Getting to the bottom of natural gas fracking

There appears to be a lot more natural gas than previously thought.  And that could have huge implications for low-cost CO2 emissions reductions in the near term, if we pass a climate and clean energy bill with a shrinking emissions cap and rising price, as I discuss here.

But can the gas be developed in an environmentally responsible fashion?  That question is explored by Sarah Collins, an intern with the Energy Opportunity team, and Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at CAP, in this repost.  In the 2008 AP photo above, a natural gas well pad sits in front of the Roan Plateau near Rifle, Colorado.

Hydraulic fracturing, also called “fracking” or “fracing,” is a widely used but somewhat controversial oil and gas drilling technique that is opening up new energy possibilities in the United States. It’s also starting to draw a lot of high-level attention in Washington, and this scrutiny is appropriate and overdue.

Fracking has been used in combination with improved horizontal well-drilling technology to help open vast new natural shale gas reserves from Texas to western New York state that were previously locked in deep underground shale formations. Those discoveries have stirred debate on whether natural gas can serve as a bridge fuel to a lower-carbon future by shifting electricity generation from coal-burning power plants to natural gas plants, which emit half as much carbon pollution and no mercury. These newly available natural gas sources could be global warming game changer if gas production can occur cleanly.

But the widespread use of fracking has also raised concerns about potential contamination of drinking water supplies. The fracking fluid that is pumped into wells at high pressure to fracture rock and release natural gas contains sand and vast amounts of water in addition to chemicals that can be toxic to humans. Preventing underground leaks of fracking fluid requires proper installation of well casings and careful monitoring. Surface water contamination is also a concern because once drilling is completed the used fluids are brought to the surface and often stored in ponds that can leak.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said on February 24 that her agency will soon begin a $1.8 million study of hydraulic fracturing, with several million more dollars to come if the EPA’s new budget request is approved. “The [timing] of the study will depend on us being able to adjust our operating budget for the current fiscal year”¦What we’ve done is to try to fund the whole thing out of our budget this year and next year, but we would hope to start this year,” Jackson said.

This follows up on a May 2009 comment by Jackson in which she called allegations of fracking-caused drinking water contamination “startling” and called for Congress to review the process. A consulting firm retained by EPA reviewed 12 contamination cases only to declare that they “may have a possible link to hydraulic fracturing, but to date, EPA has insufficient information on which to make a definitive decision.”

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee has also launched an investigation into fracking’s environmental and public health effects. Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) sent letters to eight companies in the industry on February 18, requesting more information on the natural gas drilling process.

Reps. Waxman and Markey requested documents in six key areas:

  • The number and location of wells using hydraulic fracturing in each state in 2008 and 2009
  • The total volume of production and chemicals used in the process
  • Health and environmental effects of the fluids
  • Allegations that the process harms human health or the environment
  • The percentage of fluids recovered
  • The volume of flowback and produced water

Reps. Waxman and Markey also argued that “information is needed to assess whether the use of the chemicals [in fracking] posed a threat to drinking water supplies” in a memo to the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment that day.

They pointed out in the memo that “EPA has raised particular concerns about diesel fuel, noting that the ‘use of diesel fuel in fracturing fluids poses the greatest threat’ to underground sources of drinking water.” They noted that aside from a 2003 EPA voluntary memorandum of agreement with three top gas and well servicing companies to cease the use of diesel fuel in fracking fluids “there is virtually no federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing.”

As the EPA and Congress began a closer look at fracking, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences held a February 22 briefing on the potential environmental and community impacts of natural gas development using hydraulic fracturing and whether state regulation is adequate. Congress exempted fracking from federal protection standards in 2005 under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and they also exempted well site activities from the Clean Water Act’s discharge permit requirements.

The exemption leaves states responsible for protecting their residents from groundwater and other sorts of contamination, and state protections vary. Colorado provides reasonable protection, while states that are new to the gas industry have few safeguards. New York has suspended production in the Marcellus Shale until it creates protection rules.

For their part, many in the natural gas production industry believe that leaving it to the states is adequate. “Regulations currently in place adequately and appropriately protect the public and the environment,” argues a briefing paper prepared by the natural gas industry.

But Susan Riha, a Cornell professor who led the university’s inquiry, said that proper disposal and treatment of the water containing fracking fluids after it is withdrawn from completed wells is a major concern. In addition to fracking fluids, the water can contain high levels of salt and naturally occurring radioactive materials.

Reps. Waxman and Markey also mentioned some studies of water contamination linked to fracking in their memo to the subcommittee:

In New York, the State Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed wastewater extracted from wells and found levels of radium-226 as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink. Others have raised concerns about water scarcity, since the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of a horizontal shale gas well may require 2 to 4 million gallons of water.

The Cornell study focuses on the Marcellus Shale, a region stretching from the eastern tip of Tennessee to central New York that contains one of the world’s premier gas deposits””enough to meet 14 years or more of U.S. demand according to experts at Pennsylvania State University. Discoveries in the Marcellus Shale and other shale gas formations led the Potential Gas Committee, a group of industry experts and academics, to up its assessment of proven and potential U.S. natural gas reserves by 35 percent last year.

Cornell began its study because of industry interest in leasing some of the university’s land holdings. Both Cornell and New York have put moratoriums on drilling pending further study.

Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would require drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing and to remove the ban on regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) are sponsoring the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, H.R. 2766, while Sens. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) are sponsoring S. 1215, of the same name.

Riha said passage of that legislation would help EPA determine whether fracking is causing contamination of drinking water supplies””assessments that are now difficult because companies don’t disclose what chemicals they are using.

I think they should just move ahead [with legislation] to get more information about how many times chemicals show up in drinking water … because it will help with future studies. If it’s not required [to disclose chemicals used in fracturing fluids], then it will be extremely difficult to study their impact on water supplies.

Industry opponents argue that fracking has been safely done for decades and say the legislation would impose unnecessary burdens both on the oil and gas sector and EPA. Hydraulic fracturing, says the Industrial Minerals Association-North America, “already has been extensively studied” and “further study is unnecessary and would be a waste of limited agency resources.”

It should be noted, however, that some companies, such as Chesapeake Energy, have been willing to cooperate with environmental concerns and have disclosed fracking fluid ingredients.

Determining the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing and establishing new safeguards where appropriate is crucial not just for protecting public health and safety, but for the natural gas industry as well. Among the needed steps are:

  • A thorough and credible analysis of the impacts that a surge in natural gas production will have on our air, water, and special landscapes
  • Expanded industry efforts to reduce methane releases during the production and distribution of natural gas, a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Establishing best practices and encouraging state regulators to enforce them
  • Requiring public disclosure of toxic chemicals used in natural gas production

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14 Responses to Getting to the bottom of natural gas fracking

  1. Yes, the nat gas fracking issue needs to be investigated & resolved with dispatch; else there goes our biggest bridge to renewables, not to mention our retirement portfolio.

    To frac or not to frac?

  2. waynemac3 says:

    As a trout fisherman I have huge concerns about the 2 to 4 million gallons of water required to “frac” a gas well in addition to the waste water that needs to be stored and treated. Pennsylvania’s streams are only now beginning to recover from the effects of coal mining from the middle of the last century. Our local and state officials are blinded by the prospect of tax dollars and are in too much of a hurry to approve drilling. I say, slow down, take a hard look at the gas drilling, get the regs. in position to protect our streams and fresh water. The gas isn’t going to go away, it will still be there after all the studies are done and people figure out how the get the gas out of the ground in an environmentally responsible manner,

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Is fracking like fragging the ground? :-)

  4. WM says:

    An often-overlooked issue is that some natural gas streams extracted with fracing and other modern technologies (e.g., in the vicinity of coal veins) has a high CO2 content. I.e., natural gas from the ground is not pure methane. The accompanying CO2 is emitted as an unconsumed byproduct of burning or, if it lowers the gas stream to an unacceptable BTU level, the CO2 is extracted and sent to the atmosphere.
    Production of CO2 in conjunction with natural gas needs to be investigated. Reinjection (i.e., carbon capture and sequestration) would seem to be feasible since the wells for extraction could be matched with wells for injection. The natural gas industry is very familiar with injecting gas into the ground since it uses natural storage fields in many areas of the country.

  5. Jim Mathews says:

    While this is a pretty balanced summary, there are a few areas that bear clarification:

    Point one: It’s implied that Susan Riha of Cornell led an inquiry and that it’s complete: it isn’t. A team of academics convened by Cornell President Dr. David Skorton is still doing its study and has not reported out yet. Dr. Riha is on that team.

    Point two: don’t underestimate the scale, scope and danger of the frack-fluid chemicals. NY State recently produced (and just closed a public comment period on) a draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS) as a framework for beginning to regulate methane-gas mining in the state. There’s a table on page 96, section six, listing several chemicals that are of serious concern to biologists and research endocrinologists…chemicals which, in any other setting, would by regulation demand special handling, permitting, exposure control, Tyvek suits, the works. Here, they can be injected into the ground in a part of the state where hundreds of thousands of residents depend on well water.

    Formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and 2-be, for example, are known carcinogens and highly volatile. Allowing high volumes of solutions including these chemicals to be stored in open pits (as is done now in Pennsylvania) simply transfers the proven harmful carcinogenic effects from the groundwater into the air. There are other compounds that are suspected, but not yet proven, to be carcinogenic listed in the NY regulators’ table, such as monoethanolamine or xylene. At the volumes that might be expected given estimates of drilling rates eventually topping 30,000+ wells across the state, this amounts to a vast uncontrolled experiment in public health.

    Heavy naptha is a known carcinogen, but unlike volatiles, it persists and can linger in soils for years. These types of compounds simply should not be part of the discussion given that even the relatively small accident rates industry projects add up to hundreds of potential contamination incidents, in absolute terms, across the state.

    In another table, NY regulators say that 4-nitroquinoline-1-oxide was reported at unacceptably high levels (median of 13,908 mg per liter) in all 24 wells tested in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, levels that would prompt immediate health concerns for clinicians. This is a known and very powerful mutagen. But the regulators didn’t even note or acknowledge those levels in the dSGEIS document.

    Point Three: When industry says, repeatedly, that there has never been a single documented case of hydraulic fracturing leading to pollution of someone’s water, it’s a semantic game. Cabot Co. was fined $120,000 by Pennsylvania because it was proven that their actions in hydraulically fracturing a well caused gas to leak into water wells. The hydrofrack crack was not the cause…it was a failed casing. But that casing wouldn’t be there if you weren’t hydrofracking. Casing, cementing, surface spill (either from the site or from trucks), storage ponds, pipelines, all can and have failed…and that IS documented. So to say “it was casing, not hydrofracking” is only true in the most granular sense.

    This isn’t just “a bunch of crazy tree-huggers” espousing NIMBY-ism. There are real dangers which have been inadequately studied and therefore left completely unmitigated. And on top of that, the New York State upstate economy of $7 billion annually is built around lots and lots of clean water: dairies, wineries, apples, and tourism. Methane-mining on 70% of every square mile of land in the 17 upstate NY counties with Marcellus potential translates into eight well pads per square mile, and billions, with a B, of gallons of water more or less permanently removed from the water table every single year while the gas-mining operation proceeds. The odds for incidents at those kinds of numbers get pretty staggeringly high.

  6. David Lewis says:

    This “fracking” for natural gas that is supported by The Sierra Club and many other environmentalists is being done in low grade URANIUM ORE. That is what the Marcellus Shale is. A similar formation, the Alum Shale, was actually mined for uranium in Sweden starting in the 1950s.

    The “fracked” natural gas produced is radioactive. It contains radon gas. Calling this “naturally occuring” radiation and ignoring it while cheering on people shutting down Vermont Yankee over levels of radiation orders of magnitude less is preposterous.

    Merely using regular natural gas in your home for cooking and heating exposes you to 15 times the radiation you would be exposed to if you lived next to a nuclear reactor.

    This shale gas must be far more radioactive.

    I’m not saying the radiation threat that comes from using natural gas, or even this new “fracked” frankengas in the home is very large. If you ask authorities, they say worry about something else.

    But it is insanity to promote the use of radioactive frankengas instead of nuclear power as the Sierra Club is doing. It really is time to take another look at nuclear power.

    People who want to shut down all existing nuclear reactors, i.e. 70% of the entire existing US low carbon electricity supply, are blowing tritium leaks out of all proportion while ignoring the far greater levels of radiation Americans are exposed to from a number of other sources.

    Radioactive natural gas is just a tiny part. A typical coal fired electricity generator puts out 2 TONS of URANIUM into the air and as ash that is dumped in the environment every year. This is quite a number of pico-tons, for those all upset at picocuries. There is so much uranium and thorium in coal ash it also was considered as a source for uranium when scientists thought uranium was rarer than it proved to be.

    According to the National Council on Radiation Protection MEDICAL IMAGING is now the greatest source of radiation exposure for Americans. It has increased 600% since 1980 and it now equals all other sources of radiation Americans are exposed to combined.

    The entire nuclear industry exposes Americans to several hundred times LESS radiation than medical imaging. One study in Massachusetts found that 1/3 of the CT scans done there have nothing to do with medical need. They are ordered by doctors to aid in eventual lawsuits as “defensive” imaging.

    We are almost glowing in the dark as a result of doctors who fear lawsuits, what we fear are the tiny amounts of tritium leaking into test wells outside reactors, and it is time to grow up and realize if we continue denying reality in this way the planet is dead.

    It has always been legal to pipe radioactive natural gas right into US homes where the radon it contains survives burning in cookstoves, enters the room air, is inhaled and starts causing cancer. So, assuming that no one is going to worry about the higher radioactivity of the new frankengas, consider what happens as it is produced:

    Waste water brought up as a result of the “fracking” operations that produce this radioactive frankengas “contain levels of radium…267 times the limit safe to discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink”

    But its Vermont Yankee that is the problem, right? And when it comes to this new gas, it isn’t the radioactivity that’s the problem, its something else right? If we faced up to the actual threats radioactivity presents and put the non threats into perspective, our whole no nukes bandwagon might just go off the tracks and we can’t have that. Maybe we’d realize we had a low carbon alternate low cost baseload power source all along.

    Rather than admit to making a mistake we’d all rather kill the planet. Right?


    The Marcellus Shale formation is “highly radioactive”. Look up–Shale%20Gas/fractured%20shale%20gas%20potential%20in%20new%20york.pdf

    Shales of this type have been mined in Sweden for uranium page 22, The US shales have been similarly considered page 29:

  7. mike roddy says:

    Most of the fracking permits were issued under the Bush Administration, and Clean Water Act exemptions and weak enforcement mechanisms were routine. The whole process must be reevaluated, and the $1.8 million in the EPA budget is not enough.

    The other problem is that half of the CO2 emissions from coal is not good enough. With population growth, we would end up back where we started in a few decades, and bring the world down with us.

    We can also expect cheap natural gas for the next few years, so that alternative energy gets squeezed. Then, the oil and gas companies will raise prices again. These are not nice people we are dealing with here. The future of their grandchildren means a lot less to them than when they get to order their new private jets.

  8. h20_nh says:

    Fracking can be a safe and effective, the chemicals are used deep underground in zones not used for drinking water. Certainly, wells must be constructed properly and there must be safegaurds and/or reasonable geologic conditions that prevent migration of these fluids to potential drinking water sources. With all that said it is the right of the public to know what is in the fluids, this is critical for monitoring efforts.

    There are two issues with the fracking fluids 1) How these fracking fluids are managed on the surface as this provides a direct route to potential impacts on drinking water sources via to streams, rivers or aquifers. But toxic chemicals on the surface can be managed and examined easliy. 2) The tougher task is monitoring the integrity of the well casings. It is imperative that states require casing intergrity tests to be performed so that fracking fluids to not leak into potential drinking water zones which are typically above the natural gas zones.

    It is the perfect example of where some govt regulaton is necessary to protect the public. But this is an issue that can be worked through that will provide a public benefit (less dependence foriegn oil, bridge gap to cleaner energy) and companies can be profitable.

  9. Dave says:

    See the documentary called GASLAND. It’s amazing this activity has been allowed to bypass all existing environmental laws.

  10. paulina says:

    1. What is the industry argument for the claim that listing the components of the fluid is a burden?

    2. How are lifecycle GHG emissions from fracked gas determined, who has studied these, who is using these numbers (rather than those for conventional CH4) in their estimates, etc?


  11. Daniel Ives says:

    RE #9 Dave:

    I have not seen GasLand, thanks for the suggestion. Another great documentary on natural gas development is “Split Estate.” I recommend it highly.

  12. Erik S.G. says:

    FYI, an article from yesterday’s Casper Star Tribune dealing with produced water from coalbed methane wells … part of the water problem is fracking, but it’s not the whole problem:

    Williams cited again for CBM water spills in Wyo.
    By MEAD GRUVER | Posted: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 5:43 pm |

    A recent Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality citation is just part of a series of problems Williams Production Company has had with handling water produced by coal-bed methane wells in the Powder River Basin, state and federal documents show.

    Williams pipes have broken and spilled coal-bed methane water at least 16 times in the basin since August. The combined spills released close to 1 million gallons, according to U.S. Bureau of Land Management documents and the Department of Environmental Quality’s inspection and compliance supervisor, Brian Lovett.

    Six spills within the last 10 days _ including a 21,000-gallon spill just Tuesday _ have totaled nearly 166,000 gallons, Lovett said. On Jan. 6, three spills totaling 420,000 gallons caused the Tulsa, Okla.-based company to receive its fifth state violation notice in four years for improper water discharges in the basin.

    “We’re concerned,” Lovett said Wednesday. “I’m certainly not seeing very many spills from other companies.”

    Eleven spills since August have occurred on one ranch on the east side of the Powder River between Gillette and Sheridan. Ranch owner Billy Maycock has been involved in numerous court battles with Williams and condemnation of his land has enabled the company to drill for coal-bed methane on parts of his ranch.

    “They are externalizing their cost of doing business onto Billy Maycock. They are using Billy Maycock to develop their gas resource and make more money off it by destroying his property,” said Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a local landowner group.

    Coal-bed methane water is often salty, Morrison said, and Maycock’s ranch also has suffered considerable erosion where the spills have occurred.

    “They have no respect for the land _ whose land it is, how it’s treated, how they develop the resource on it. They don’t care,” she said of Williams.

    Phone messages left with Williams spokespeople seeking comment Wednesday weren’t returned. Maycock also didn’t return a phone message Wednesday.

    Coal-bed methane production involves pumping water off saturated coal seams, depressurizing the seams not unlike when a soda bottle is opened. Methane gas condenses out of the water and is pumped to the surface.

    Groundwater is a byproduct of the process. State and federal agencies regulate how coal-bed methane water is funneled through pipes, channels, reservoirs and into natural watersheds.

    Williams has paid $60,333 to settle three of its state violations since 2006, state documents show.

    Morrison called the amount “peanuts” for such a large company. Lovett said the department fines polluters according to a formula that considers past violations.

    He said companies in the past have blamed frigid weather for causing pipes to freeze and burst. He noted that the weather in Wyoming hasn’t been especially cold lately.

    “Whether there’s been a change in water management or moving more water, something’s obviously occurred where we’re seeing this flurry of spill reports,” he said.

    Department of Environmental Quality officials plan to meet with Williams representatives in Cheyenne on March 17 to discuss the latest violation. The Jan. 6 spills occurred in an area where drilling has been suspended since last year while the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reviews safeguards for a local elk herd, Morrison said.

    The spilled water flowed into a creek, which means the state probably will pursue another fine, Lovett said.

  13. Steve H says:

    I was able to catch “Gasland” this past weekend. I think it’s only been screened at four festivals, so it’s not likely many have seen it. While I was aware of fracking’s issues prior to viewing the movie, Josh Fox manages to effectively translate the human side of the story, as well as the ridiculous notion that natural gas production, with or without fracking, is not something we really want. In particular, he has the now Region 7 EPA admin present his findings that natural gas wells are responsible for as much emissions in the Fort Worth area as come from cars.

    Natural gas is a core solution, and despite the fact it burns relatively cleaning, it has an incredible production impact that needs to be addressed right now. I would like to see some grants going to universities to help develop cleaner processes in an open fashion, thus DOE will hopefully become involved.

  14. Richard Brenne says:

    If you want the ultimate perspective on natural gas it’s 12 posts above under “Science Stunner. . .” and it’s about the release of natural gas or methane from Arctic permafrost and hydrates, where it eliminates the middleman and goes directly into the atmosphere, where Jim Hansen thinks it could create a runaway greenhouse effect and make Earth the new Venus (see my comment #61 quoting Hansen about this).

    If your first thought is “How can I make money from that?” then you’re 1) in the energy business and 2) missing the point.