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Natural Gas All illustrations Courtesy Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue

Published on August 28th, 2014 | by Roy L Hales

19

Fracking’s Impact On Water Quality

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August 28th, 2014 by  

Originally Published in the ECOreport

Dr Allan Hoffman recently compared the fracking boom to the market for illegal drugs. Regardless of the problems, there is simply too much money to be made, and he expects the boom to continue for several decades. Together with Professor EM Gustav Olsson, of Lund University, and Andreas Lindström, of Stockholm International Water Institute, Hoffman has just written a report entitled, “Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue.” As the title suggests, the focus is fracking’s impact on water quality.

Shale gas is so abundant, and production costs so cheap compared to other fuel sources, that the authors predict the boom is just beginning.

Living in a province (BC) whose Premier sees natural gas exploitation as a trillion-dollar opportunity, I found much to reinforce my concerns.

Hoffman et al. claim the number of incidents is relatively small. Their report is not the spin you sometimes find in industry publications. To the contrary, they cataloged the problems, and that gives them credibility in my eyes.

In the executive summary, the authors state (p 5):

Water quality is also under threat from fracking as well as the quantity available. Many chemicals used in the fracking fluid (the composition of which is often protected for commercial confidentiality reasons) have increasingly been found to be harmful both to the environment and to human health, yet poor regulations and legislation governing fracking often allow accidents which contaminate surrounding water sources.”

Some drought stricken Californians can attest to the report’s comment (p 14) about energy generation being given a priority for water “in mature economies such as the EU and the US.”

Among the questions yet to be answered, there are (p 7)“the climate impacts of methane leaks during fracking operations and of CO2 released when methane is combusted… as well as the risks of contamination and depletion of water resources”

(p 20) “ … There have been several mishaps with hydraulic fracturing affecting groundwater aquifiers. Often the regulations have been far from strict and not strongly enforced by the regulators (Gruver, 2011). As long as there is not a transparent and strongly regulated operation in is difficult to minimize or remove all the risks…”

There is a section about micro-quakes. One of the examples cited (p 21) is the six earthquakes, ranging from 2.6 to 3.8 in intensity, that hit Oklahoma during a two day period in April 2014.

“ … According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, ‘ … not even four months into 2014 the state has already experienced more earthquakes (252) than it did in the entirety of 2013 – itself a record breaking year with 222 quakes recorded.”

The authors believe most of the excesses can be eliminated. The key is (p 5) “ … developing codes of conduct and regulatory systems governing fracking so as to protect water resources and the environment. It should be adopted by all nations currently exploiting or liable to exploit shale resources as part of their energy supply.”

Have the governments of the US, or Canada, or any of their states/provinces shown themselves willing, or capable, of making the welfare of their people a priority in this issue?

Anyone who has looked into situations like this can probably cite individual politicians whose dedication to their people is obvious, but collectively, the picture is not as encouraging.

So far, there has been little to suggest the current Canadian government is composed of anything more than industry stooges.

In the US, (p 21) the shale gas industry is exempt from regulations under the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the industry does not have to disclose what chemicals it is pumping into the ground.

However, four American states have taken a lead to bring this situation under control:

(p 21) “ … As a result of this increased seismic activity in the mid US, and despite denials of a possible linkage between fracking and earthquakes by the American Petroleum Association (‘Shale Energy: 10 Points Everyone Should Know’ API October 2013) state officials from Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas and Kansas have recently initiated efforts to co-ordinate and strengthen regulations and permitting standards for fracking operations.”

The authors of this report conclude (p 29):

“… The financial and other benefits of fracking are too great to stop it, despite the risks, and we will have to deal with fracking for many decades ahead. Investments in fracking are also likely to delay needed global investments in clean energy (efficiency and renewables). Careful understanding of the full spectrum of risks, and strict regulation of fracking at national, regional and local levels will be required. Given the costs involved in ameliorating risks we can expect some attempted shortcuts by extraction companies (especially smaller companies with limited financial resources) and occasion accidents. However this is true of other energy sources as well and is an inevitable part of supplying energy needs. It will be society’s job to create disincentives for these shortcuts, and to educate the public about the risks and tradeoffs, and to keep the pressure on the extraction companies and government officials to adhere to and enforce regulations.”

I would have to agree that vested interests like the natural gas industry are not easily defeated. This does not mean that it cannot be done, but it will not happen quickly and there are sacrifices involved.

This may not be as true in BC, where most natural gas is found on lands effected by aboriginal title, but that remains to be seen.

It is in the industry’s interest to ensure that whatever regulations are needed come into effect.

I would recommend “Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue” to anyone who wishes to know more about the impact fracking has on local communities. It is published by the Swedish International Water Institute and an online copy can be accessed through their website http://www.siwi.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/2014_Fracking_Report_web.pdf

The Print version is expected shorty.

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About the Author

is the editor of the ECOreport (www.theecoreport.com), a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of North America and writes for both Clean Techncia and PlanetSave. He is a research junkie who has written hundreds of articles since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.



  • Lynne Whelden

    Here in northcentral PA, the boom hit us in 2009. Suddenly, almost overnight, they disappeared in 2013 because everyone was heading west to ND for the oil. But now they’re coming back, I suppose to drill deeper and longer in already existing wells. The report doesn’t seem to cover any new ground but simply states what’s been known or bandied about for the past 7 years. But I agree, fracking is here to stay for the next 50 years.

    • http://www.michaeljberndtson.com/ Michael Berndtson

      Probably more like 10 to 20 years. The sweet spot of the Marcellus shale is the focus right now and showing incredible production rates. Beyond the sweet spots, it’s another story. The dynamics of fluid flow through shale is so much different than conventional oil and gas. This has forced O&G R&D to revisit reservoir modeling. Fracking is almost in situ mining at this point. Oil and gas looks at technically recoverable hydrocarbon reserves versus proved reserves. Proved reserves looks at economics of recovery. When money in exceeds money out, the well(s) shut down. Gases biggest market is electricity generation. Natural gas price may increase, justifying drilling and production – or extending out in time proved reserves. However, renewables and other generating technologies step in or re-enter, lowing gas prices. LNG sales follow similar market dynamic.

    • Bob_Wallace

      My understanding is that we had an enormous drilling boom which resulted in a surplus of NG. Prices fell to below the cost of drilling new wells. Rigs would have stopped and gone into storage or gone back to looking for pockets of oil in the old fields had ND oil not appeared.

      Now we’ve burned through the surplus, prices are somewhat higher but apparently not high enough to support much drilling. What is going on now may be in anticipation of higher prices as demand eats up more oil and older well drop in production.

      We are re-fracking played out wells. That’s why you’ll see rigs returning to old wells.

      50 years? I really doubt we’ll have affordably recoverable NG past 20 years. Especially if we ship much more transportation to NG and start exporting as well.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Let me give you the basis for my ‘past 20 years’ guesstimation…

        “This week the Energy Information Agency reported record gas production for 2011 for the Marcellus shale regions. The report is being cited by Pennsylvania supporters of hydraulic fracking as yet more evidence of all things good news when it comes to U.S. shale gas development. At the same time, the Texas Barnett and Louisiana shale gas formations appear to be peaking in production, seeing significant decreases in drilling activity while shale gas development companies such as Chesapeake Energy and BHP Billiton have been quietly writing off billions of dollars of claimed shale gas reserves in those formations as they declare such reserves as no longer economically feasible to extract.

        Just a few short years ago, those same companies were claiming those same reserves were solid evidence of future decades of natural gas supply as part of the U.S. “Shale gas revolution”.

        According to Arthur Berman, an experienced oil and gas industry geologist based in Houston, Texas, a review of the numbers coming out of those shale gas regions show troubling trends. Berman recently released a presentation titled, “After the Gold Rush, A Perspective on Future U.S. Natural Gas Supply and Price”. In his presentation Berman cites, among other things, the following:

        • Shale gas production from the Haynesville formation currently has a 48% annual output decline rate and despite the addition of 724 new producing wells in the last 12 months, shale gas output has now peaked and appears to be declining.

        • It will take more than $13 billion in drilling costs simply to replace the 48% annual output decline of the Haynesville region which translates to finding and replacing an estimated 3.5 billion cubic feet of shale gas per day. The Haynesville region, according to Berman, accounts for 11.5% of all U.S. shale gas production.

        • In the Texas Barnett shale formation “Current production is still flat” according to Berman, even as he noted more than 1,250 new producing wells in the last 12 months. Berman notes that the Texas Barnett shale formation supplies roughly 9% of all U.S. shale gas production.

        • Berman has calculated a 29% annual base rate decline in production within the Texas Barnett which now requires more than 5,734 wells at an estimated cost of $17 billion simply to keep production at its current level.

        The overall message of his presentation continues to state the rapid depletion rates of shale gas wells combined with their much higher operating costs compared to conventional oil and gas wells means shale gas must have significantly higher market prices in order for the companies to even approach breakeven let alone a profit or that of a profit which will satisfy their investors.”

        http://www.examiner.com/article/with-other-u-s-shale-gas-plays-decline-is-the-marcellus-next

        ““…there is only one true gas formation in the U.S. that is increasing production, and that’s the Marcellus. Every other single shale gas play is now in decline. The industry is now much more disciplined in producing gas, as the rig count has gone way down. But I suggest that the price rise is a year or two away because there is so much gas drilling going on in the Marcellus and Eagle Ford. These two formations are making up the shortfall in other regions. At some point in time—nobody really knows when—the scales are going to tip: Gas production in North America will seriously decline. The gas bulls think it’s going to happen quickly, because the hydraulic fracking wells come in like gangbusters and then rapidly decline. An overall decline in supply could drive up the price.

        ….

        All of the easy fruit has been picked. Remember, most of the shale plays were already well known geology, so everybody knew where the oil and gas was. We just did not have the technology to get the stuff out of the ground. As the technology has improved, bit by bit, and the politics has improved, bit by bit, the known shale plays are being developed to capacity. Is there another undiscovered giant like the Marcellus lurking somewhere? Realistically, I doubt it. The industry has very good tools for looking underground. A big monster shale play that would keep the gas glut going for another two or three years is a bit of a stretch.”

        http://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/Shale-Bust-North-America-Natural-Gas-Production-set-to-Seriously-Decline.html

        And here’s a bunch of other stuff I’ve collected re: the expected life of cheap NG…

        https://docs.google.com/document/d/1-AOdErIfv5lqN8C7VTgsVWmxoBu-omG5RwawBX4gTfg/edit?usp=sharing

        • TCFlood

          This is an immensely useful post. Thanks Bob.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Thanks. The info that I’ve collected is pretty much “worst case” stuff. But stuff that seems reasonable, not wild doomer stuff.

            The piece that knocked me back the most was the Slate article that use DOE “proved and probable” reserves and calculated that we had a 21 year supply of natural gas based on 2010 burn rates. Since 2010 we’ve really increased burn rates.

            The 91 year bar includes guesses that there may be gas somewhere that we haven’t yet looked. And I just don’t find that reassuring.

            I think we need to assume that we could run out of NG in about 20 years and plan around that potential unless someone can show us where there absolutely is additional supply.

            I think that means we really need to work on our biogas supply – getting a methane digester on every municipal sewage system – so that we can power gas turbines as deep backup as needed.

      • Lynne Whelden

        Dr. Tony Ingraffea, Cornell prof, showed us a slide 5 years ago where16 wells emanated from (what had originally been) a single well. And that was probably 6-year-old technology then! They’ll milk these wells to the point where parallel horizontal shafts are mere inches apart. That’s why I believe 50 years.

  • http://www.michaeljberndtson.com/ Michael Berndtson

    Sadly fracking is here to stay. The best plays in the US are already in development and production. Illinois fracking regs will come out tomorrow. The Illinois fracking regs were going to be a templet for industry to and states to follow – basically as a compromise to not have fracking regulated at the federal level. This was a deal between environmental groups and oil and gas companies. Other states didn’t really even have such an understanding, Texas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania for example. On Illinois regs:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/breaking/chi-fracking-rules-introduced-20140827-story.html

    What’s been happening over the past several years in the oil patch is horizontal runs of wells are getting longer and the number of fracking stages are increasing in frequency. So wells have more fractures and are longer. Horizontal runs of two miles are becoming more common. Fracking stages were between 500 and 1,000 feet or so. Now they are as close as 200 feet from one another.

    This is important because it means more fluid needs to be injected. This results in more chemicals and more sand. Sand for fracking is already a booming business and will become more so. The only positive thing is some believe too much water is being used per fracking stage. So possibly less water will be necessary. On the other hand, more fracking stages and longer wells means as much or more water. So it could be a wash.

    Funny thing. A company was promoting a clean technology called “waterless fracking” and the stock was being promoted to green minded folks. It turned out to be a scam, per the NPR yesterday.

    http://www.marketplace.org/topics/sustainability/fracking-story-too-good-be-true

    The key thing is fracking was pushed by some environmental groups as a means to replace coal with gas, to fight climate change. Given the land, water and air impacts and the questionable GHG emissions reductions, the green bona fides of fracking for natural gas may be questionable.

    • djr417

      the lesser of two evils…. is still evil.

  • Marion Meads

    We should pass a law to require the fracking industry to close the loophole on the trade secret clause to discole fully the chemical ingredients injected underground by the frackers. There is no need to disclose the proprietary ratios, just the chemicals used in order to keep track of what goes into our water system from the results of the fracking. This loophole was spearheaded by Dick Cheney, a guy with literally no heart and no soul. He just existed to exploit to become rich without regards to future generations or to the planet that he would leave behind.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Seriously. (Though, not sure if Cheney literally has no soul.)

      • No way

        You mean heart? :P

    • No way

      Or just a law to ban fracking all together. I know it won’t happen is the US where cash and corporations rule everything, but it might be possible in the EU at least.

      • MrL0g1c

        I would hope that fracking can be done cleanly, not for natural gas but for geothermal.

    • sault

      And repealing the special exemptions from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that fracking operations enjoy wouldn’t hurt either. If the process was so safe and the drilling companies were capable of mostly policing themselves (as we assume given the way they are currently regulated), why would they need special exemptions to landmark environmental laws?

    • Larry

      Dick Cheney –the original “Tin Woodman” fom OZ

  • JamesWimberley

    The “plenty more shale gas to come” position is controversial. Opinions on the other side go all the way to “pyramid scheme”.

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