Opinion: Fracking fears mostly unfounded

By Dr. Stephen Holditch
Texas A&M University

As recently as 2001, the production of gas naturally occurring deep inside shale rock provided less than two percent of total U.S. natural gas production.  Today, it is approaching 30 percent.  As late as 2007, it was commonly assumed that the United States would be importing large amounts of liquefied natural gas from the Middle East and other areas.

Today, almost overnight in natural-resource years, we are not only self-sufficient in natural gas, we have enough natural gas for the rest of this century on the basis of current demand.  This same horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology is now being used in liquids-rich shales to increase oil production.  These resource plays are in their infancy and can clearly improve the energy security of the United States.

Nonetheless, the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale rock to release gas trapped deep beneath the earth’s surface has inspired public fear-mongering, mostly around presumed threats to air quality and water quality.  Most of that fear is unfounded.

Water quality

The issues involving water quality are less serious and less real.  No matter what you may read, hydraulic fracturing does not involve pumping toxic chemicals under high pressure near public aquifers.  There has been some use of diesel fuel as an additive to hydraulic fracturing fluid in the past – but the use of diesel is quickly being eliminated in the field.

Some 99.5% of what is commonly used in fracking is a composition of pure water and quartz sand.  Other agents are included, making up about 0.5% of the fluid.  Three typical additives are guar gum (which is also used to thicken food products), detergents (just like the soaps you use at home to wash dishes and clothes), and bactericide (like the chlorine used to kill bacteria as it does effectively in most local drinkable water supplies).

No one recommends drinking soap or chlorine, but we have safely managed and effectively used these chemicals in our homes and local water systems for generations.

Air quality

The impact of hydraulic fracturing on air quality can be more challenging.  The full cycle of shale gas production – from initial exploration through the capture and transport of the natural gas and final site remediation – can result in the emission of ozone precursors such as nitrogen oxides, particulates from diesel exhaust, toxic air pollutants, and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Methane is the pollutant that requires the most attention.  Some persons would rather see the methane flared than simply released to the atmosphere.   However, most operators would rather not flare methane – as they wish to sell the product instead.

Best practices

I served on a Secretary of Energy Advisory Board subcommittee, and we have recommended that industry accelerate cooperative efforts to establish best practices – and even encouraged the formation of a shale gas industry production organization dedicated to continuous improvement of best practices.

It will take time to determine if and what kind of organization should be formed.  In the interim, there are already identified and accepted best practices that enlightened energy companies should engage in immediately – both to assuage public concerns about the impact of fracking on communities, wildlife and ecologies and to capture additional process efficiencies.   In fact, most oil and gas operators already follow these best practices or they are developing plans to apply these ideas in the areas where they are operating with hydraulic fracking.

Below are just a few of the major practice recommendations in the report.  (The full subcommittee report can be found at www.shalegas.energy.gov )

  • Improve casing and cementing procedures to isolate the gas-producing zone from overlaying formations and potable aquifers. Loss of well integrity is simply the result of poor well completion – or poor production-pressure management.
  • Control the entire lifecycle of the water used from acquisition to disposal. All water flows should be tracked and reported quantitatively throughout the process.
  • Limit water use by controlling vertical fracture growth. Periodic direct measurement of earth stresses and the micro-seismic monitoring of water and additive needs will eliminate rogue methane migration – and save production money.
  • Use multi-well drilling pads to monitor processes and minimize truck traffic and surplus road construction. The use of mats, catchments, groundwater monitors, and surface water buffers – all standard in the oil industry – should be industry standard in shale gas production as well.
  • Declare unique and/or sensitive areas off-limits to drilling. There is such an abundance of natural gas reserves that have come from the fracking revolution that there is no need to be provocatively drilling beneath protected urban or wilderness spaces.  This recommendation is also one of the most difficult to apply as the owners of the minerals in such areas have the right to produce those minerals.   Fortunately, with long-reach horizontal drilling, many urban areas can be developed from remote pad sites with appropriate controls.
  • Mitigate noise, air and visual pollution. Conversion from diesel to natural gas or electrical power for equipment fuel is an important first step … and can be substantially accelerated.

As the nation adjusts to the implications of this unexpected bonanza, industry would do well to quickly establish the kind of practices that encourage public confidence and insure that this marvelous resource is not wasted thorough inefficient, dangerous and provocative procedures.

Stephen Holditch (Photo: Texas A&M)

Stephen Holditch is Head of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University.  He has been on the faculty since 1976 and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.  Dr. Holditch is a past President of the Society of Petroleum Engineers and was President of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas which will present a special review of the history and future of hydraulic fracking at its annual conference in Houston January 12-13.  Dr. Holditch was the author of one of the first scientific papers ever published on hydraulic fracturing in tight gas reservoirs, and for the past 35 years he has taught industry-leading courses on the analysis of unconventional gas reservoirs and the methodology of hydraulic fracturing.

18 Comments

  1. Gulf guy

    This is the whole reason the industry needs to do on and stay on the PR offensive. It’s really just a matter of educating the public. You can’t blame people for having fears about the unknown, especially when the other side is waging a PR campaign against you!

    Work smarter, not harder.

    #1
  2. bradley

    Oh yeah? What does Dr. Holditch know about it? Hasn’t he seen “Gasland”? If he had he would know that the gas companies are flying overhead in airplanes and dumping radioactive haz-waste on school yards and baby bunnies…
    Not really, but get used to the response.

    #2
  3. jukester

    Educate this public – in the U.S.A.? Really? Is that possible? We are living in a society where math and science skills are in decline, and a huge percentage of the population struggles with how to use the Phone book yellow pages? Their fear and outlandish accusations of the perils of ‘fracking’ are akin to claims of witchcraft in colonial New England. Unfounded, no facts, heresay and opinions based on twisted perceptions of reality….. science and facts cannot be digested by the illiterate, hence the degree of challenge which the Energy Industry faces. This reality is not limited to just the oil and gas business, but also with medical science (remember the bird flu panic), and many other industries today. Its just plain sad to watch this public circus play out, with clowns influencing policy and making claims of ‘water pollution’, ‘earthquakes’, and before you know it, ‘causing cancer and heart disease’!

    #3
  4. brainjack

    Fears mostly unfounded? What about the news? Have you read the news lately?
    The very things that you dismiss are actually happening and will keep happening….

    Being the Head of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University has probably insulated you from witnessing the effects of corporate greed. While there is probably a ‘holy grail’ of safe methodologies for removing gas, they aren’t being used, and maybe only in the beginnings of being thought about – never mind implemented.

    Glass of water?

    #4
  5. I hear a voice of reason

    Brainjack, yours is specifically the kind of vague, unsubstantiated or implied charge that Dr. Holditch is apparently trying to get people to move beyond.

    Have you read the news? Do you realize how many wells have been safely producing in this country for years? Do you realize how much greenhouse gas production would be avoided if we burned natural gas in our cars? Do you realize how much of our economy we hand over to other countries to import oil? Have you read about how much it costs to defend foreign oil production and safe delivery, or how much we borrow in order to help pay those costs?

    Holditch is a well-recognized expert in the field. Go look it up. He is in academia, he has worked on the ground in industry and he is a successful entrepreneur. He gives a well-reasoned opinion based on knowledge, facts and competence. This is in contrast to recent poor science from the EPA (yes, that was in the news as well), and outright hidden-agenda-building hype based on falsehood from sources like “Gasland.”

    What is your solution, brainjack? Are you one of those who points back to a “simpler time?” Do you want us to heat our homes by burning wood and move our goods with horses? Do you have a clue how disrupting and damaging that would be to the environment?

    Or do you represent a coal interest?

    I’m just asking.

    #5
  6. brainjack

    Understood. Solving the energy issue, whether it is importing oil or environmental is terribly complex and I profoundly respect that. My concern is about clear potential harm and track records….

    But if this is about ENGINEERING a solution to remove gas from the ground, the editorials that ‘suggest’ or ‘recommend’ unfortunately don’t point the way to the future – big business does. I don’t have a solution to all of this, but my main point is that ecology is an afterthought to this fluid based gas removal basis.

    I don’t represent the coal interest, and I’m not from the ‘gaslight’ crowd. I’m just a person who just wants accountability.

    #6
  7. Ecotech

    What about all the earth quakes that are happening at fracking sites in Oklahoma and in Ohio? People are experiencing earthquakes at around the 4.0 magnitude multiple times a day. How are they going to stop this from happening? Gasland is a very informative documentary. People are having the water supplies destroyed by the fracking wells. Gas is entering their homes through their water pipes. There is so much gas present in the water supply that they are able to ignite the gas with a lighter. These are wells that have been around for generations now lost. Watch it for yourself and see. The Gas company says they are not responsible for the problem with the water but are providing the people with tainted water fresh water via tanks.

    I would be very upset if my water supply was destroyed by a fracking well.

    http://www.grist.org/list/2011-06-30-in-the-worst-drought-in-texas-history-gas-companies-use-13.5-bil says that in 2010 during one of the worst drought in Texas the fracking of wells in Texas used 13.5 billions gallons of water. .5 % of that is 67,500,000 gallons of who knows what is being forced into the earth because the Gas companies say they can not disclose what is used because it is a trade secret. 75% of the water used in fracking can not be used again.The author of the article says that it is okay to inject detergents, he names chlorine, into the earth. I do not agree that injecting chlorine into the earth will cause no damage to ecosystem.

    If you pull something out of the earth the earth well collapse inward. We need to reduce our dependence on Oil and Natural gas by conserving the resource we do have and using new technologies in combination with the oil, gas , coal, and nuclear power.

    #7
  8. pacificoil

    are you serious Ecotech? I almost can’t type as I am still laughing at the “if you pull something out of the earth the earth will collapse inward” comment. However as people have been “pulling something out of the earth” throughout history, I think we are probably ok.

    It is unfortunate however that Gasland failed to divulge that most of the people igniting their tap water drilled their water wells through gas bearing zones (ie coal beds in CO) or simply live in areas where gas is naturally ocurring at shallow levels (Pavillion, WY). But why let facts get in the way of the film maker’s agenda.

    #8
  9. Trail_Tramp

    The irony is that the same people who scream “LOOK AT THE FACTS” when talking about Global Warming, ignore the facts when talking about fracing.

    #9
  10. aeroguy48

    Here in North Texas, in the Barnett shale, where Fracing really estabilished itself, there have been over 3000 wells fraced, no problems encountered.

    #10
  11. Barry

    Gas is burned once and then becomes CO2 which is a GHG. The resource is NOT renewable. Ground water on the other hand is used “forever” and unlike having natural gas, it is ESSENTIAL for life on earth, the same can be said for climate.
    So “fear mongering” or more appropriately, extreme caution is justified. Earthquakes, subsidence and ground water pollution are all possible side effects that need to be examined. More than anything we need to get off fossil fuels to 100% renewables, for our health and that of the planet.

    #11
  12. There are bad side effects to renewable energy too, just last month a greenie was complaining that wind turbines have killed so many birds when they fly into them and have decreased the habitat of some other species too. Its like they dont know what they want anymore, oh wait….

    #12
  13. I hear a voice of reason

    @Barry — Like it or not, we are going to burn hydrocarbons for a long time. Is it better, in your view, to continue on burning coal and oil at ever-increasing levels, or would it be better to exploit the very real capability of natural gas for transportation, heating and electricity generation and reduce the overall emissions — cradle to grave — by a significant amount in the near future?

    Moving completely to solar-based renewables (all of them are, including wind, tidal and current) and geo-thermal sources for all of our energy and transportation needs is going to take sustained effort over generations, very significant investment, and some luck. We need to also look at ways to “get there from here” or we won’t get anywhere. If you are against natural gas, then will you accept nuclear power and its risks and costs? Same question for wind, PV, solar-thermal, on and on. They all have risks. They all come with adverse effects, and they all cost money. They can’t solve the problem quickly. Where do you stand?

    I make my living in the renewables sector. Just as the NG industry is dealing with its adverse impacts and costs, so too is the renewables industry.

    @ Cathy — By the way Cathy, just to show how agenda-driven rather than fact-driven some opposition really is: Cars, trucks and tall buildings kill millions upon millions of birds each year. Feral cats kill many tens of millions more. Wind turbines, world-wide, kill 10s of thousands (total). If one is truly interested in the welfare of birds, why would one not try to address the causes with the greatest impacts?

    Facts are pesky things. Open-minded, rational and educated critical thinking is hard, takes time and requires sustained effort. I try to not jerk my knee, go find as many facts and opinions as I can, and then try to form reasoned, balanced opinions. That doesn’t mean I can’t be wrong, but it does make me more thoughtful than I would otherwise be.

    It seems some people either want to simply exert control for the sake of exerting control or somehow want us all to return to the times of stone knives and campfires (a potent ecological disaster if there ever was one).

    #13
  14. Don't believe the BS

    Gasland?

    What a joke of a documentary meant only for propaganda.

    Gasland debunked:

    http://www.energyindepth.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Debunking-Gasland.pdf

    #14
  15. brainjack

    Reasons with voices

    If peeps are trying to strike a balance – with a gas supply in the earth, future energy requirements, and being green – on an intellectual basis this MAY not be the forum.

    Some argue, unsuccessfully, that there’s nothing but propaganda out there and there doesn’t ‘seem’ to be any risks. I’m challenging any of the commentators to re-read this editorial and simply understand that the author’s best foot forward is to suggest best practices on gas extraction. However, I’ll still maintain that the op ed writer is ‘sitting in the cheap seats’ and has not gotten his hands dirty with knowing what really happens in the corporate world with boardmembers making critical safety sacrifices, poor value decisions with regarding contamination risks, etc., in the name of lining stockholders pockets.

    Why do engineered (gas extraction) features fail? Fundamentally, because of corporate greed. It will be difficult to dispute that.
    http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-01-10/pennsylvania-fracking-site-gets-u-s-scrutiny-after-complaints.html

    Some argue that … “The other energy sources are risky, expensive, or untimely”… “Imported oil is a dependency”… “What are our other choices? – campfires?”… Unfortunately, while these are understandable concepts, they only are platitudes and they don’t even match up or justify the gross lack of engineering and ecology that occurs in the field or near the corporate decision making process.

    So, has this op ed unseated the ‘fears’? Probably not. But I will give credit where credit is due. At least MOST of the problem statement about fracking is on the table for discussion. I’m challenging the writer to speak towards IMPLEMENTING his suggestions – and the costs and associated timelines. That’s where the hard work and profit reducing costs are. Are you going to extract gas from our earth? Ok, you better do it right then because it’s my cup of water thank you.

    #15
  16. Holditch supporter

    Brainjack, you couldn’t be farther from reality when you suggest that Dr. Holditch is “sitting in the cheap seats” and doesn’t understand the corporate world. Look at his very abbreviated resume at http://www.pe.tamu.edu/holditch/index.html. What is not said in this website is that as a graduate student he founded his own consulting firm which becam S.A. Holditch and Associates and was later sold to Schlumberger. This firm conducted research and consulting projects for virtually every major energy firm in the world, plus a number of federal agencies. He has served on the board of a number of companies, and personally knows many of the top executives in the petroleum industry. So, I would say that he is VERY in tune with the industry, and reality.

    #16
  17. brainjack

    Great, so you found a his resume on the internet.

    The world needs people who are willing to do something other than scratch the surface of an issue, and not just be a PR wannabe for industry. Being a ‘Holditch supporter’ are you ready to take a balanced look at ALL of the facts about gas extraction ecology?

    #17
  18. Trail_Tramp

    Holditch is highly respected in the industry and deservedly so. I had the pleasure of working with him on a project and was extremely impressed not only with his knowledge but his down to earth attitude. People would do well to listen to anything he has to say.

    #18