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas" or sometimes "Frackistan."
Every living thing needs a safe water supply to survive. That includes the Americans living near a hydraulic fracturing site who have a real concern about their drinking water purity. While few individuals can do much to stop oil and gas fracking in their neighborhoods, they can do a lot about protecting their family’s health by removing chemicals from their water supply. That insurance comes from investing in a high-quality water filtration system.
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