‘Fracking’ foes put industry on the defensive

Anyone scoring the ongoing debate over hydraulic fracturing would notice that critics of the controversial oil and natural gas extraction process have lately put a few points on the board.

They include two new studies from major universities that cast fresh doubt on emissions and potential water contamination from the process, and the announcement this month of a new Energy Department panel that will make recommendations on making it safer and cleaner.

The recent activity has put the oil and gas industry on the defensive at times and provided critics of hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking,” with more ammunition as they push for tougher regulation.

“The next order of business is going to have to be holding politicians’ feet to the fire,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington.

But while industry representatives acknowledge that the opposition has gotten the public’s attention, they do not see this as a tide-turning moment in the debate.

“From a substance point of view, I’m not sure we’ve seen the other side advance the ball down the field as far as you might think,” said Chris Tucker, who runs an industry-backed website called Energy in Depth that attempts to refute many of the leading arguments against hydraulic fracturing. “If anything, it’s a teachable moment because now we have a captive audience.”

In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected into a well at high pressure to create multiple fractures in the rock and free trapped gas or oil. Though the industry has used the process for decades, it has come under more scrutiny recently as producers push into shale rock formations estimated to hold enough natural gas to meet U.S. demand for 100 years.

The past few months alone have seen an onslaught of high-profile inquiries and critiques. A New York Times investigation in March found lax regulation in Pennsylvania that allows toxic wastewater from hydraulic fracturing to enter public waterways.

In April, a paper by scientists at Cornell University argued that shale gas — touted as a cleaner alternative to coal — could actually be a worse contributor to climate change because of methane that leaks into the air during hydraulic fracturing.

This month, Duke University scientists published a report that found dangerously high levels of methane in drinking water wells located near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York.

The latter recalled hotly debated scenes from the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, which showed homeowners in Colorado and Wyoming igniting tap water they said contained natural gas that seeped into aquifers after hydraulic fracturing.

The Duke study arrived around the same time Pennsylvania regulators fined major U.S. shale gas producer Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for alleged contamination of water supplies after the company worked in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation.

Industry has taken issue with the findings in both studies, in some cases dismissing them outright. It maintains that hydraulic fracturing is time-tested and safe.

“There is no question in my mind that natural gas can be developed in a way that’s acceptable to the landowner and those that have concerns,” said Marvin Odum, Royal Dutch Shell’s top U.S. executive, in a recent interview with the Chronicle.

But it’s also clear that the industry is beginning to feel pressure to answer its critics.

Exxon Mobil Corp., for instance, just began a campaign aimed at dispelling the notion that shale gas development threatens the environment or public health. The campaign includes advertisements and town hall meetings in areas where shale exploration is taking place. Other producers, oil service providers and trade associations also are speaking up more forcefully.

“I think the balance has come down on, this is an issue we need to engage on,” said Matt Armstrong, an attorney with Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington who represents a number of U.S. oil and gas companies.

With both sides digging in, this could be the year the debate reaches a crescendo. But critics of fracturing acknowledge that renewed scrutiny still may not be enough to move lawmakers.

Legislation before Congress, known as the FRAC Act, would require more disclosures by oil companies on fluids used in hydraulic fracturing and bring the process under federal environmental laws, rather than leaving it to the states to regulate. After debuting in 2009, it was reintroduced in March, but it still faces an uncertain future.

In Texas, a measure that would require companies to disclose chemicals used in the process has passed the state Senate and House in slightly different forms, and a conference committee will have to try to reconcile the two bills. Environmental regulators in Michigan approved new rules announced Wednesday that would require energy companies to meet additional requirements for public disclosure and protecting water resources. And many eyes will be on the Environmental Protection Agency, which plans a report on hydraulic fracturing next year that could spur regulation.

Meantime, critics will continue to push for change and industry will be bracing for what’s next. “The good news, if there is any, is that we have answers,” said Tucker, with Energy in Depth. “We don’t have to ignore the phone and hide under the bed.”

Ronnie Crocker contributed to this report.

brett.clanton@chron.com

42 Comments

  1. Eric_7_V2

    The industry has NOT used the process for decades. They have used indivudal parts in different forms for decades. The industry refuses to acknowledge the air quality problems such as elevated levels of methane and benzene. The drilling process itself is messy typically resulting in thousands of gallons of highly contaminated water being spilled on the ground (and into the groundwater). These people are liars not to be trusted. Ban fracking now!!

    #1
  2. Al Troer

    “Controversial” – only through ignorance. Fracking has been a common upstream practice for decades. What has changed is the nature of the operation and its intensuity.

    The Greenies better watch out – they may get what they wish fo. In the MTBE contoversy this sort of environmental hysteria brought on an MTBE ban – to be replaced by ethanol, which is even more attracted to water and costs the tax payers billions.

    Strange reasoning in the environmentla lobby…

    #2
  3. iley_dohn

    I would love to see how they can explain the people who can light up the water from their kitchen sinks because this process forces this gas into their water making it FLAMABLE and poision? Explain this to people who have had skin disease when they bathed in their own homes and had to buy bottled water for their pets and family? American right to have clean safe homes with safe sources of water exceeds their right to extract gas with a process that is dangerous. There are other ways to find their products that do NOT put people and animals at risk.

    #3
  4. TexKB

    If it increases our energy supplies without ripping off the taxpayer it must be bad. Maybe if the Chron, or most any “media” outlet used “reporters” this story could have reflected yesterday’s favorable EPA ruling on fracking.

    #4
  5. Trail Trash

    Nothing but a witch hunt. The real threat to fresh water is urban and agriculture run off and unplugged water wells.

    #5
  6. ThomasPaine

    Whenever the left doesn’t like something Americans are doing, it is “controversial.” It is just the latest keyword that means “we liberals are whining about THIS today.” Let them whine. They know nothing about drilling or energy. They have only emotion and ignorance in their arsenal, mostly the latter.

    #6
  7. Hal

    It’s only controversial because the media is drumming it up. As soon as a better story comes along they will start chasing that and whatever that story is will become the next “Controversial” topic.

    #7
  8. OilPatch41

    Typical left, liberal and media hype of something that is creating jobs, providing clean energy. No one has proven any of the so called problems are created by hydraulic fracturing, just another attempt to ruin American business by the socialist environmentalist. Let them all live in caves and eat road kill. By the way Methane is approx. .0002% of the make up of the atmosphere so I doubt that any increase locally makes any difference, check a dairy farm, bet the cow poop releases more methane than fracturing.

    #8
  9. Indianpaintbrush

    “This month, Duke University scientists published a report that found dangerously high levels of methane in drinking water wells located near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York.”
    ———————–
    That same report stated that the methane was not beleived to be a result of fracking.

    #9
  10. Indianpaintbrush

    Eric, the trend is now to reclaim and recycle the wastewater used in fracking. It is too valuable to allow it to “spill on the ground”, besides which, the water has , in the past, been removed and taken to a waste disposal cite as required by the EPA.

    #10
  11. rrr

    i’m a registered land surveyor and i work laying gas pipelines in the marcellus shale. I think there is truth and lies on both sides.

    #11
  12. Terry

    Hmmm – is this reminiscent of a 1996 PG&E story?

    #12
  13. Katiemac

    The more regulations you add to an industry the more expensive the product becomes. One look no further than the Blue states, whose endless demands for ecological regulations pushes gas to the highest in the nation. Democrats don’t seem to understand the theory of cause and affect.

    #13
  14. Sprocket1962

    iley_dohn, the explanation for lighting water in the kitchen sink is very easy. The methane gas that’s being vented in drinking water is gas that’s already, naturally in the water table and not from gas-shale formations that are multiple thousands of feet below the water table and cased- and cemented-off.

    #14
  15. Jim

    Most of the media have become “National Enquirer” clones. Trail Trash has it right – agriculture accounts for 97% of groundwater and surface water contamination, but you rarely if ever see the media attacking agriculture. They don’t attack food suppliers for all the trucks burning hydrocarbons getting products to market or grocery prices, either, and they are inflating dramatically. Incidentally, I heard Rick Perry the other day saying drilling permits are being held up in West Texas because the EPA has moved to protect the sand lizard. There is no doubt that this administration is grasping at anything to obstruct energy development in this country and to drive up gasoline prices.

    #15
  16. SaltWaterCroc

    Regulations are necessary, unless we want this country to resemble some of the third world. And yes, I have worked in West Texas, seen the results of bad casing, bad frac jobs, contaminated water. Anyone who thinks oil extraction is a clean process is delusional. Can it be made better? Yes. Will it be more expensive? Sure, but it is worth every dime.

    #16
  17. Joe

    If the study comes from a university, it is suspect right there.
    Most major universities are staffed by left wing idiots!!!

    #17
  18. Kavalon

    How about we lay our political bias aside and find out the truth rather than simply dismissing one side or accepting the word of the other?

    #18
  19. 45caliber

    Well, global warming is basically shot. So they need something to draw in more research money.

    As far as I’m concerned, I’m not worried. Why should water, thousands of feet below the surface RISE to the water table? Gravity alone will prevent that. The whole idea is simply to get the people upset so they won’t have to allow the gas to be drilled.

    #19
  20. Dollar

    I see Brett Clanton is quoting Tyson Slocum again, those two getting real cozy.

    And of course, no one mentions that Slocum’s salary is entirely dependent upon how much crap he can throw on the oil industry. He gets paid to this stuff. The more crap he throws, the more money flows in.

    And they accuse the oil industry of being greedy.

    When you see Slocum quoted, you can quit reading. Because you know you’ve entered the world of embellishment and half truth.

    #20
  21. BigTexN

    It an OLD page from the liberal playbook on oil….If you can’t outlaw it, regulate the heck out of it!

    #21
  22. AnimuX

    Nothing like a good straw man argument to change the subject. This article isn’t about climate change or agricultural pollution. This article is about scrutiny of the pollution caused by hydraulic fracking. Try to stick to the subject.

    It’s not unreasonable to want clean air, drinking water, and food without toxic contamination from industrial processes.

    #22
  23. g-r

    from the article:

    “In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected into a well at high pressure to create multiple fractures in the rock and free trapped gas or oil.

    Though the industry has used the process for decades, it has come under more scrutiny recently as producers push into shale rock formations estimated to hold enough natural gas to meet U.S. demand for 100 years.”

    Well, what is different about fracking today?
    Before, the drilling was mostly done vertically- straight down.
    Now- it seems, the drilling is done from these existing vertical wells that pretty much were “sucked dry”.
    Drillers now are going to theses same holes, BUT now they will “turn” the drilling sideways, drilling vertically, drilling parallel to the surface.
    And now, thanks to the deregulating lawmakers, the drilling is done in our neighborhoods, under our parks.
    High pressure fracking are like explosions, designed to not only make the drilling less stressful on the drill bit, it also forms cracks- long cracks protruding from the drilling area, in all directions, the results similiar to a firecracker off in an empty paper towel roll, also designed to reach any natural gas pockets, capturing the gas.

    Have you noticed the natural gas tv commercial that expresses the wonderful things natural gas production does every day in our lives ?
    Lipstick on a pig!
    Legislators are deregulating the Industry so that there will be little or no legal accountability- in the event of damage to the ecology.
    Fracking is never risk-free.
    Deep Water drilling is never risk-free.
    But for the sake of the mighty $, “drill baby drill”.
    The same legislators want to keep subsidizing oil and gas drillers who are again making record profits, the heck with the environment.
    Google “fracking” for more info.
    There are many stories of environmental damage- attributed to fracking.
    There has got to be a better way.
    We should never place water resources at risk.
    We should put Congress’ “feet to the fire”.

    Of course, this is only my OPINION.

    #23
  24. Omega 13

    Ignorant leftists at it again. They won’t be happy until we’re freezing in the dark while a select few of them (they think ALL of them) will be in control. Reminds me of the old Soviet Union, from where they draw their governing model. Traitors all.

    #24
  25. Trail Trash

    @45caliber, after the frac job most of the water is flowed back out, which then does need to be disposed of properly. You are right in that most all frac zones are thousands of feet below any fresh water zones. The real risks are shallow salt water zones which do not have cement across them. The cement job on the surface casing is the only barrier between them and fresh water zones. Fracing has become the “Scare de Jour”.

    #25
  26. TransAmer99

    No, the fracking process does not force gas into your tapwater. For one, most residents are tied into a municipal water supply that is monitored for contaminants to ensure they don’t get past the treatment facility.

    Furthermore, the shale formations holding the gas are often miles below the surface. Those individuals who have their own, untreated wells, don’t go below the water table, which is much closer to the surface. The same shale that locks in the gas would also lock out water, so if your well penetrated the formation, you’d have gassy water without any fracking involved.

    Modern horizontal drilling precisely locates into the shale formation reservoir and sets of a charge that fractures the shale. But such an operation is very temporary as the shale ‘heals itself’ very quickly. So sand and manufactured particals is hydraulically injected into the cracks to keep them open, allowing the gas and hydraulic fluids to flow back up the drillstring; NOT into the water table.

    Those who know nothing about the industry nor geophysics should refrain from making idiots of themselves by involking junk science as a means of stirring up the masses.

    #26
  27. ra

    does not make sense to inject chemicals into our drinking water

    #27
  28. Energy Moron

    Sigh

    Although I have posted the link to the EPA greenhouse gas inventory before, here it is again:

    http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/downloads10/508_Complete_GHG_1990_2008.pdf

    From the article: “In April, a paper by scientists at Cornell University argued that shale gas — touted as a cleaner alternative to coal — could actually be a worse contributor to climate change because of methane that leaks into the air during hydraulic fracturing.”

    From the EPA report on tracking fugitive gas emissions… they have been going down yearly (while shale gas is going up).

    The Chronicle is turning into the National Enquirer. Please at least quote EPA statistics instead of this rot.

    #28
  29. Trail Trash

    g-r is a perfect example of how ignorant some people are regarding this subject. There is nothing explosive about a frac job. The rocks are cracked using pressure and the cracks do not extend beyond the productive zone. To make it simple for people like g-r, if you apply pressure to a glass bottle, it will break. If you apply pressure to mud, it will not break. There are several thousands of feet of “mud” between the zone being frac’d and any fresh water zones.

    #29
  30. Trail Trash

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I believe part of the hysteria over fracing is due to the name itself. It sounds a lot like “fragging”, which was a popular anti-war buzz word during Viet Nam. I believe people associate fracing with a hand grenade going off. Maybe we just need to come up with a better name for fracing, like “progressive production”.

    #30
  31. ntangle

    That same report stated that the methane was not beleived to be a result of fracking.
    ———————–
    The Duke report didn’t make that determination at all. They said they didn’t find frac’ing chemicals, but they did detemine that the methane & hydrocarbons were from the producing reservoir, not from another source. It left the path for the methane undetermined, either via the wellbore or whatever path.

    #31
  32. Dollar

    Why has Lisa Jackson’s comments in a congressional hearing yesterday, about fracing not been posted on this blog ?

    She admitted that there is not a proven case of fracing contaminating drinking water.

    Seems pretty major to me, but all we get is Brett Clanton quoting Tyson Slocum.

    #32
  33. Energy Moron

    Just to show how rediculous this all is with facts

    “A New York Times investigation in March found lax regulation in Pennsylvania that allows toxic wastewater from hydraulic fracturing to enter public waterways.”

    First, this was stopped a while ago. But here is what is going to happen.

    Rather than have treated water (there was an issue with some radioactive elements everybody agrees, but apparently coal trailings have the same issue and nobody cared for a long time)…

    http://marcellusdrilling.com/2011/05/ohios-first-marcellus-shale-wastewater-treatment-plant-now-open-for-business/

    Ah, the media has won…

    Rather than throw the water in PA streams it will be thrown into OH streams. The trucks will have to travel further distances, generating more pollution and CO2. This will ultimately cost the taxpayers more money since there is more wear and tear on the roads. Perhaps one or two more folks will be killed on the roads by the increased truck traffic on interstates.

    But water is still going into rivers. Nice job news media.

    As rrr said:

    “i’m a registered land surveyor and i work laying gas pipelines in the marcellus shale. I think there is truth and lies on both sides.”

    Agree in spades as somebody on stress related leave over legitimate concerns. All of this reporting on urban legend is taking the industry’s eyes off of the ball on legitimate concerns.

    Good job media. Keep it up. Expect more victories like the trucking of water to Ohio to pat yourselves on the back.

    #33
  34. Dollar

    @ntangle, Duke reported pointed to casing. No other alternative.

    And is it not amazing, that it seems the only place that casing fails on a regular basis is in Pennsylvania, where there is known shallow zones of methane ??

    Come on man, two and fricken two make four , every day of the week.

    The Duke study is also has no historical methane level to make a comparison with the current levels found.

    Chesapeake is now running three strings of casing in every well.

    If this was all casing failure, then we would have the same problems in this region or elsewhere, and obviously, we do not.

    #34
  35. Dollar
    #35
  36. ntangle

    Dollar wrote: @ntangle, Duke reported pointed to casing. No other alternative.
    ———————-
    from their study:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/55038072/2011-May-Duke-Nat-Gas-and-Water-Study
    less likely as a mechanism for methane contamination than leaky wellcasings, but might be possible due to both the extensive fracture systems reported for these formations and the many older, un-cased wells drilled and abandoned over the last century and a half in Pennsylvania and New York.

    #36
  37. Dollar

    @ntangle, they site three mechanisms, they rule out one and say another is unlikely, and then point to leaky well casings as the likely cause ………….

    Quoting directly from the report ………..

    There are at least three possible mechanisms for fluid migra-tion into the shallow drinking-water aquifers that could helpexplain the increased methane concentrations we observed neargas wells (Fig. 3). The first is physical displacement of gas-richdeep solutions from the target formation. Given the lithostaticand hydrostatic pressures for 1

    2 km of overlying geological stra-ta, and our results that appear to rule out the rapid movement of deep brines to near the surface, we believe that this mechanismis unlikely. A second mechanism is leaky gas-well casings (e.g.,refs. 27 and 28). Such leaks could occur at hundreds of metersunderground, with methane passing laterally and vertically through fracture systems. The third mechanism is that the processof hydraulic fracturing generates new fractures or enlarges exist-ing ones above the target shale formation, increasing the connec-tivity of the fracture system. The reduced pressure following thefracturing activities could release methane in solution, leading tomethane exsolving rapidly from solution (29), allowing methanegas to potentially migrate upward through the fracture system.Methane migration through the 1- to 2-km-thick geologicalformations that overlie the Marcellus and Utica shales is lesslikely as a mechanism for methane contamination than leaky wellcasings, but might be possible due to both the extensive fracturesystems reported for these formations and the many older, un-cased wells drilled and abandoned over the last century and a half in Pennsylvania and New York. …………. “

    #37
  38. Dollar

    And BTW, while they say methane migration ” might ” or ” could ” be the cause, Chesapeake gets fined $900,000 for poor well construction, a fine CHK paid but does not agree with the findings.

    I believe Cabot O&G is on that same spot.

    So, tell me, who is taking this ” methane migration ” theory seriously ?

    PADEP must not, in fact, they say the Duke researchers are not geologists.

    #38
  39. ntangle

    dollar wrote: point to leaky well casings as the likely cause
    ———————–
    They didn’t say leaky casings were THE likely cause, they said that migration thru sttrta was LESS likely (relative to leaky casings, in part because of the age of some of the casing). There’s a difference between less likely and unlikely. The didn’t offer probabilities, but a 66% probabity of any individual occurence of #2 vs 34% probability of an occurence of #3 would not be inconsistent with their wording.

    #39
  40. Dollar

    As far as migration through strata, I will concede this much about Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia …….. yesterday I found the number of stripper wells in those states at this site

    http://stripperwells.com/

    And I was astounded at the large numbers, each one of those states has more stipper wells ( approx 35,000 ) than Texas ( 20 something thousand ) .

    That part of the country has been drilled extensively. So the abandoned well issue could be viable.

    But I doubt it. It seems the obvious culprit is that its naturally occurring.

    #40
  41. It’s hard to tell who is telling the truth here, and who’s spewing lies and rhetoric. Maybe there should be an article exploring how this new fracking process actually works, balancing both the advantages and disadvantages of this, instead of running a controversial blitz.

    #41
  42. Dollar

    @Quickboy, I’m having no problem at all with finding truth, maybe that’s because I actually know a little bit about the fracing process.

    And the idea that gas can migrate through two mile of rock, without the help of an abandoned well, is absurd. All that takes is some common sense.

    #42