The truth about fracking? — An oilfield engineer seeks to reassure you

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I am a native Montanan, born and raised in Kalispell. I have a deep appreciation for nature and a solid conviction to preserve the environment around me.

I have been hiking and backpacking in Glacier Park since before I could walk, and so has my daughter. I was raised by a mother who was bringing her own canvas bags to the grocery store way before it was in vogue, and making her own tofu from scratch in the ’80s because she couldn’t find it on the store shelves in Kalispell.

My radio dial is tuned to NPR, I recycle whenever possible, and almost always vote for Democrats. But why is any of this relevant? Because I am also a scientist, with an engineering degree from Montana Tech University, and have worked for the world’s largest oilfield service company for 10 years. My business is hydraulic fracturing.

In the narrative concerning hydraulic fracturing, there seem to be two dominant points of view: those who unequivocally oppose it, and those who actually understand it. Unfortunately, those opposed are making a lot more noise. They are pounding their fists on the table and shouting, while those of us with the knowledge and expertise in the field sit stunned, watching as the practice that we’ve safely and consistently executed for decades is suddenly under attack as the villain du jour of the environmental movement.

The emotionally charged arguments made against hydraulic fracturing lead the public to believe that it will turn their children purple, blow up their house, and take away Christmas. The problem is that it’s very difficult to argue against emotional fear using only dry, scientific reason. And dry, scientific reason doesn’t make headlines, or lucrative HBO documentaries.

One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that hydraulic fracturing is a new, experimental technique that hasn’t been tested, isn’t regulated, and is being tried for the first time in your backyard. The fact is that the first “Frac” was conducted in 1947. That’s 66 years ago — think Harry Truman, the Cold War, and Jackie Robinson. It is estimated that as of 2012 more than 1 million fracturing jobs have been done in the United States and 2.5 million worldwide. This is not new or experimental.

So why all of the hype now?

As with most things, oil and gas production follows a path of least resistance. Whatever is easiest to get out of the ground and into your Ford Focus, that’s what we go after first. Next we move on to stuff that’s a little harder to get out, and so on, and so on. Historically, this easy, low-hanging fruit was a sandstone rock (with big pores full of hydrocarbon) that is bordered on the top and bottom by a much denser, harder rock on either side to keep the hydrocarbon in one place. Those dense, hard, border rocks are often shale.

Well, about 15 years ago, we realized that all of those shale rocks that we’ve been ignoring, thinking their only use to us is to be the book ends of the money maker, can actually produce oil and gas for us too. How, you ask? Because of two things: horizontal drilling, and yep, you guessed it, hydraulic fracturing.  

Horizontal drilling is a technique that allows the well to be drilled down, turned 90 degrees and then drilled sideways through the pay zone. This, in combination with the already existing hydraulic fracturing technique to unlock the hydrocarbon from those tight, hard rocks, made shale oil and gas economical.

It’s not that hydraulic fracturing is new, it’s that it’s being used in new rocks, which means it’s being used in new places. In areas like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, large shale deposits have existed for millennia, but now because of horizontal drilling and the realization that we can “Frac” these reservoirs to make them produce, we are fracturing in places we didn’t “Frac” before.  

Now let me clear up a few more misconcep tions that are out there about hydraulic fracturing.

n It is not a drilling technique. I too often hear reporters and protesters referring to “the drilling technique called fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing has nothing to do with drilling. Hydraulic fracturing doesn’t take place until well after the well has been drilled, cased, and cemented. It is a completion technique, to stimulate the production of the well. This is not splitting hairs, it’s a big difference; get the facts right.

n We are not just pumping massive amounts of harmful chemicals into the earth. Fracturing fluid is generally made up of 98 percent water. The other 2 percent is chemicals ranging anywhere from acid to anti-bacterial agents (used in disinfectants), to gelling agents (used in ice cream), to friction reducers (used in cosmetics), to surfactants (used in laundry detergents). And we’re not rubbing these chemicals on your face or washing your clothes with them. We are pumping very small amounts of them thousands of feet below the surface and then recovering most of them when the well is flowed back.

n Hydraulic fracturing is not contaminating drinking water. These fractures are being created about 6,000 feet below the surface. That’s four Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other between the aquifer and the hydraulic fracture. If anything is going to risk the integrity of the drinking water, point the figure at the construction of the well, the steel and concrete barrier that is built to isolate that aquifer from a flowing well.

I fully realize that this does not exonerate the oil and gas industry, but hydraulic fracturing is the one getting all the blame for no reason, and by people who clearly need to take a physics class.

In May 2011, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that she was “not aware of any proven case where the fracturing process itself has affected water…” And just recently, after a year of monitoring, the U.S. Department of Energy released its preliminary results from a landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, which found no evidence that chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers in the area that the study covered, the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania.

n Hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes. In 2012 a study was released by the National Research Council stating that in nearly 90 years of monitoring, human activity has been shown to trigger 154 significant earthquakes, most of them moderate or small, and 60 of them in the United States. Most of this was from oil and gas drilling, damming rivers, and injection of wastewater. Only two cases of “shaking” worldwide have ever been attributed to hydraulic fracturing: a 2.8 magnitude in Oklahoma and a 2.3 magnitude in England, both in 2011. That’s compared to a total of 14,450 earthquakes of magnitude 4 or greater that occur around the world every year.  

In the history of the world, nobody has ever died as a result of an earthquake caused by hydraulic fracturing, but every year on average 150 people die from falling coconuts. Maybe we should shift our attention to the larger concern. Consider this: In Northern California there have been 300 to 400 tiny quakes every year since 2005 because of geothermal energy extraction, and I have yet to see one protest against the practice.  

So what can you do if you are presented with oil and gas development near you?

First you need to understand that keeping your community safe has everything to do with well construction and very little to do with fracturing. A poorly executed cement job will pose a much greater risk than a fracturing treatment ever will. Get involved! Contact the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and the Montana Board of Oil and Gas. Contact the oil company. Ask questions about well integrity; ask to see the Cement Bond Log (CBL) to prove that there is a good barrier between the production zone and the water table. Ask about the life cycle of the well. How will the wells be safely abandoned when they are done producing? What is the disposal plan for flowback water? Understand the risks and educate yourself.

So now you’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, OK, but I drive a Prius, I don’t want or need any of this stuff in my back yard.”

Stop. Right. There.

If you think that because you ride your bike to work, grow your own organic vegetables, and have a wind farm in your back yard, you don’t have a need for all this ill-gotten shale oil and gas, think again. Let’s start with that reusable “BPA free” water bottle full of mountain spring water sitting on your desk. I probably don’t have to mention that the bottle itself is made of plastic. Plastic is a product of hydrocarbons. Your water bottle is not made of unicorn tears; it came to you from the oil and gas industry.

How about that organic cotton shirt on your back? It was most likely made in a clothing factory that is powered by natural gas. That shirt was then shipped to you, not on the wings of doves, but by a semi- truck, powered by diesel fuel. I won’t go on, but it’s safe to say that everything around you, from your cell phone to your flu shot, in some way required oil and gas to be part of your life today. Even that wind turbine in your back yard required plastic and transportation.  

In the grand scheme of things, despite advances in renewable resources, a hydrocarbon free future is a long way off, and in the developed world, extracting oil and gas from the ground is not optional. You need oil and natural gas, and hydraulic fracturing is the reason that they are available to you. So the next time you see a protest to ban hydraulic fracturing, see through the emotional hysteria and avoid a debate without facts, because the reality is often very different from the fear.

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