Two recent letters to The Enterprise have called for either a ban on hydraulic fracturing near National Parks (Dee Fleming, 7/18/12) or a ban in Montana and essentially nationwide (Heidi Strohmyer, 7/24/12).
I think the letter writers have wildly overblown fears of this essential technology for the production of oil and gas. With over one million wells fractured in the past 60 years and tens of thousand more being fractured each year, you would think that widespread environmental damage would be readily apparent based on the remarks in the letters. The truth is quite different. There are no confirmed reports of any damage at all. The gas in water wells alluded to by Ms. Strohmyer is a natural phenomenon as has been demonstrated by state regulatory agencies and predrill testing. The movie “Gasland” preferred to omit this fact in order to make their case against fracturing more compelling.
Comments are made in both letters about the dangers of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. One letter mentions benzene, which is not used at all. The other alleges that carcinogens and other nasty things are used but none are identified. I encourage both authors to look at fracfocus.org to see what chemicals are really used. The number of these chemicals is certainly not 596 (toxic or not), as Ms. Fleming alleges. Whoever came up with that number must have added up all the products offered by all the fracturing companies without acknowledging that every company has essentially the same set of chemicals in their product line. For example, common table salt would then get counted 25 to 30 times. The website lists about 30 or so chemicals that are actually used in hydraulic fracturing. From the website, you can access the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on each chemical and see what health and safety issues might arise with the use of that chemical. An MSDS on every chemical used must be on location whenever a well is fractured. The authors could also learn something about the fracturing process itself from this website and the myriad of state regulations that are in place to ensure it is carried out safely in an environmentally sound way. Included in the regulations for Montana is the requirement to disclose the chemicals used in the frac fluid, and this includes the water and the sand, which together comprise about 99.5 percent of the system.
Ms. Strohmyer must think wells are brought on production by letting them blow like a gusher. There are no large releases of gases and liquids as she suggests, and the produced fluids are contained. Air quality monitors in areas such as Ft. Worth, Texas, and Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing is occurring on a wide scale, show no elevated levels of any chemicals of concern. Those working everyday at fracturing locations are not getting sick and in fact have lower levels of time off for illness than what most industries experience.
There are no confirmed reports of groundwater contamination arising from hydraulic fracturing. Ms. Fleming states that the “dead zone” at Pavillion, Wyo., has been attributed to fracturing. This definitely is not so. If she read the preliminary EPA report on the tests conducted there, she would find no evidence of drinking water contamination via fracturing. The EPA found a trace of a chemical often used in frac fluids in one of eight samples taken from two deep test wells at Pavillion, one at 783 feet and the other at 981 feet. Interestingly enough, the same chemical, also used in cleaning supplies, was found in several laboratory water samples. The EPA test wells were drilled to just above the gas sand that is being produced in the Pavillion field. The production wells, all vertical, are only 1,000 to 1,500 feet deep. No frac fluid chemicals were found in the many water wells (typically 300 feet deep) that have been sampled by the EPA.
Pavillion, with its shallow vertical wells, is not a good example of wells that are drilled horizontally and fractured in shale formations many thousands of feet deep. There is no way that a fracture could propagate through thousands of feet of solid rock to a freshwater aquifer located a few hundred feet below ground level. Fractures are more likely to be less than a hundred feet in length. There is plenty of evidence to back this up.
A nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing would have consequences. You could say goodbye to the Bakken, the Marcellus and to all other shale development. You could also say goodbye to natural gas produced in this country. About 90 percent of natural gas wells and the majority of onshore oil wells would not be drilled at all. Natural gas is used in this country to generate electricity (25 percent last year to coal’s 42 percent), to heat homes, to cook, and for various industrial enterprises. Natural gas exceeded coal as the nation’s primary source of energy in 2011. A frac ban would lead to dramatically increased use of coal for electricity and jeopardize the availability of natural gas for domestic and industrial use. Renewable energy development would also be hindered because gas-fired power plants are needed to back up solar and wind when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. If Ms. Strohmyer gets her way, I hope she is around to take the credit when everyone’s gas and electric bills skyrocket.