What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling TowerHydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of extracting natural gas from shale formations that relies almost exclusively on water. What happens to that water once it has been used has become a politically charged issue that has entered legislative funding discussions in the U.S. Senate.

Before the Senate Appropriations Committee panel May 16, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson was asked about funding within the agency’s $8.3 billion 2013 budget request that would fund fracking studies. The $8 million allocated for the research, said Jackson, in comments appearing in a piece by EnergyGuardian redistributed online, is not designed to stop domestic natural gas drilling via hydraulic fracturing, but is merely that agency’s share of national studies on the issue to be conducted with the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Energy. Another $4 million is to be allocated for a congressionally mandated study of fracking on drinking water supplies.

Jackson told the panel:

What I’ve said about the drinking water study is that if we learn things that teach us better ways to protect drinking water, certainly we’re going to share that with all the people out there, as our partners, trying to protect drinking water. […] There is on the part of the administration […] a desire to do additional science around hydraulic fracturing … because the public’s trust in that technology we believe is also based on the belief that we are looking to bring the very best science to bear, to ensure that it remains safe.

Preliminary results from the drinking water study are expected by the end of the year with the full results to be available in 2014.

“What is not in dispute is that fracking uses water. Lots and lots of water,” according to MarketWatch. Chesapeake Energy is reportedly purchasing 700,000 gallons of water a day from municipal sources for its operations. The company estimates that approximately 4.5 million gallons of water, the majority of which is hauled in by trucks, are needed to extract natural gas from a single well — the equivalent of watering a golf course for 25 days.

Dan Lopata, the Chesapeake Energy employee in charge of its water operations, told NPR that trucking in the water is a challenge. “The transportation of all the fluids is probably our biggest expense, and that’s our highest exposure to the local community,” he said.

But how is water used in the process?

As NPR explains:

To get the natural gas out of the Marcellus layer of shale, engineers drill about a mile deep, then out horizontally through the shale layer. Explosive charges create cracks in the shale. Engineers then mix water with sand and chemicals. Big pumps drive this slurry down into the shale. The fluid is so highly pressurized that it opens the cracks wider and liberates gas.

The chemical mix — called flowback — that emerges at the well head is separated into gas and water. This water, which contains salt and other minerals picked up while coursing through the shale, is held for recycling. Some of these minerals, which might include barium, are naturally toxic and possibly radioactive substances. The water also still contains the frack water chemicals.

“This wastewater flows back up out of the well for about a month, but the well will continue to regurgitate a salty brine for years, which has to be collected and disposed of,” explains NPR. “How the industry handles this wastewater is a controversial issue.”

Some water has reportedly been dumped into waterways. Other drilling companies have shipped the water to municipal water treatment plants while others have temporarily transferred it into lined holding ponds.

Vermont became the first state to ban fracking based on pollution concerns. In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection regulates holding ponds and does not allow the water to be treated by public water treatment plants. It has cited drillers with state law violations resulting in fines of more than $1.5 million.

Increased regulations have spurred the growth in businesses able to recycle frack water. Businesses such as Eureka Resources and TerrAqua Resource Management extract the hazardous substances, which drillers can reuse. Estimates are, according to NPR, that in Pennsylvania, 90% of frack water is recycled and reused.

MarketWatch concludes that “fracking will absolutely double or triple as a percentage of total water usage in the [N]ortheast. You’ve got to get in the mindset that water is about to become a traded and bundled commodity like crude oil.”

The estimate is that water prices could, as a result, become grossly inflated. “And water inflation is way more insidious than food inflation because it will drive up the costs of everything we eat as well,” according to MarketWatch.

Image by Ruhrfisch, used under its Creative Commons license.