Regulations on Hydraulic Fracturing

Lourdharry Pauyo (BCT)

James McMullen (EnviSci)

Jaenyffe Santos (NRC)

 

     Williamsport, a former ghost town most famous for the Little League World Series, is one of America’s fastest growing cities, with an unemployment rate significantly below the national average (Meng, 2015). Similarly, the locals of Smithfield, Pennsylvania experienced only the positive outcomes of hydraulic fracturing, proclaiming their admiration by naming their local food delicacy the “frack burger” (Sovacool, 2014). An hour and a half drive down I-70, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the attitude differs greatly. Clear streams turned into muddy swamps full of dead fish and water flammable enough to make the Cuyahoga River burn with envy (Sovacool, 2014). Meng (2015) cited the potential for environmental drawbacks, claiming hydraulic fracturing can lead to significant environmental degradation and its enormous water requirements are problematic. Pennsylvania is one of the states where hydraulic fracturing is a common practice, and it is a great example of the extremes associated with hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing offered significant opportunity for development in the shale play regions of Pennsylvania.

        Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, is a technique used to crack shale stone through a combination of high pressure liquid and horizontal and vertical wells to extract shale gas (Marina, Derek, Mohamed, Yong, & Imo-Imo, 2015). Propellants – such as sand – and chemicals are used in conjunction with water to increase pressure. These additives can include toxic chemicals, but do not pose a threat in such small concentrations (Llewellyn, 2015). Recent advancements in horizontal drilling made hydraulic fracturing safer and more economically beneficial (Sovacool, 2014).

The debate over hydraulic fracturing is one of the immediate environmental concerns facing Americans. When you hear the term fracking, it arrives in your mind, bringing with it images of dark, cloudy water and kitchen faucets set ablaze. On the other hand, the benefits of hydraulic fracturing are much harder to visualize. Due to our preconceived fear of hydraulic fracturing and a lack of appropriate data, Americans are unaware of the potential benefits of what hydraulic fracturing can offer. From a scientific and economic standpoint, hydraulic fracturing became a viable method for the extraction of natural gas and oil. In order to properly assess the long-term effects of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and the economic benefits it provides we need to keep a close eye on the process of hydraulic fracturing as an industry.

        The Marcellus Shale, across West Virginia and Pennsylvania, is one of the largest shale gas reserves in the entire country (Meng, 2015). Unfortunately, there was a contamination incident located closely to the Marcellus Shale plant. Llewelyn and his colleagues concluded that the contamination incident was most likely due to stray natural gas and compounds injected through shallow fractures and found their way into an aquifer employed by the community to provide potable water. Throughout the state of Pennsylvania, there are over numerous wells that pose moderate to high risks to nearby bodies of water (Meng, 2015). This leaves the door open for future contamination incidents. Water quality is not the only problem associated with hydraulic fracturing, water demand is another very real drawback of hydraulic fracturing. Most of the hydraulic fracturing wells across the United States need a minimum of 2.7 million gallons of water, some can require up to 4 million gallons. Also, (Reagan et al, 2015) described that some failure scenarios that may have been the cause of exposing groundwater to contaminants used in the process of fracking. The incommensurate “design or implementation of the stimulation operation” (Reagan et al., 2015) may have resulted in fractures or faults that reaches groundwater resources. In addition to the sheer volume of water, chemicals – and other propellants – are added to the water in order to catalyze the process (Sovacool, 2014). We must be conscious of the availability of water within a region, i.e. areas that are susceptible to droughts have particularly acute water supply concerns. The potential for freshwater extraction to alter stream flow and impact local wildlife is proportional to the rate that water is withdrawn from the location subject to a drought or simply in dry season (Gallegos, Varela, Haines, & Engle, 2015).

        It is easy to look at the potential for danger and conclude that hydraulic fracturing is not worth the risk, however the significant economic effect – particularly in job creation – warrants further discussion around this topic. States, throughout the country, from Pennsylvania past the Rocky Mountains, hydraulic fracturing creates economic growth and job creation (Meng, 2015). Benjamin Sovacool (2014) noticed the economic opportunities provided by hydraulic fracturing as well, in a 2014 journal article, he presents some staggering numbers. In 2008, Pennsylvania shale gas resources created 29,000 new jobs and revenues of $2.3 billion. We must keep in mind the importance of hydraulic fracturing which is to obtain natural gas. If we neglect hydraulic fracturing as a viable option, we will continue to degrade our environment strip mining for coal. In addition, natural gas is a source of fuel that burns more cleanly than coal. With the use of shale gas, the overall emission intensity of the United States’ national grid decreased and will continue to fall as long as coal generation is displaced (Sovacool, 2014). Hydraulic fracturing may well be our best method to reach our greenhouse gas emission goals for the future.

One of the greatest benefits of using hydraulic fracturing to tap into local shale gas reserves is the abundance of the resource. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, there are approximately the same amount of shale gas reserves as conventional natural gas reserves. To put it another way, by using hydraulic fracturing as a viable method for extracting domestic natural gas, the world’s supply of available natural gas is doubled. The Marcellus Shale alone contains enough natural gas to supply 45 years of national consumption. IHS, a business-information company, estimated that the recoverable shale gas could amount to 42 trillion cubic meters, approximately equal to the conventional gas discovered domestically over the past 150 years (Sovacool, 2014). Accompanying the sheer volume of natural gas that would be available with hydraulic fracturing is the hopes of lower prices for consumers. Currently, shale gas production, which varies site to site, is around 50-60 percent more affordable than production from new conventional gas wells. As the technology associated with hydraulic fracturing continues to improve it is reasonable to expect costs to drop even lower.

With such an impressive list of benefits and an intimidating list of risks, hydraulic fracturing is a practice that must be studied closely before we can come to a clear consensus. The lack of available data, although getting better, drives us into this quandary (Gallegos, et. al. 2015). Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency released a long awaited report on hydraulic fracturing throughout the country. However, many people felt the report was lacking significant information. Mark Brownstein, a journalist for the Huffington Post, pointed this out, “The biggest issues aren’t what’s in the document, but what isn’t. For all its heft, the biggest lesson in the report is just how little we actually know about these critical risks.” Brownstein continues to tear apart the EPA report, claiming that no new research was conducted and that is was merely an assembly of existing information. Baseline testing for water quality in areas exposed to hydraulic fracturing were not included in the report and it is impossible to accurately assess the risks of hydraulic fracturing if a baseline does not exist. The EPA themselves acknowledge the shortcomings of their report, “data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty” (Brownstein, 2015). Other key issues neglected by the EPA report included the current physical integrity of the existing wells. The potential for underground injection wells to leak into and pollute water supplies was not evaluated by the EPA report. This potential for pollution must be regulated if hydraulic fracturing is to continue on a large scale.

With 10 million Americans living within a mile of hydraulically fractured gas or oil we need to collect as much information as possible (Brownstein, 2015). Our proposal is to create a better system to regulate and monitor all of the hydraulic fracturing wells that exist within our country. This can be done by calculating the distance of each well to the nearest body of water – even seasonal wetlands. Compiling this data will allow us to focus our efforts on wells that do not pose a significantly inflated risk due to their proximity to water. We should monitor the integrity and functionality of the construction of the wells frequently to ensure there are no subsurface leaks threatening to contaminate water supply. The quantity of water used is another aspect of hydraulic fracturing that demands more of our attention. More studies such as the “Characterization of Hydraulic Fracturing Flow Back Water in Colorado: Implications for Water Treatment” study by Lester, Ferrer, Thurman, Sitterley, Korak, & Aiken (2015) are needed to further analyze the effects of Hydraulic Fracturing. Through the use of a process known as aeration, separating suspended metals and chemicals from the water using a turbine or a pump, Lester et al. (2015) were able to attain water quality standards appropriate for reuse. In addition, Lester et al. (2015) warn that treatments must be tailored for the desired flow back reuse. Two principal pathways were suggested: reuse as hydraulic fracturing water or use outside of the gas industry such as crop irrigation (Lester et al., 2015).  In addition, the chemicals and propellants added to the water should be recorded, both the amount used and the concentration of each chemical used.

Once again, we must be careful not to only monitor the negatives but also pay attention to the positives as well. Job creation associated with hydraulic fracturing is an important statistic to keep track of. If the industry continues to grow and brings with it more jobs hydraulic fracturing should be encouraged. Also, the revenues generated from hydraulic fracturing should be used to help remediate the environment exposed to any potential risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. This will help the public and the industry coexist happily. In a study done by Wheeler, MacGregor, Atherton, Christmas, Dalton, Dusseault, & Ritcey (2015) an expert panel and a technical advisory group was created to accommodate public participation. In order to make sure their study was accurate, Wheeler et al. (2015) asked all participants to adhere to six guidelines: (1) no preconceptions, (2) legitimacy of all views, (3) transparency, (4) the review must be evidence based, (5) the panels must be interdisciplinary and (6) a precautionary approach must be taken. Following these guidelines, Wheeler et al, (2015) assisted the public through an examination the economic and environmental risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing. Additionally, as the use of coal begins to fade, we should expect cleaner emissions and more environmentally friendly source of energy. Hydraulic fracturing possesses a plethora of benefits that have the potential to outweigh the risks associated with it. As a nation, we are now responsible for applying pressure on our government to adequately collect data related to hydraulic fracturing and make the data available to everyone.

 

References

Brownstein, M. (2015, June 16). When the EPA looks at fracking risks to water: No data, no problem? Huffington Post. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-brownstein/epa-looks-at-fracking-ris_b_7595906.html

Gallegos, T. J., Varela, B. A., Haines, S. S., & Engle, M. A. (2015). Hydraulic fracturing

water use variability in the United States and potential environmental implications. Water Resources Research, (7), 5839-5845, doi: 10.1002/2015WR017278.

Lester, Y., Ferrer, I., Thurman, E. M., Sitterley, K. A., Korak, J. A., & Aiken, G.,

(2015). Characterization of hydraulic fracturing flow back water in Colorado: Implications for water treatment. Science of the Total Environment, 637-644, doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.01.043

Llewellyn, G. T., Dorman, F., Westland, J. L.., Yoxtheimer, D., Grieve C, P., Sowers, T., (2015). Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident attributed to Marcellus shale gas development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(20), 6325-6330.

Marina, S., Derek, I., Mohamed, P., Yong, S., & Imo-Imo, E. (2015). Simulation of the hydraulic fracturing process of fractured rocks by the discrete element method. Environmental Earth Sciences, 73(12), 8451-8469.

Meng, Q. (2015). Spatial analysis of environment and population at risk of natural gas fracking in the state of Pennsylvania, USA. Science of the Total Environment, 515–516, 198-206.

Reagan, M. T., Moridis, G. J., Keen, N. D., & Johnson, J. N. (2015). Numerical simulation of the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing of tight/shale gas reservoirs on near-surface groundwater: Background, base cases, shallow reservoirs, short-term gas, and water transport. Water Resources Research, 51(4), 2543-2573. doi: 10. 1002/2014WR016086

 

Sovacool, B. K. (2014). Cornucopia or curse? reviewing the costs and benefits of shale gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 37, 249-264.

Wheeler, D., MacGregor, M., Atherton, F., Christmas, K., Dalton, S., Dusseault, M., & Ritcey, R. (2015) Hydraulic fracturing – integrating public participation with an Independent review of the risks and benefits. Energy Policy, 85, 299-308, doi: 0.1016/j.enpol.2015.06.008

 

Evan

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