A group of researchers from Penn State University has uncovered a new issue for fracking, the natural gas drilling method that involves pumping a pressurized mix of water, chemicals, and other substances thousands of feet underground. Until now, one major focus of concern has been fracking water contamination from chemicals in the original fluid. The new twist, according to the research team, is that the spent fluid comes back laden with a brine containing elements that have been locked beneath the earth for hundreds of millions of years dating back to the Paleozoic era. With elements like barium and radium in the mix, the end result could be costly new regulations for the transportation and disposal of fracking brine, and new headaches for the fracking industry.
Fracking and Water Contamination
Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. EPA has been moving toward tighter regulations for the fracking industry. Progress has been slow partly because fracking was exempted from federal regulation under the Clean Water Act, and drillers were entitled to keep the ingredients in fracking fluid a secret.
The notorious case of drinking water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming is one example of the difficulty faced by EPA investigators in confirming the connection between fracking and specific instances of water contamination. However, anecdotal evidence has been steadily mounting that contaminants in the original fracking fluid, as well as escaped gas, have been entering drinking water wells.
The Penn State team looked at another aspect of the operation, which is what happens to the spent fracking fluid after the drilling operation.
Prehistoric Elements in Fracking Brine
The research paper is available online at Applied Geochemistry. It covers flowback from fracking operations in the Marcellus region, which covers heavily populated areas in the Northeast including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.
The research team used four different sources of data covering Marcellus wells, primarily in Pennsylvania. That included one group of conventional oil and gas wells, and three groups of gas fracking wells.
According to the study, in a typical fracking operation, only about one-quarter of the original fracking fluid returns to the surface. The study found that a major component of this fluid was a highly saline brine, which was not consistent with the salinity of the original fracking fluid.
The high levels of salinity, though, were consistent with deposits during the Paleozoic era, which also include naturally occurring barium and radium.
Though the ancient elements are highly diluted, the study concludes that the levels are high enough to be out of compliance with drinking water standards, with consequent implications for the safe handling and disposal of flowback water.
The Hidden Cost of Fracking
Fossil fuels are popular because they are relatively cheap. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. When public health and environmental issues are factored in, costs begin to mount and the luster begins to fade.
In addition to water contamination issues, a recent study by Cornell University suggests that the fracking industry will eventually need to address the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during fracking operations, in the form of methane gas leakage.
Earthquake risks are another consideration, as are other local effects including new traffic patterns (primarily due to heavy truck traffic) and the potential loss of value for farmland and other nearby properties.
Fracking is nothing new, by the way. It has been flying under the radar for years, primarily because it was mainly located in sparsely populated areas.
Now that fracking is taking place in heavily populated regions, more people are immediately affected and public awareness is growing.
A recent documentary by Josh Fox on fracking in Pennsylvania called Gasland has helped to push the local effects of fracking into the spotlight. Director Gus Van Sant’s soon-to-be released major motion picture Promised Land (also set in Pennsylvania) will most likely intensify the focus, thanks partly to the star power of leads Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand.
(Note: For those of you keeping score at home, the dinosaur pictured above is not from the Paleozoic era.)
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.