Tag Archives: hydraulic fracturing

Signs of fracking water found in freshwater mussels

In Pennsylvania, the release of fracking water has been banned in 2011, but traces from before the ban are still visible in aquatic environments.

Frack the environment

Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is a process through which oil companies can retrieve otherwise inaccessible reserves of shale gas. As the name suggests, it involves using a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals (called fracking fluid) to create a system of fractures which would allow the gas to escape towards the surface, where it can be captured.

Illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities. Image credits: US Environmental Protection Agency.

Fracking is controversial for several reasons. It uses massive quantities of water, it appears to cause increased seismicity, and, of course, the leaks. Creating a system of fissures a few kilometers beneath ground is challenging, but ensuring that the system is tight and doesn’t allow leaks is massively more difficult. Naturally, many people are concerned that the fracking fluid or the gas itself can leak towards the surface, seeping into the soil and water reserves — which has observed to be the case at some wells in the past.

But the release of used fracking water is also a major issue with long-lasting consequences.

“Freshwater pollution is a major concern for both ecological and human health,” said David Gillikin, professor of geology at Union College and co-author of a new study. “Developing ways to retroactively document this pollution is important to shed light on what’s happening in our streams.”

In their new paper, Gillikin and colleagues report finding high concentrations of strontium, an element associated with oil and gas wastewaters, in the shells of freshwater mussels downstream from fracking wastewater disposal sites.

A smoking gun

Image credits: Engbretson Eric, USFWS.

In a way, freshwater mussels are a bit like trees — they can offer a lot of information about the environmental quality of the water they live in, much like tree rings offer information about past climate events. Because they feed by filtering water, mussels hold a record of past water quality, which can be studied.

“Freshwater mussels filter water and when they grow a hard shell, the shell material records some of the water quality with time,” said Nathaniel Warner, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Penn State. “Like tree rings, you can count back the seasons and the years in their shell and get a good idea of the quality and chemical composition of the water during specific periods of time.”

After usage, fracking fluid is treated and cleaned — but this process is not perfect. In 2011, biologists noticed that despite this treatment, water and sediment downstream from fracking wastewater disposal sites still contained worrying amounts of fracking chemicals. The water was contaminated and in turn, affected aquatic life, causing widespread damage. After this was revealed, Pennsylvania banned all fracking wastewater treatment facilities from releasing the water back into the ecosystem. But the effect of the released water before the ban is still unclear.

To shed some light on it, researchers collected freshwater mussels from the Alleghany River, both upstream and downstream of a wastewater disposal facility in Warren, Pennsylvania. They also collected mussels from two other rivers — the Juniata and Delaware — that had no reported history of oil and gas discharge, for comparison.

They particularly looked at strontium isotopes, which in this context can be a smoking gun for fracking wastewater. They also analyzed the oxygen isotope, to identify the year and season. Not surprisingly, they found elevated concentrations of strontium in the shells of the freshwater mussels collected downstream of the facility, whereas all others showed no significant elevation. But not everything came as expected.

Despite the 2011 ban, strontium levels didn’t immediately drop sharply. Instead, it took a while before the decrease was visible, and the decrease was quite slow. This suggests that even years in which fracking water has not been released back into the ecosystem, the effects are still visible.

“We know that Marcellus development has impacted sediments downstream for tens of kilometers,” said Warner. “And it appears it still could be impacted for a long period of time. The short timeframe that we permitted the discharge of these wastes might leave a long legacy.”

Considering the large scale of modern fracking, this is particularly concerning. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, up to 95% of new wells drilled today are hydraulically fractured.

“The wells are getting bigger, and they’re using more water, and they’re producing more wastewater, and that water has got to go somewhere,” said Warner. “Making the proper choices about how to manage that water is going to be pretty vital.”

This study goes on to show that even a few years of the process could have long-lasting, damaging consequences. It also suggests that freshwater mussels can be used to study potential seepages at oil sites, since conventional oil drilling can also cause a similar type of pollution.

Journal Reference: Thomas J. Geeza, David P. Gillikin, Bonnie McDevitt, Katherine Van Sice, Nathaniel R. Warner. Accumulation of Marcellus Formation Oil and Gas Wastewater Metals in Freshwater Mussel Shells. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018; 52 (18): 10883 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02727

Hydraulic Fracking leaks much more often than we thought

The controversial practice of hydraulic fracking is much more damaging than we actually thought. These oil and gas wells spill pretty often to the surface, a new study found.

This is a screengrab from the study’s interactive map shows a decade’s worth of spills of more than 5,000 gallons of pollutants from pipeline leaks at North Dakota hydraulic fracturing sites.
Credit: Source: Science for Nature and People Partnership

As any geology student worth his salt will tell you, oil reservoirs are complex things. First, you need a source rock under just the right temperature and pressure — to generate the oil. Then, you need a porous rock to hold the oil, and a seal to prevent it from migrating towards the surface and spilling (because oil is much lighter than surrounding rocks). The fact that oil reservoirs exist in the first place is pretty neat in the first place.

But sometimes, you need to give Mother Nature a hand to be able to get that sweet oil. Specifically, you have to generate a system of fissures through which the oil and gas can get closer to the surface, so you can extract it. This is done by injecting a so-called fracking fluid at extreme pressures with the purpose of splintering the rocks and creating a system of fissures. There are several major environmental problems associated with this practice.

Illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities. Image via EPA.

For starters, we don’t really know what the fracking fluid is — it’s considered to be a corporate secret — but we do know that it contains a slurry of chemicals, many of which can be dangerous to humans and the environment. Secondly, this takes up gargantuan quantities of water (millions of gallons per well) which can exert a massive stress on local aquifers. Some of the water can be reused from well to well, but much of it is lost. Also, there have been studies linking fracking to increased seismicity and water contamination, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike previous studies, which analyzed what happens beneath the ground, this one focused on the surface.

Researchers studied 31,481 hydraulic fracture wells, finding that between 2004 and 2015 there have been 6,648 spills, as defined by each of the four state’s reporting requirements. These spills to the surface can have a huge negative impact on the environment and drinking water.

“There’s been so much focus on the ground water contamination and the casing incidences,” says Hannah Wiseman, the Attorneys’ Title Professor at Florida State University College of Law and an author on both studies. “We wanted to sort of shift the attention a bit to the surface.”

It’s not the first time a study like this was carried out. A similar study conducted by the EPA found only 457 leaks between 2006 and 2012 — but that’s because they only looked at spills caused by the fracking itself. This is more of a lifecycle analysis, showing that for the entire duration of the project, fracking wells can, and often do, leak to the surface.

“We think it’s important to study the whole life of the well,” said Wiseman, “because the process of hydraulic fracturing has enabled the drilling of so many more wells.”

In total, they found that 2 to 16 percent of fracking wells spill hydrocarbons, chemical-laden water, hydraulic fracturing fluids and other substances into the environment. That’s a total of 6,648 spills reported across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania in the 10 years.

Researchers have even developed an interactive map where everyone can check the oil spills at both national and state level and find out more about them. Who knows, there might be one near you.

Of course, the timing of this study is extremely important. With the newly-elected Trump administration vowing to bring back America’s fossil fuel industry, there are more and more concerns regarding our objective of limiting climate change. By now, it should be clear that fracking is not the answer to the world’s rising energy demands and the negative effects clearly outweigh the positives. But in the meantime, as the technology is still ongoing in many parts of the US, it’s important to quantify what its effects are in order to delimitate and mitigate the risks to water supplies and human health

Journal Reference: L. Patterson, K. Konschnik, H. Wiseman, et. al. Unconventional Oil and Gas Spills: Risks, Mitigation Priorities and States Reporting Requirements. Environmental Science & Technology, 2017 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.05749

fracking fire

Scientists examine over 1,000 chemicals from fracking fluids: many linked to reproductive or development toxicity

The indispensable chemical mixture that allows the industry to fracture rock and release the gas trapped inside is basically a black box. More than 1,000 chemicals are used in the fracking fluid, but a paper published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology found toxicity information was lacking for 76% of them. In other words, these could be harmless or dangerous. there’s no way to know at this point. Concerning the rest — about 240 substances — the researchers found evidence that  suggests reproductive toxicity for 103 (43%), developmental toxicity for 95 (40%), and both for 41 (17%).

fracking fire

Image: YouTube

Substances mentioned in the study include arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine, and mercury. Of the 240 analyzed substances, 67 were particularly worrisome since these had an existing federal health-based standard or guideline. Like all hazardous chemicals, it’s the dose that matters. In the right concentration, a usually toxic chemical can be harmless. The researchers from Yale University say data on whether levels of chemicals exceeded the guidelines were too limited to assess.

“This evaluation is a first step to prioritize the vast array of potential environmental contaminants from hydraulic fracturing for future exposure and health studies,” said Nicole Deziel, senior author and assistant professor of public health. “Quantification of the potential exposure to these chemicals, such as by monitoring drinking water in people’s homes, is vital for understanding the public health impact of hydraulic fracturing.”

“We focused on reproductive and developmental toxicity because these effects may be early indicators of environmental hazards. Gaps in our knowledge highlight the need to improve our understanding of the potential adverse effects associated with these compounds,” said Elise Elliott, a public health doctoral student and the paper’s first author.

fracking-oil

Image: FracFocus

Fracking chemicals: a black box. Most drillers are not mandated to disclose the chemical makeup of fracking fluid, being treated as trade secrets.

According to Preserve the Beartooth Front, these findings from Yale echo previous research that found associations between proximity to hydraulic fracturing sites and reproductive and developmental problems. These include:

  • A 2013 Colorado study showed that exposure to frac water “could raise the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological and other diseases, especially in children who are exposed to EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals].”
  • A 2014 Pennsylvania study looked at birth records to assess the health of infants born withina 2.5-kilometer radius of fracking sites. They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half.
  • A 2014 Colorado study examined the connection between how close a mother is to natural gas drilling and birth outcomes in a study of 124,842 births in rural Colorado between 1996 and 2009. The study shows an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and an increase of as much as 30% in the prevalence of congenital heart defects.

Earlier this year, the  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report in which it analyzed more than 39,000 FracFocus disclosures in the last two years.  The report found that the median number of chemical additives per fracking job was 14. Hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydrotreated light petroleum distillates were the most common additives, being reported in 65 percent of all disclosures. Even in low doses, these are known to cause skin irritation, chemical burns, headaches and blurred vision.

In the past ten years, America has lived through what experts herald as the “shale boom” – a massive development of hydraulic fracturing wells to the point that today the U.S. has become the #1 crude oil and natural gas producer in the world. Nine out of ten wells in the U.S. are now fracking wells.

fracking

Essentially, hydraulic fracking wells pump a mixture of chemicals, sand and water some 2 miles deep into the ground. The pressure breaks down rock and releases the hydrocarbons previously trapped for millions of years.

While fracking gave the U.S. a huge leverage, both economical and tactical, critics have voiced a number of valid concerns. These include air pollution, huge amounts of wastewater, bedrock fracturing that leads to earthquakes, and — maybe most worrisome — the potential for groundwater and aquifer contamination with hazardous chemicals. There are many other concerns, as well.

Researchers at University of Texas at Arlington conducted tests on more than 100 water wells in Texas and found 30% of these contained ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic, enough to be considered carcinogenic and seriously threatening human health. These contaminated wells were found in the vicinity of known fracking sites and prior to drilling these were found to be free of arsenic or at least far from the concentrations we’re seeing now.

Today, however, there is no evidence that might directly link fracking to contaminated water, even though many people can now light their tap water on fire after fracking wells were developed in their vicinity. When Stanford researchers traced back methane leaks from contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania and Texas to shale gas wells, they did not find a link between the contamination and the technique used to drill for shale gas itself. Instead, the researchers concluded that well integrity is the main driver for the contamination.

With good and bad, we need more long-term research on the matter to establish whether or not fracking is worth it. Frack now, ask questions later is not a wise course of action.

Update: corrected sub-heading citing fracking chemical as undisclosed and protected by patent laws.

Protesters in New York rallied against fracking. Image: worlding.org

Fracking banned in New York state over possible threats to public health

New York state officials have chosen to ban fracking also known as hydraulic fracturing after a two-year period of review where numerous ‘red flags’ were raised concerning public health. The decision was made recently  at a cabinet meeting in Albany.

No fracking in New York

Protesters in New York rallied against fracking. Image: worlding.org

Protesters in New York rallied against fracking. Image: worlding.org

For the past five years, the state had fracking under  moratorium, while 120 towns had already banned the controversial practice that involves drilling and injecting a high pressure mixture of water and chemicals, some radioactive, other of unknown toxicity. While there’s yet to be a paper that directly links under a causal relationship fracking with water or residential air poisoning, accounts tend to suggest this is the case. Fracking is also likely to cause micro earthquakes.

“The takeaway that I get from the data is that there are serious questions about public health,” the governor, Andrew Cuomo, said.

At the conference announcing the decision, Cuomo lamented the emotional charged nature of the debate surrounding fracking. The governor tried to the address the issue by leaving this sort of decision to the experts, which to me sounds right about what any politician should do in situations like these. ”

Let’s bring the emotion down and let’s ask the qualified experts,” said Cuomo, who quickly turned the press conference over to state health and environmental officials.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will issue a legally binding, supplemental environmental impact statement next year outlining its findings on the issue. Today’s decision was based on a series of studies ran over the past two years which assessed the long-term safety of hydraulic fracturing.

In effect, the decision is the biggest obstacle to date to an industry that has had rapid growth across a number of other states. In 2012, Vermont became the first US state to ban fracking, which wasn’t that much of a big deal considering there were no exploration or exploitation wells in operation at the time. New York state is a whole different matter, since it holds one of the last great areas of untapped potential in the Marcellus Shale.

“I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” Howard Zucker, the health commissioner, said. “There are many red flags.”

When asked why other states aren’t banning fracking or aren’t the taking the same investigative measures, Zucker said it’s because  “many of those states didn’t bring their health teams to the table.” To which the governor agreed.

 “I think it’s our responsibility to develop an alternative … for safe, clean economic development,” the governor said.

In fact, Cumo just became my favorite governor ever. Not because he’s banned fracking, but the way he decided to handle this extremely delicate issue – letting the experts settle the issue and not allowing himself bullied by either public opinion or the oil industry. When asked a question about fracking in October, the governor quickly dodged it. “I am not a scientist,” he said. “Let the scientists decide.”

Fracking is also banned in France and Germany.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

US drinking water contaminated with gas because of faulty wells, but not fracking

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Stanford researchers traced back methane leaks from contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania and Texas to shale gas wells. However, they note that they did not find a link between the contamination and the technique used to drill for shale gas itself, called hydraulic fracturing or more commonly known as fracking. Instead, the researchers concluded that well integrity is the main driver for the contamination.

Fire water

For the past couple of years there have been numerous reports of households whose water supplies had been contaminated with unusually high concentrations of methane. You might have already seen some famous footage on the internet (less on TV) of various people who would open the tap, light a flame and set the water on fire. It’s not joke – these stories are actually for real! Since these incidents never happened before the shale gas boom, naturally everyone was extremely suspicious that the contamination came from fracking wells. Oddly enough, the Environmental Protection Agency was very slow at conducting tests and investigations. In some cases, the agency – a highly important government agency tasked with protecting the United States’ people, fauna and nature – was actually ‘bullied’ by oil and gas companies. That shouldn’t have stopped the EPA from conducting tests of its own, however, instead of relying on reports produced by oil and gas companies, which were obviously biased.

“I don’t understand why they would let the company that was accused of doing the wrongdoing conduct the tests,” resident Shelly Purdue, a Texas resident whose household’s water supply was contaminated told Bloomberg News. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Indeed, tests ran independently by Duke University researchers found 54.7 milligrams per liter of methane in a random sample of drinking water in December 2012. Curiously, the Range Resources study conducted just a month earlier found a mere 20 milligrams and 4.2 milligrams in mid-2012. Water in the vicinity of  operations in the gas-rich Barnett Shale contained 83 milligrams per liter, according to a  University of Texas-Arlington. The federal limit is ten milligrams per liter.

Blame it on the (gas) well…

The Stanford team analyzed the gas content of 130 water wells in Texas and Pennsylvania, and used noble gases to trace the path of methane as these inert chemicals are not affected by microbial activity or oxidation. By measuring the ratios of noble gases to methane gas they could accurately determine the likely source of the methane leak. Of the 133 water wells (113 wells in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and 20 in the Barnett shale in Texas), the researchers identified eight clusters with problems.

“The mechanism of contamination looks to be well integrity,” said one of the authors, Prof Robert Jackson from Stanford University.

“In about half the cases we believe the contamination came from poor cementing and in the other half it came from well casings that leaked.”

Although in one case the methane leak was linked to a failed underground drilling well, the researchers couldn’t identify a causal link between the actual technique employed – fracking – the methane contamination.

“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Prof Avner Vengosh, from Duke University.

The researchers suggest that while there are strict regulations that should prevent these sort of faulty wells, these are ill enforced since often times contractors are under pressure to finish their work fast so they can move on to the next  well – remember, we’re in a full shale boom! Also, since gas prices have steadily went down, companies are making lower margins and have become negligent.

“You need strong rules and regulations on well integrity,” said Prof Jackson.

“You need generous setbacks that protect homes and schools and water sources from drilling, sometimes farther than the drillers would want. You need enough inspectors on the ground to keep people honest and you need separation between the industry and the inspectors and you don’t always have that in the US.”

A lot of voices are saying, especially following these findings, that fracking is safe – if strict design and maintenance regulations are followed. Unfortunately, water contamination isn’t the only problem linked to fracking. There’s arsenic poisoning, copious amounts of methane leaked into the atmosphere, fracking chemicals of unknown toxicity, fracking-caused earthquakes and long term risks to the biosphere.

peak_oi

High level of arsenic contamination found in groundwater near fracking sites

peak_oi

Photo: Peak Oil

Researchers at University of Texas at Arlington conducted tests on more than 100 water wells in Texas and found 30% of these contained ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic, enough to be considered carcinogenic and seriously threatening human health. These contaminated wells were found in the vicinity of known fracking sites and prior to drilling these were found to be free of arsenic or at least far from the concentrations we’re seeing now. There is an ongoing debate whether or not fracking can contaminate potable water sources and this latest research suggests that indeed this can happen, albeit the evidence is indirect. The findings appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology [cite]10.1021/es4011724[/cite].

Drinking water arsenic poisoning linked to fracking

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a now a popular drilling method which involves injecting a liquid mixture of sand, water and other chemicals (some of which are carcinogenic, while others are classified – we know very little about their toxicity other than what drilling companies tell us: that they’re totally safe) at very high pressure with the aim of cracking or ‘fracturing’ the rock deposits miles under the surface to make it easier to extract natural gas or oil.

[ALSO SEE] Pro-fracking newspaper ad banned

The team comprised of 11 biochemists found twenty-nine groundwater wells within 1.8 miles of active natural gas drilling whose water contained unusually high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic which past a certain concentration can be extremely dangerous. Indeed, the water from the wells contained arsenic well past the the limit considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

[RELATED] Frack now, ask questions later: bio impact of fracking still largely unknown

University of Texas researchers compared their results with previous water tests conducted before the fracking boom which started some 10 years ago and concluded that ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals have leached in the groundwater.

“This is indirect evidence that drilling does affect the water,” researcher Zacariah Hildenbrand said.

The researchers are careful not to suggest that drilling companies use arsenic into their fracking liquid mix or there’s a direct injection of the heavy metal in water wells. One theory of how the water might have become contaminated is that fracking-induced vibrations shook the rusty water pipes. Rust can contain arsenic, the researchers said.

This hypothesis, however, sounds implausible to industry leaders.

“If they’re talking about drills shaking [rust] free, that’s a little farfetched,” said Alex Mills, president of Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. “I’ve never heard or even came close to hearing that hydraulic fracturing is so vicious, so earth-shattering to shake loose rust from water wells.”

This statement is ludicrous by itself. Someone should tell Mr. Mills that hydraulic fracturing can indeed induce massive vibrations. Heck, it’s been linked (not yet strictly proven) with hundreds of man-made earthquakes already, most notably in places like Oklahoma where prior to the massive introduction of fracking has rarely seen earthquakes, historically.

 

A typical fracking well. Image: Frontiers of Ecology

Frack now, ask questions later: bio impact of fracking still largely unknown

Since 2007, shale gas has boomed by 700% in the US and is projected to rise for the next 30 years. While there are states where well fields span across hundreds of hectares, you’d think that the effects of exploitation of this caliber are well researched and documented. In reality, the bio impact of fracking remains largely unknown. Of course, this doesn’t stop oil companies from going on with their business and even claiming everything’s safe without anything solid to actually backup their claims.

Fracking in the dark

A typical fracking well. Image: Frontiers of Ecology

A typical fracking well. Image: Frontiers of Ecology

A study made by eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions found large knowledge gaps when it comes to the direct and quantifiable effects fracking has on the biosphere and environment in general. This has led them to conclude that exhaustively determining the risks fracking possess on the environment must be a top priority for policymakers.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it’s commonly referred to involves releasing shale gas trapped beneath rocks. The rocks are broken using a high-pressure liquid mix of water, sand and other chemicals, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances. Public fears are growing about contamination of drinking-water supplies from the chemicals used in fracking and from the methane gas itself. Field tests show that those worries are not unfounded. A Duke University study published in May found that methane levels in dozens of drinking-water wells within a kilometer (3,280 feet) of new fracking sites were 17 times higher than in wells farther away. Then there’s earthquakes. 

[ALSO] U.S. releases 50% methane than it claims

Even so, there are many things about fracking does to the environment that we don’t know, according to the team of researchers. Which begs the question: why are we chasing shale gas so furiously, when we have so little knowledge what the consequences may be 10, 15 or 20 years from now?

“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said co-author Morgan Tingley, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

While fracking has become fairly common today, the technology isn’t exactly novel – it’s been around since the 1970’s, so why don’t we know more about it? Much to blame for this gaps in knowledge are the oil companies themselves, which refuse to divulge important and sensitive information to public health, under the protection of law – something that to me is totally backwards from what a civilized country should look like. Of the 24 American states with active shale-gas reservoirs, only five — Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas — maintain public records of spills and accidents, the researchers report. And get this – oil companies aren’t obliged to report oil spills, being the government’s task. In other words, oil companies can get away with spills if nobody see them and there’s not even a fine.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the best sources of publicly available information on shale-gas spills and accidents in the nation. Even so, gas companies failed to report more than one-third of spills in the last year,” said first author Sara Souther, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections?” Souther asked. “We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals.”

Wyoming’s Jonah Field, a major site of shale development. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

Wyoming’s Jonah Field, a major site of shale development. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

The study identified several threats to biodiversity as a result of rapid and widespread shale development, which has disproportionately affected rural and natural areas. A single gas well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres (1.5 to 3.1 hectares) of vegetation, and there are sites where hundreds are dispersed. Besides clearing, the wells cause noise, air and light pollution that interfere with habitats and migration patterns.

“If you look down on a heavily ‘fracked’ landscape, you see a web of well pads, access roads and pipelines that create islands out of what was, in some cases, contiguous habitat,” Souther said. “What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?”

One other issue, besides lack of leaks and spills reports, that hinders a thorough qualitative analysis has to do with the chemicals being used in fracking wells. There are many types of wells, each using a different set of chemicals to break rocks, some of which are undisclosed and protect by patent laws.

“Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” said senior author Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”

Souther, Sara, Morgan W. Tingley, Viorel D. Popescu, David T.S. Hyman, Maureen E. Ryan, Tabitha A. Graves, Brett Hartl, Kimberly Terrell. 2014. Biotic impacts of energy development from shale: research priorities and knowledge gaps. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Article published online Aug. 1, 2014. DOI: 10.1890/130324.

US Surpasses Russia and Saudi Arabia as World’s Largest Oil and Gas Producer

A new report released by the Energy Information Administration showed that the US will end 2013 as the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia; the US reachged a combined production of 25 million barrels of oil a day (crude oil, natural gas liquid condensates, and biofuels).

An Oklahoma oil well.

An Oklahoma oil well.

Interestingly enough, not many people are truly happy about this (bar big oil company executives) – the US was close to the first place, but only reached it due to the boom in hydraulic fracking; while the technique provides more energy independence for America, the number of people who claim numerous negative consequences continues to grow as well.

U.S. imports of natural gas and crude oil have fallen 32% and 15%, respectively, in the past five years, but even so, the demand for these natural resources continues to grow in the country. But despite these advantages, even the biggest supporters of shale gas drilling concur that shale boom’s longevity could hinge on commodity prices, government regulations and public support; prices will drop, and companies may lower production, which can cause significant problems, even on a global scale. The economic consequences are very hard to estimate.

“It is not a supply question anymore,” he said. “It is about demand and the cost of production. Those are the two drivers.”

Everything you wanted to know about shale gas drilling (but were afraid to ask)

People ask me about shale gas all the time – I guess it goes with being a geologist. As much as this subject interests me and as much as I care about this (and I’m sure you do too), I kind of grows tiring to answer the same questions over and over again; so I wanted to find a great resource, one from which people can get all the needed information, unbiased towards one side or the other – and I did, recently. This presentation by Anthony Ingraffea, PhD does just that. I really recommend it, it should answer most, if not all questions related to shale gas exploration. Dr. Ingraffea’s research concentrates on computer simulation and physical testing of complex fracturing processes, and you can find out more about him from his page.

shale-gas-drilling-diagram

Shale gas isn’t a ‘clean bridge fuel’, study finds

There has been a lot of fuss lately about shale gas, which has become increasingly important in the past decade, particularly due to hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a modern technique used to extract it from the underground. Many have proposed natural shale gas as a supposedly clean bridge fuel, fit to address climate change and also industrial energetic requirements; as usually, only the latter is truly regarded.

Recent research, published by Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University casts the shadow of a doubt on this idea, due to methane leakage and the controversy over hydraulic fracking that enabled this boom of shale gas in the first place.

Natural gas is often used for generating electricity and heating and it can also be used for transportation, when compressed (CNG) or liquified (LNG). Many claim natural gas to be clean, but that’s only when we compare it to coal. Natural gas is essentially the same as methane, chemically speaking; methane is a much, much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, as is explained here. During hydraulic fracturing, a large quantity of methane is leaked into the atmosphere; basically, this process requires pumping water laced with various chemicals underground to fracture the rocks, causing chemical reactions which lead to the release of methane in the atmosphere. That methane is supposed to be captured and used on the market, but studies have shown the situation is not quite so rosy. Also, many blame hydraulic fracture for polluting groundwater, as some people have reported a mixture of water, shale and natural gas flowing through their sinks. Companies however claim these are only isolated cases, but the debate is still going.

Robert W. Howarth, Cornell University, said:

“We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale. The greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used. We stand by the conclusion of our 2011 research: ‘The large [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.'”

The problem is that in the process of hydraulic fracking, methane escapes into the atmosphere way before it can be trapped; furthermore, natural gas pipelines are sometimes leaky, due to their old age and structure. In some cases, the infrastructure is 80-100 years old. But wait, there’s more! These pipes are made from steel, and steel rusts, causing a lot of problems for the local environment and communities.

Following calculations in this line, Howarth’s team calculated that the natural gas industry accounts for 39 percent of the U.S. total methane emissions. Still, they suggest that these problems can be fixed, by adding more thorough regulations regarding capturing methane gas leakage and repairing the ageing infrastructure. However, we are left with this question, which is cleverly addressed in the paper:

“Should society invest massive capital in such improvements for a bridge fuel that is to be used for only 20 to 30 years, or would the capital be better spent on constructing a smart electric grid and other technologies that move towards a truly green energy future?”

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