Does Fracking Contaminate Drinking Water?

Josh Fox in Eco Watch says it does: “In a draft report five years in the making, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed that fracking does indeed contaminate drinking water, a fact the oil and gas industry has vehemently denied. But instead of dismantling the industry’s ‘not one single case of groundwater contamination caused by fracking’ refrain, the EPA decided to go with the misleading headline ‘there is no evidence fracking has led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.’”

“It’s a puzzling conclusion since their study was conspicuously narrow (they did no new case studies, dropped three marquee cases that proved water contamination and dropped all air quality studies from the report).”

“If the EPA is looking for proof of ‘widespread’ contamination before declaring fracking unsafe, they may not have to wait long. The industry’s own data shows that 5 percent of fracking wells leak upon drilling and that number only grows over time.”

“What the EPA presented to the public yesterday was PR, not science and proof of the widespread, systemic contamination of our regulatory bodies by the oil and gas industry.”

Inside Climate News: “EPA officials said the study is not meant to provide a comprehensive tally of water contamination incidents … As a result, the report stitches together a piecemeal picture of fracking-related incidents. It relies on several case studies involving a handful of major incidents … that state regulators investigated. It also uses state data for possible contamination events, such as spills of fracking fluid at well pads, which EPA acknowledges provides a limited scope of the problem.”

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  • The environmental risks associated with fracking are 99% due to government regulations or lack of. The idea that industry or markets are self-regulating and will work out the ‘best practices’ is dumb. Good regulations, standardized for the entire industry, with strong enforcement are the key to zero tolerance for spills or contamination. This isn’t new; as the same thing could be said about the financial industry (2008) or agriculture – Mad Cow, Keystone pipeline etc.

    Let’s assume for the moment that we have the right people from industry and government who could read about or figure out the best practices. They would start by looking at what is in the frac water used to fracture the rock. It is mostly just water and sand, no real issues there. But like KFC every frac
    company is going to say their special formula is going to outperform the other guys ‘snake oil’. Who knows what some guy in a lab is telling his boss about his special recipe for their product. As a percentage whatever chemical they are adding is very low. People and companies are trying to save face. I could replace their special chemicals with the same amount of mustard and ketchup out
    of my fridge and the actual performance numbers would not change. For one thing NO ONE knows what is going on once you come around the heel and move out into the horizontal sections. If any company had a real special formula it should be seen in the production numbers and they should dominate the fracking market. No clear winners on that side as the best solutions so far are: more fracks, more water, more sand, more stages and more money!

    Let’s put aside the additives. The major issue is contamination of drinking ground water or aquifers. Not so much from the frack fluids themselves but from the gas and oil that we are trying to produce. I am talking about a below ground blow-out where the producing formation doesn’t shoot out the well at surface but migrates from the reservoir rock up the well bore or through a fracture to another zone which in the worst case would be an aquifer used for drinking water. The migration up the well bore can be fixed with enforcement of good cementing regulations, this would greatly reduce the possibility of a poor cement job between the pipe and rock face in the well. An example of what could happen, Gulf of Mexico.

    The second situation is the oil and gas migrate through a fracture you created and start flowing into an aquifer. More complex issue, but can be mitigated. If your well is deeper than 2,000 feet the odds are that any aquifer you encounter will be salt water. That water would never be used for drinking or would never reach the surface. You still don’t want your gas or oil moving into a different formation, hard to make money unless the oil and gas comes up the pipe. Less of an environmental concern and more of an economic, operational issue for the oil company. This is easy to overcome.

    Trying to frac formations less than 2000 feet in depth are problematic and would require a lot more diligence prior to licensing to drill. This is the top zone where you will be drilling through surface ground water formations and fresh water aquifers. There are real risks associated with the fracking of a shallow oil or gas reservoir. Some of the issues: old water wells that are not recorded, old oil and gas wells that are not recorded, mine shafts, wells that were never lined with pipe, natural fractures with communication with the surface, etc.

    • moderatesunite

      In general an analysis which I have few objections too. I do think the disclosure of chemicals is important, though I think you are correct that the contamination from the leaking fossil fuels themselves is a much bigger issue.
      however, I am not so optimistic about the cementing regulation and enforcement being sufficient to avoid contamination at the well bore. Some analysis I saw indicated a 60% failure rate within 20 years for current cement casings, and of course when the companies are done with these things they are left in the ground pretty much forever,(with someone from a state environmental agency present when a well is shut down)

      cracking the bedrock makes the contamination and migration seems to me to carry some risks that are pretty hard to justify in the long term

      • I have seen 30 – 50 year old well casings show up at low tide on a beach. Just a few feet sticking above the sand. Local women used to come down with turkey basters and stick their arms down the pipe and suction off the oil. They used it for fuel during the second world war. Later fishermen would collect it and use it to seal the hull bottoms on their fishing boats.
        Here in Alberta our “Oil Sands” are essentially the same thing. A surface exposure of a reservoir sand that has been seeping for hundreds of thousands of years. All major oil finds on land have usually been identified with surface seeps or gas in the local water. We weren’t that smart finding oil, we had to put a foot in it before we had an aha moment. Look at the nasty “Tar Pits” in California. Nature has a way of fixing most of our mistakes.
        20 years for a cement plug and only a 60% failure rate. I won’t tell you what I think of a rubber and steel casing packer or bridge plug for plugging a well! We can change the regulations, we can monitor the success rates and we can adapt to better procedures and regulation. It still takes enforcement. I would prefer old wells be filled top to bottom, not just cement plugs spotted every so often. How about bentonite plugs. A natural mineral that would swell and seal off well bores for thousands of years.
        In order for any oil to move from a static position in a rock to somewhere else in that formation there has to be a differential pressure. If a reservoir is drained then the formation pressure will be reduced. The oil isn’t going to move into the well bore displace water, cement, oil or whatever and flow at surface. It doesn’t take a very solid plug to limit this movement. Cement will work in the short term, we need longer term best practices.

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