Everything you wanted to know about fracking and its effects on the US water supply

12 Jan


According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 33 percent of technically recoverable natural gas resources in the United States are held in shale rock formations. It asserts that in one decade, natural gas from shale has grown to 25 percent of U.S. gas production, and will be 50 percent by 2035. Yet the extraction process, of pounding tons of pressurised water and chemicals at the shale to crack it open, has been accused by environmentalists of contaminating drinking water surrounding wells. Footage seems to show locals setting light to tapwater because of high levels of methane.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has released its initial report on Hydraulic Fracturing’s possible contamination of the water supply, and highlighted key points in a webinar last Friday. Nine major oil and gas companies have provided details from 350 well files, from 50 randomly selected  but geographically representative sites. Some Confidential Business Information (CBI, subject to state legislation) was necessarily protected. It has also conducted a comprehensive review of existing studies, as well as whatever has been recorded in federal and state databases, which has proven somewhat piecemeal.

Finally, it reviewed data compiled from FracFocus, an online repository of information regarding the chemical compositions of fracking fluids used in specific wells. This joint project from the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission has proved perhaps the most popular with oil and gas companies who seek to share selective disclosures.

Three of the participating companies, BJServices Company, Halliburton, and Schlumberger together performed approximately 95% of hydraulic fracturing services in the United States in 2003 (US EPA, 2004). The other six companies represent small and medium-sized companies performing hydraulic fracturing services between 2005 and 2009. Nevertheless, it is a lucrative industry.

The full list, together with their annual revenue for 2009 in millions, is as follows: BJ Services Company $4,122; Complete Production Services $1,056; Halliburton $14,675;  Key Energy Services $1,079;  Patterson-UTI Energy $782;  RPC $588;  Schlumberger $22,702; Superior Well Services $399;  Weatherford International $8,827.

These firms have contributed information on the chemicals most commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, which the EPA has cross-referenced with substances associated with the process already reported to the government, and monitored under the Safe Water Drinking Act (SDWA) or as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP). Top of the list is methanol, which is used in 342 products; ethylene glycol is also recognized as being a health risk, and is the fifth most widely used substance. Methanol is toxic, and when ingested can cause metabolic acidosis (excess acid), neurologic sequelae, which are the degenerative neurological symptoms also associated with lupus, and potentially death.

Hydraulic Fracturing Research Coordinator at the Office of Science Policy, Department of R&D, Jeannne Briskin, claimed that there were also unknown chemicals associated with the processs. While their chemical formula was the same, their structure or service numbers (CASRN) were often new to researchers. Because of the “different matrices which are often found in hydraulic fracturing situations,” they had recorded “1000 plus unique chemical substances either associating with fracturing or waste processes.”

Appendix A of the report contains the prurient information for all of the following: material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for each fluid product; the concentration of each chemical in each fluid product; the manufacturer of each product and chemical; and the purpose and use of each chemical in each fluid product.

Of the four regions selected for retrospective study, pre-existing federal and state databases have yielded varying degrees of information. The report states that “there is no central database in Texas on hydraulic fracturing-related spills. Oil and gas operators are required to report spills to the Railroad Commission,” but because the dataset does not include chemical spills the EPA did not pursue it. Of the reported chemical spills investigated by Texas’ Commission on Environmental Quality, the reports are entered into to the state’s Consolidated Compliance and Enforcement Data System. However, said the EPA, “the investigation and inspection reports in this database are not available electronically on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s website or at their Central Files Room.” Other attempts to access hydraulic fracturing-related reports by the Joint Groundwater Monitoring and Contamination Reports prepared by the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee were “unsuccessful in getting the relevant incident details.”

It was decided furthermore not to peruse Wyoming’s catalogue of incidents because of their failure to differentiate between their causes, meaning they were indistinguishable from other oil and gas incidents. Though the data is in this case publicly available. In New Mexico, release notifications are submitted to the Oil Conservation Division of its Minerals and Natural Resources Department which manages databases on spill incidents and water contamination. Investigators searched for the terms “acid in blowout”, “Frac tank”, “pit”, “Gelled brine (frac fluid), “natural gas liquids”, and “produced water.” They noted that the database does not list whether the company returned is engaged in fracking.

In Pennyslvania, the EPA tried to narrow database entries returned to those around the Marcellus Shale region which had not thus far, under inspection, resulted in violations of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Compliance guidelines (so as not to cover ground previously investigated.) Whatever information was gleaned was pooled, and supplements reports contributed by the participating companies. The nine key stakeholders were sent information requests, and asked to participate in several technical workshops.

Issues under discussion included: “What are the identities and volumes of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids, and how might this composition vary at a given site and across the country?”. Or the less specific, “How effective are current well construction practices at containing gases and fluids before, during, and after fracturing?” The EPA inquired too about blowback: “What is currently known about the frequency, severity, and causes of spills of flowback and produced water?” and about the composition of backwaters, before and after treatment. The EPA notes that information concerning the composition of wastewater is organized according to geologic and geographic location, and time after fluid injection.


And to conclude this expose, here’s a choice taster from the report itself… Unfortunately we will have to wait till 2014 until all its findings have been reviewed by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and a final conclusion can be reached. I’m sure you will all be waiting with baited breath.

As of September 2012, the 52 Study of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources: Progress Report December 2012 EPA had extracted, and continues to extract, the following available information from all of the well files:

  • Open-hole log analysis of lithology, hydrocarbon shows, and water salinity
  • Chemical analyses of various water samples
  • Well construction data
  • Cement reports
  • Cased-hole logs, including identifying cement tops and bond quality


Other data to be extracted includes the following:

  • Source of water used for hydraulic fracturing
  • Well integrity pressure testing
  • Fluid volumes injected during well stimulation and type and amount of additives and proppant used
  • Pressures used during hydraulic fracturing
  • Fracture growth data including that predicted and that observed
  • Flowback and produced water data following hydraulic fracturing including volume, disposition, and duration


The EPA is creating queries on the extracted data that are expected to determine whether drinking water was protected.


The results may provide, but may not be limited to, information on the following:

  • Sources of water used for hydraulic fracturing
  • Vertical distance between hydraulically fractured zones and the top of cement sheaths
  • Quality of cementing near hydraulic fracturing zones, as determined by a cement bond index
  • Number of well casing intervals left uncemented and whether there are aquifers in those intervals
  • Distribution of depths of hydraulically fractured zones from the surface
  • Frequency with which various tests are conducted, including casing shoe pressure tests and casing pressure tests

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