Hydrofracking: What is it and Why is it important?

By Debbie Morrow

Natural gas drilling photo courtesy of FlickrCC.


Fracking in New York State

With New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo making his final decision on hydrofracking by the end of the year, small town governments are scrambling to define their own local laws on gas well drilling.

Although hydrofracking has dominated the news and spurred heated debates, some residents are still unclear what hydrofracking is and why they should care.

Misunderstood Word Usage

The words hydrofracking, fracking, high volume hydraulic fracking (HVHF), and massive hydrofracking have been used synonymously in reports and presentations. Because of the word usage, people misunderstand what is being said or are being misinformed on the process of deep horizontal gas well extraction.

Fracking is a process of causing fractures within rock formations to stimulate gas or water production within a well.  The process of vertical fracking has been done since the early 1800s. The first wells were drilled with the help gunpowder, nitro-glycerin and in 1947, they found hydraulic fracturing more efficient.

Hydraulic fracking calls for the use of water, sand and chemicals and this is how the word hydrofracking became synonymously used. The combination of water, sand, and chemicals is often called slickwater.

The difference in fracking of the earlier years and today is the new technology, the depth, angle, and the large the amount of slickwater needed for each well.

The New Technology and Depth

In order for the gas shales to be commercially viable, high pressure hydrofracking was necessary. During a recent Groveland Town meeting, president John Holko of Lenape Resources Inc. tried to clarify. “We’ve combined the two technologies of hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling together,” said Holko. “Now instead of just drilling through a 100 foot of rock and only exposing that much reservoir, we can now drill 2000 feet of rock at depth, so now we stimulate in stages across that 4000 feet,” he added.

The Angle

Although there is historical evidence that horizontal wells existed as far back as the late 1920s, commercial conventional wells were generally vertical.

In 1997, Michell Energy used the combined knowledge from past energy companies to create the commercially viable horizontal well process. These unconventional wells have a main vertical bore hole with several horizontally drilled stages or appendages that stretch sometimes over a mile long.

“We use seismic technology and a lot of sensing technology and sometimes we drill multiple wells on one site so we can sense what is going on with the well we are hydrofracking,” said Holko.

With the help of microseismic imaging, the driller can locate where gas deposits of shale are located and the angle of the horizontal drilling.

The Chemical and Water Usage

Companies use over 240 chemicals to stimulate and drill a horizontal well. These are the same chemicals used when fracking vertical wells, except the amounts are doubled for each horizontal stage.

“We use chemicals for specific reasons said Holko. We use a friction reducer so we can pump fluid, an antibacterial agent that basically kills bugs down in the hole, scale reducers so we don’t throw any casing and then we use acid to essentially get into the formation,” added Holko.

Each well site is treated specifically for its characteristics, which means energy companies tailor a formula of chemicals from site to site.

Along with the hundreds of chemicals being pushed deep into the ground, the Energy and Environmental Research Group says one hydrofractured well can use as much as 3-6 million gallons of water.

Why it Matters

The new technology of drilling horizontally has raised concerns with government agencies, environmentalists, scientists and landowners.

During a recent presentation, chemist and professor Dr. Ronald Bishop voiced his opinion. “Has anyone tried to break a piece of china in 8 exact pieces?” he said. “They usually want to crack the rock from 200 to 500  feet but we know for a certainty once in a while they crack for more, up to a half a mile long and they don’t always go this way(gesturing horizontally,) and stay out this way,” he added.

Scientists from Cornell University and the US Geological Survey suggest deep hydrofracking has already induced at least three earthquakes. Their data suggests faults are “awakened” when the high pressure fluids are being forced into the plates.

Halliburton Loophole

In 2012, a U. S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Hydraulic Fracturing Report has stated energy companies used 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.

In 2005, companies were given a significant exemption, called The Halliburton Loophole. This allows energy companies from disclosing proprietary chemicals.  Since these companies are not held under the same standards as others within the Safe Drinking Water Act, the exemption is now are being challenged on Capitol Hill.

Toxic Chemicals

Some of the chemicals that have been identified include: Benzenes, Formaldehyde, Lead, Barium, 1.4-Dioxane, Cadmium, 2-Butoxyethanol and other potentially harmful substances. Even in small doses, these compounds can cause damage to the reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. Many are carcinogenic (cancer causing) in nature as well.

With the rising concern, both energy companies and activists have been arming themselves with presentations to show their reasoning on both sides of the fence. Luckily, towns have opened up meeting forums to allow both sides to be heard.

Lenape’s Explanation on Toxic Chemicals

During the Lenape presentation, Holko mentioned the chemicals used were merely food grade.  After seeing his audience’s grumbling whispers, he decided to clarify. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t toxic, it doesn’t mean they won’t kill you, food grade only means it essentially is developed so that using this product in the right quantity provides no damage to anyone in the environment,” he said.

Once the chemicals are pushed into the ground for the drilling, they are pumped back out and held in holding pits until it can be trucked away to a specified location that can handle the waste according to the DEC standards. Problems have arisen in the past where pit liners have leaked and waste facilities have either contaminated the water supply or were not prepared for the large amount of slickwater they received.

The 2011 Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) from the Department of Environmental Conservation(DEC) has written new provisions that state before permits are issued, companies will have to provide where slickwater will be transported and evidence those chosen waste facilities can handle the amount of slickwater it will receive.

Concerns Over Water Usage

Several groups have raised concerns about the amount of water needed for each well. According to Phillip Doe, a former environmental compliance officer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, once the water is mixed with the chemicals, it is taken out of the earth’s water cycle forever. It can no longer be safely consumed by animals or humans.

The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology states one well uses approximately 3-6 million gallons of water. With the allowable 19 wells per pad, one site would need more than 57 million gallons. Multiply that number by several well pads and the amount could have serious implications to the environment.

Traffic Congestion, Emergency Services and Crime

With the amount of fluids and products needed for each well, the high volume of traffic within a rural area could change a community landscape forever.

Taking data from previous wells, Pacific Institute suggests approximately 3,950 tanker trucks are needed for transporting chemicals and water over the course of a few months. Over a lifetime, a single well could use 38,400 to172,800 tankers.

Rural towns are concerned that traffic volumes and the influx of temporary workers will tax their emergency services, which include the fire, ambulance, and police departments.

Since a high percentage of employment will be going to out-of-area workers, crime rates have been shown to rise as high as 35 percent.

Contamination and the Ultimate Cost

The incidence of contamination compared to how many wells is between 2 and 5 percent and by construction standards, is pretty good. “It’s about a 98 percent record,” said Bishop. “But if you put 1000 new wells in Stueben County, where would you want to have your twenty incidents?” he added.

Energy Consumption and Need

New York State is the fourth largest consumer of gas in the United States and the significance of finding other energy sources is clear.  The gas obtained from the shales can help keep the cost of gas from rising, but consumers will not see natural gas prices dropping.  A large amount of the newly obtained gas has been earmarked for export to other countries where a bigger profit is made.

Federal and State Agencies Still on the Fence

The EPA and the DEC has been given 4.3 million dollars to assess the relationship of hydraulic fracturing and the environment. They are expected to finalize their report after scrutinizing data by the end of the year.

Governor Cuomo has hinted at allowing hydrofracking in the economically depressed counties near the Pennsylvania border. His final decision is expected after a review of scientific evidence is complete.

The bottom line is accidents can happen. Human error happens every day. Whether or not the price of obtaining shale gas is worth the ramifications is still under debate.


About thewritegirlforthejob

During college, I began my writing career as a reporter for a newspaper. After graduating with honors in 2004, I continued my journalism and public relations education at Barry University and Empire State College(graduating with a BA). As a freelance writer, I have over 100+ published works and have had the honor of authoring the commissioned book, History Restored. Since starting my writing career, I've edited more books for authors rather than complete my own - since work comes first before I have the pleasure to write. I've been very lucky to be given the gift of having a very supportive family that has allowed me to share my passion of creating and writing and can already see my youngest wanting a page of her own soon.
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