FAQ: Hydraulic Fracturing (‘Fracking)

A. “Fracking” is an abbreviation for Hydraulic Fracturing and its generally associated with the extraction of oil and/or gas. It is the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure. In the oil and gas industry fracking is done in wells which are drilled vertically hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface and today often include horizontal or directional sections extending thousands of feet.

A. First of all, there is a real desire to continue to lessen the country’s dependence upon foreign sources of energy and there is a lot of natural gas that is available right here in the U.S. Natural gas is much cleaner than coal, better for the environment, and better for the U.S. population. It has been estimated that the fine particles from coal power plants lead to diseases that kill 13,200 people each year – and that’s just in the U.S. Natural gas burns more cleanly boasting reduced carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide emissions.

The fracking process itself is better for the surface landscape. Instead of drilling many holes across an area, one can be drilled from the surface and then many branches of that well can be drilled underground in different directions. Additionally, much has been learned over the years about fracking and how to make it increasingly safer for the environment and the public. For example, today steel piping is cemented into place in wellbores that go well below the water table. This is down to prevent oil, gas or fracking fluid from intruding into groundwater.

A. The water initially utilized in hydraulic fracturing is derived from local sources: surface or well. The amount of water that will be used depends on the formation, depth, and type of drilling (e.g. vertical, horizontal, directional).

This water is mixed with a number of ingredients to create the hydraulic fracturing fluid. One of the most important additives to the water is sand that is pumped into the fractures to prop the cracks open and prevent them from sealing back up after the high pressure is released. This “fracking fluid” is then injected at high pressure through the steel production pipe that has been cemented into the formation to the location that needs to be “fractured” so that the gas or oil imbedded in that rock can be released. The sand has sufficient porosity to permit the oil or gas to flow into the production pipe at a rate that can make a well economically productive.

After a satisfactory fracking operation, the high pressure is released and fluids can be extracted from the well. At first, “frack flowback” comes back up from the well to the surface. This flowback contains fracking fluid, which can be 3% to 80% or more of the total flowback, mixed with the water, hydrocarbons and other material naturally occurring in the formation.

After the frack flowback has been flushed out of the well, the content of the well production fluid will stabilize at the composition of the natural fluids contained in the formation. Essentially everything extracted by a well will contain varying amounts of water, which is deemed “produced water.” This produced water must be separated from the economically valuable hydrocarbons. The produced water, contaminated with hydrocarbons and minerals from the underground formation, must be reused on site or disposed of as contaminated waste. Discharge of this water into the environment requires extraction of the contaminants, especially the proven or potentially cancerous BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene). These BTEX compounds are what IX Power Clean Water’s OrganiClear technology removes so effectively.

A. On the selected site, a deep well is drilled — say 7,700 feet deep, could be more, could be less — and the diameter of this hole (wellbore) is probably 12.2 inches diameter. At the “kick-off point” the hole is then drilled to takes a turn to travel horizontal another 1,000 to 6,000 feet. A steel casing is fitted into the wellbore to protect groundwater & the surrounding area. A layer of cement is poured to fit around the casing for additional protection.

In the horizontal section of the pipe, the casing and cement are perforated with little holes for the fracking fluid to push through. This fracking fluid is introduced at extremely high pressure, anywhere from about 10,000 to 15,000 psi (pounds per square inch). This pressure pushes the water through the perforations at such high pressure that the rock it hits is “fractured.” To achieve the desired amount of fracturing, the procedure takes anywhere from three to ten days.

A. When the gas or oil comes back up it is frequently mixed with water that contains a variety of materials. Some call this wastewater, some call it produced water. This water must be separated from the fossil fuel resource however, so the oil or gas can be recovered.

A. What becomes of the water used throughout the whole fracking process depends upon several factors: what the local regulations are, whether the water can be used again on site by the field services company, the cost of transporting the water offsite, what opportunities exist for reuse, and the cost of cleaning it for reuse.

Water that will not be reused, is often reinjected into the ground near the site. Often it is sent via truck or pipeline to water disposal sites, where it is stored in tanks or in open-air disposal pits. In open-air disposal pits the water evaporates and contaminants are left at the bottom of the pit. Frequently this water is sprayed on roads to cut down on dust.

A. There is no standard “recipe” for fracking fluid (aka slick water or slickwater). Every company has their own proprietary solution mix and it can differ from site to site, depending on the composition of the geologic basin that site sits in. However, the website FracFocus provides a good, albeit not 100% perfect, indication of the composition of much of the frack fluid being used today.

Typically, fracking fluid can be comprised of as much as 99.2% water. For fracking shale formations in the U.S., some of the substances that are added to the water to make the solution include: sand to prop open the fissures once the high pressure has ceased, biocides, corrosion inhibitors, scale inhibitors, acid, friction reducers, clay controlling ingredients, gelling agents, crosslinkers and more. Some of the additives in fracking fluid can be found in manufactured household and personal products, and even food products on the shelves of U.S. grocery stores. Other additives are used only in industrial processes.

A. Besides the original fluid used for fracturing, flowback can also contain fluids and minerals that were in the fractured formation.

A. “Produced water” is a more or less generic industry term to describe water that is extracted from the earth along with the oil and gas in that industry. Produced may be used to describe and include water from the fossil fuel reservoir (water mixed in with the oil & gas that comes up after fracking a well), the initial fracking fluid, frack flowback water, and chemicals added during the production and well treatment processes.

A. Major constituents of produced water are salt, oil and grease, various other natural inorganic and organic compounds, chemical additives used in drilling and fracking, and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).

What’s of major concern in produced water is a set of organic yet toxic hydrocarbon compounds known as BTEX – an acronym that stands for Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylenes, which are closely related. These compounds are soluble in water so produced water from the extraction of crude oil is contaminated with these compounds. Benzene is carcinogenic while Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylenes have harmful effects on the central nervous system. Frequently found together, the BTEX compounds can cause illness, birth defects, eventual death and even immediate death if highly concentrated. (A separate paper is available on this site about BTEX.) However, produced water does not have to remain toxic. IX Power Clean Water’s OrganiClear™ technology removes 99% of all BTEX.

A. The EPA reports* that water needs per well have been reported to them ranging from 65,000 gallons for coalbed methane (CBM) production up to 13 million gallons for shale gas production, depending on the characteristics of the formation being fractured and the design of the production well and fracturing operation. To put this in perspective, five million gallons of water are equivalent to the water used by approximately 50,000 people for one day.

Keep in mind that hydraulic fracturing fluids are usually water-based, with approximately 90% of the injected fluid composed of water.

A. The source of the water may vary, but the water used in fracking is typically ground water, surface water, or treated wastewater.

A. It was estimated as of March 1, 2014, that over 1.5 million wells had been fracked in the U.S. alone.

A. It was also estimated as of March 1, 2014, that the only states where fracking has not taken place is Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont & Wisconsin.

A. As of the spring of 2014, the states with the most fracked wells included Texas, Pennsylvania, Kansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana, and Colorado. For example, over 84,000 wells had been fracked in Colorado by that date.

A. FracFocus is the national hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure registry. It is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission. The site was created to provide the public access to reported chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing within their area. To help users put this information into perspective, the site also provides objective information on hydraulic fracturing, the chemicals used, the purposes they serve and the means by which groundwater is protected. Note however that FracFocus does not deal with issues unrelated to chemicals such as NORM – Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material.

FracFocus is not intended to argue either for or against the use of hydraulic fracturing as a technology. It is also not intended to provide a scientific analysis of risk associated with hydraulic fracturing.

A. It is available on the Internet at https://fracfocus.org.

A. It’s probably the most accurate information that is widely available. More than a million wells may be have been fracked already and as of February 1, 2015, FracFocus had data on 91,127 of them.

All data in FracFocus are entered by oil and gas companies that have agreed to “disclose the information in the public interest” (GWPC, 2012b). The Ground Water Protection Council, the organization that administers the registry, makes no specific claim about data quality in FracFocus. The EPA notes that there is considerable variability in the posted data because they are uploaded by many different companies, including operator and service companies. Although FracFocus uses some built-in QA checks during the data upload process, several data quality issues are not addressed by these protocols.

In its latest report on fracking, released in 2012, the EPA has said, “The data (in FracFocus) cannot be assumed to be a complete or statistically representative of all hydraulically fractured wells. However, because FracFocus contains several thousands of well disclosures distributed throughout the United States, the EPA believes that the data in FracFocus are generally indicative of hydraulic fracturing activities during the time period covered. Therefore, it may be possible to find geographic patterns of occurrence or usage, including volume of water, frequency of chemical usage, and amounts of chemicals used, assuming that data in FracFocus meet quality requirements.

In short, while FracFocus is not perfect, it does offer data that can be used to get a general picture of the fracking industry in the U.S. and what chemicals and substances have been used in fracking thus far.

While FracFocus is not intended to replace or supplant any state governmental information systems it is being used by a number of states as a means of official state chemical disclosure. Currently, 16 states use FracFocus in this manner. An example of one of these is Colorado, which requires chemical disclosure via FracFocus.

A. The first time that what would come to called “fracking” was tried was during the Civil War, but like the idea of submarines, it was shelved for many years. About 65 years ago fracking got a restart, and there has been a substantial increase in the number of fracked wells since 2000.

A. Yes, a variety of gels and foams have been tried over the years and even napalm and gasoline. Jet fuel was even tried in lieu of water at one time until 8 workers were killed trying to use it at a site. For a long time, even nuclear explosions were implemented to try to frack wells. Today, in the state of Tennessee, nitrogen gas is the main ingredient they frack with. It is said that nitrogen gas works better in the state’s particular geologic formations.

A. From 1961 to 1973, the U.S. experimented with inserting nuclear bombs into a few wells in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada to increase natural gas production. These experiments were conducted under a “Plowshare” peaceful-use-of-nuclear program by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (which was later replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.) The explosions they created were two to three times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The experiments were considered successful, but the $82 million program was canceled for environmental & economic concerns.

A. Not likely. Many in the seismology community believe that it would be extremely difficult to frack a well and cause an earthquake. It could only occur in very specific conditions. Fracking doesn’t create new faults, but it could activate faults that weren’t known about before.

The journal “Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.” reports that the publicized earthquake events that have occurred could be due to what happens after fracking. Companies that pump massive amounts of wastewater back underground can lubricate stone-on-stone stress, unleashing a pent-up earthquake that was due to occur anyway. Those that have studied the issue believe a much stronger correlation exists between the post-fracking wastewater-disposal process and earthquakes, but to blame the fracking procedure is not accurate. The solution may not lie in stopping fracking, but rather in ceasing the injection of wastewater (produced water).