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Fracking: Fact or fiction?

"Fracking: Fact or fiction?" Continued...

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

Here's where the story takes a political turn. Fracking has led to more productive gas wells and more optimistic projections about the amount of natural gas that companies can recover from shale rock. Those developments have driven down the price of natural gas-normally a good thing, especially when the United States is striving for energy independence.

But low natural gas prices have undermined efforts to make so-called "green" energy technologies-wind and solar-economically viable, putting the oil and gas industry squarely in the sights of environmental organizations. They blame hydraulic fracturing for everything from contaminating drinking water with methane and other chemicals to causing earthquakes.

Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me her environmental advocacy group's concerns with fracking run the gamut from air pollution to waste water to a perceived lack of sufficient regulatory oversight of onshore oil and gas operations. She noted the theoretical possibility that fracking chemicals or naturally occurring underground contaminants might migrate to drinking water sources through existing natural faults or fractures that have intersected with fractures created through fracking.

"Even though it happens at significant depth, there is the potential for this kind of contamination pathway to be created," says Sinding: "It's not something that would show up right away." She acknowledges that this possibility has never been documented, but quickly reminds me that spills of fracking fluids and waste, or problems with gas leaks from well bores, have happened in the past.

In Texas, past history of oil and gas activity goes back over 100 years. Fasken Oil and Ranch operates on land its founder, Toronto attorney David Fasken, started buying in Texas in 1913. After they discovered oil on their ranch in the 1940s, the Faskens spread across the Southwest. The family still holds 300,000 acres in west Texas, and the company manages both cattle and oil and gas operations. It operates wells on the same land where cattle graze. Mark Merritt is amused that anyone would associate fracking and contaminated drinking water: "We own the surface-we want to use the fresh water for cattle and people for many years to come. ... We believe it's safe so we're fracking on our own land!"

We walk over to a flatbed trailer stacked with long, cylindrical steel tubes called casing. Merritt points out that this casing, nearly 10 inches in diameter and weighing nearly 100 pounds per linear foot, is part of the triple layer of steel and cement that Texas laws and regulations require as a well passes through the fresh water aquifer, where an oil or gas well is most likely to affect drinking water. It's a requirement common to all oil and gas wells and has nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing.

Again, a little knowledge of geology is important to understand why many experts dismiss worries about fracking and water contamination. Huge distances exist between freshwater aquifers and the rock formations where fracking takes place. Drinking water wells are fairly shallow-about 500 or 600 feet deep. An oil and gas well is fracked at depths between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. The miles of rock between the surface and the shale formation create tremendous overpressure that works against the fracture stimulation process. Pressures this deep can be almost 5,000 pounds per square inch (psi), so it takes a great deal of energy to create these man-made, microscopic fractures, which extend radially outward from the well bore no more than 500 to 700 feet (see well bore illustration).

"Think about it," says Randy King, "You're trying to bust up something 5,000 or 6,000 feet below the surface of the earth. It's got a lot of pressure in it, so you can only move a man-made or induced crevice so far. So if you've got a 500-foot crevice or fracture, you've still got 5,500 feet of rocks and sand and limestone and granite and who knows what between you and the surface."

Not everyone is convinced by that argument. About two years ago, the EPA bypassed the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and gas activity in the state, and issued an emergency order against Range Resources, an independent oil and gas operator in Fort Worth. The EPA claimed that Range Resources' fracking activities posed an imminent danger to residential areas by causing contamination of private water wells in North Texas. The EPA's order required Range Resources to provide clean drinking water to several families in the area.

The Railroad Commission conducted a detailed investigation, held hearings, and determined the EPA's allegations were not supported by the science. Methane may have been in the drinking water of those North Texas families, but it did not get there as a result of fracking. The Railroad Commission said the methane in the drinking water was naturally occurring, biogenic methane, created by the decomposition of organic material through fermentation, not thermogenic methane associated with oil and gas activity. The EPA ignored that finding.

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