What You Need To Know About Fracking

As noted here yesterday, officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have ordered several fluid-injection wells to be shut down after a series of earthquakes hit the area near Youngstown over the past year. The suspicion is that the injections of wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process is linked to the increased seismic activity. The latest quake occurred on New Year’s Eve. Its epicenter was 5 miles northwest of Youngstown and 55 miles east-southeast of Cleveland, and at 4.0 magnitude, it was forty times stronger than the ten others that preceded it in 2011.

Although I’ve yet to see conclusive proof from an authoritative source (at least from one that has no side-agenda), the evidence that fracking poses serious risks to the environment and to human health is mounting. It seems prudent that we carefully consider this evidence before allowing new projects to commence, and that we closely monitor current fracking operations for signs of trouble.

What follows is a collection of news stories and resources that I hope you’ll find useful in better understanding the issue. I’ve tried to assemble information that, taken together, represents an honest picture of what we know at this point. There are obviously many questions yet to be answered.

I would also welcome your comments and any suggestions for further reading on the matter.

What is fracking?

In short, fracking is a process that uses fluid injections to create cracks in layers of rock deep underground in order to make it possible to extract fossil fuels, or to increase extraction rates. After the fluids create the fractures, sand or some other particulate is injected as well in order to keep the fractures from closing back up once the injection is stopped. Here’s how Schlumberger Limited, a leading oilfield services provider, describes hydraulic fracturing. “A stimulation treatment routinely performed on oil and gas wells in low-permeability reservoirs. Specially engineered fluids are pumped at high pressure and rate into the reservoir interval to be treated, causing a vertical fracture to open. The wings of the fracture extend away from the wellbore in opposing directions according to the natural stresses within the formation. Proppant, such as grains of sand of a particular size, is mixed with the treatment fluid to keep the fracture open when the treatment is complete. Hydraulic fracturing creates high-conductivity communication with a large area of formation and bypasses any damage that may exist in the near-wellbore area.”

Why is it controversial?

There is evidence to suggest that the process can release hazardous chemicals that eventually find their way into waterways and even into drinking water supplies. There are also the aforementioned concerns about seismic instability that can be caused by the fracking process itself as well as the process of disposing of waste fluids. Mining of sand used in the process may also cause environmental degradation. Of course, there is also the overall concern about climate change caused by continued burning of fossil fuels.

Here’s an excellent article from the BBC that presents a clear explanation of the process and an extremely balanced view of the issues and concerns involved, both economic and environmental.

Additional Recent Reports, Resources and Related Links of Interest

These are simply things that have caught my eye apropos to the subject at hand. I’ll continue to post relevant material on this Weblog as I find it.

Expert: Wastewater well in Ohio triggered quakes. [CLEVELAND (AP)] – A northeast Ohio well used to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas drilling almost certainly caused a series of 11 minor quakes in the Youngstown area since last spring, a seismologist investigating the quakes said Monday.

EPA: Fracking may cause groundwater pollution. [CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP)] – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in December that fracking may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.

Oklahoma quakes may have been induced by injection. [Oklahoma Geological Survey] – “Clear cases of anthropogenically-triggered seismicity from fluid injection are well documented with correlations between the number of earthquakes in an area and injection, specifically injection pressures, with earthquakes occurring very close to the well.” Still, the study concludes (as have other studies that preceded it) that at present it is “impossible to predict the effects of injection with absolute certainty.”

U.K. firm accepts report findings. [Oil and Gas Investments Bulletin] – A British-based shale exporter, Cuadrilla Resources, stated on November 2 that hydraulic fracturing was, indeed, the impetus for small earthquakes that occurred in Blackpool in northwest England earlier in 2011. Their CEO said “We unequivocally accept the findings of this independent report.”

Scientific study links flammable drinking water to fracking. [ProPublica] - A peer-reviewed study conducted by scientists at Duke University and published last May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to shale gas wells.

Sierra Club calls on Board to protect Starved Rock. [Illinois Chapter Sierra Club] - On December 15, the LaSalle County Zoning Board voted unanimously to recommend giving Mississippi Sand, LLC a special use permit to mine directly adjacent to Starved Rock State Park. The proposed project will mine for frac sand. The Sierra club believes that the location of this proposed mine threatens Starved Rock State Park and the rare brackish wetlands in LaSalle County.

Greetings From Gasland. [Gasland the Movie] – Josh Fox obviously has an agenda that he’s promoting with this film. Some may believe that it’s an extreme agenda. At this point, I do not. Caveat lector. Caveat spectator.

Improving the Safety and Environmental Performance of Hydraulic Fracturing. [U.S. Department of Energy] - Read the recommendations from the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. Again, caveat lector.

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