Fracking illustration.

The Fracking Truth About Hydraulic Fracturing

There is no shortage of differing opinions about the hydraulic fracturing ‘fracking’ technique for shale gas extraction. I am impressed at the influence of this technique on global geo-politics. Previously inaccessible hydrocarbon reserves are changing the global distribution of wealth.

There is economic incentive to be an early adopter because there is risk that late adopters will have to develop infrastructure when prices are much lower due to a massive global increase in supply. Politicians, in particular, want to see development within a political cycle so that they can fund popular initiatives with new revenue and lay claim to the trickledown effect of cheap energy on their local economy.

Between the economic and political imperatives to act quickly the growth of the industry has completely outpaced the ability of environmental agencies to even understand effects let alone develop policy and procedures to prevent unwanted consequences.

Only one thing is clear. Fracking uses a lot of water.

The Houston Chronicle reports that in some West Texas and South Texas counties that fracking accounts for t 10 to 25 percent of water use and is projected to pass 50 percent in the near future. The article states that oil and gas companies dispose of the equivalent of 18,500 Olympic sized swimming pools of water every month. The town well has gone dry in Barnhart Texas due in large part to the water demand from fracking. An average well uses 11,000 to 30,000 m3 of water over its lifetime.

Is 30,000 a big number or a small number?

This volume would only half fill a Panama class tanker ship. One could easily imagine above ground storage containers big enough to hold all of the waste water from each and every fracking operation. These would be permanent blight on the landscape but would ensure that the owner of each tank would also own the liability for the contents of the tank. Instead, we allow the waste water to be injected deep underground effectively transferring liability to the public domain.

The answer to the question of whether 30,000 is a big number or a small number is therefore not in terms of the dimension of the problem when it is in a container but rather the dimension of the problem when it is dispersed underground. We have very limited ability to predict the fate of this wastewater underground and we have almost no control over that fate if we only discover unintended consequences too late. The underground is, for practical purposes, unbounded. In the absence of definite boundaries to contain the wastewater the dimension of the problem is, by definition, infinite. Infinity is a very big number.

There are claims that fracking operations have rendered potable aquifers unusable. Yet public officials and industry representatives are quick to claim that there is no proof that water has been contaminated by fracking. Of course there is no proof. For proof you need evidence and to have evidence you need data.

“Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence”
Carl Sagan

Groundwater quality and supply monitoring is inadequate to even fully characterize natural variability at a very coarse scale of spatial temporal resolution.  What is needed is monitoring that is purpose designed to investigate the potential for harm, basically a crime scene investigation.

The question is who should fund such monitoring. The energy industry has no interest in doing so.

They would argue that it is a waste of time and money because the results would be negative, based on their belief that there is no harm to the receiving environment. Monitoring agencies have the ability but not the resources to undertake such a project. There is no chance they would receive ‘new money’ for such a purpose because governing politicians have a vested interest in supporting the energy industry. Environmental advocacy groups and NGOs have neither the ability nor the resources to undertake such a project.

For lack of monitoring we may not be able to find the truth. But the truth will find us, whether we are ready for it or not.


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  • Richard W. Goodwin
    Posted at 4:57 pm, January 8, 2014

    Status: Federal and State Regulatory Policy – Hydraulic Fracturing
    Please consider how TX and WY regulate fracking, Both states apply more stringent regulations, they emphasize recycle of production frac waters. TX will fast-track drillers permits when water recycling will be implemented. TX and WY are drought prone. My particular interest lies in financial justification by operators to opt for reuse treatment of frac and product water. For instance, in drought prone areas raw water costs may justify additional expense of reuse treatment.
    According to Paul Schlosberg, co-founder and chief financial officer of Water Rescue Services, Texas drilling companies are now seeing recycling as an economic solution to water issues. Such systems have helped drillers not only to cut down on their freshwater use but also to reduce the amount of wastewater they dispose of.
    The private sector also offers commercially available reuse systems. GE Power and Water cleans the process water, eliminating trucking/on-site storage and deep well disposal – according to Bill Heins [GM – thermal products]. Heins has stated “since the cleaned water from the process can be reused it also will reduce the amount of fresh water needed per well, thereby further reducing costs and ecological impact.” Reducing the brine concentration reduces operating costs.
    The USEPA has established a Scientific Advisory Board to Review Methodology and Technology mitigating effect of fracking on water quality [I am participating with this SAB]. Also ASTM, API etc. have established standard setting committees for drilling, fracking, production water options. During the next two years the efforts of experienced participants should change the way that fracking operations are implemented, managed and regulated. The SAB’s work will continue until 2015 – both existing and grass-roots drilling projects will be monitored. The USEPA continues to issue public notices to communicate progress.
    As the regulatory community establishes standards for frac water recycling and the private sector commercially offers cost-effective technology, the drillers will be able to implements reuse while expediting their projects and saving money.
    Richard W. Goodwin West Palm Beach FL 1/8/14

  • Gerald Dörflinger
    Posted at 3:26 am, January 9, 2014

    Dear Stu,
    even though we do not have fracking operations over here, your text highlights the rather troubled relationship between data and (most of) todays decision makers. It reminds me of a discussion with a colleague about environmental flows – he had told me that in his country, these were never specified for many reservoirs and when I asked him why, he said that for a decisionmaker it is much easier to make voter-oriented policy without such restrictions in formal regulations. That is the point: For (most of) todays politicians and decisionmakers, hard data are just another restriction on their freedom to decide.

    So we, as monitoring agencies, can only try within our budget and staff restrictions to produce as much evidence as possible. However, in the case of fracking this may be way too costly to do within usual budgets.

    Keep on blogging!!!

  • Spencer Pasieka
    Posted at 8:37 pm, January 27, 2014

    Hi Stu,
    I was wondering about what you said about the economic incentive in being an early adopter, especially with respect to the Athabasca Tar Sands. I’m always hearing about how we NEED to build these pipelines NOW or risk losing untold billions of dollars. Is this because they expect the price of oil to decrease in the future? That obviously makes no sense to me because I don’t ever remember anyone being afraid of decreasing oil prices.

    I realize that you’re a hydrologist, not an economist, but this has been something I’ve been grappling with for a while now and thought you might be able to shine some light.

    • Stu
      Posted at 6:50 pm, February 4, 2014

      Hi Spencer,
      The price point is determined by supply and demand. Demand side is relatively constant but petroleum engineers are coming up with increasingly clever ways of increasing supply (e.g. fracking). The same technology is available to everyone so it is better to get your contracts signed before everyone else also has energy to sell.
      The other side of the early adopter thing is that it is ‘better’ to develop pre-regulation. Late adopters run the risk that the public may be paying attention and not want to bear the burden of the environmental consequences. If this happens there would be more oversight on the industry, costs would go up and profits down.

  • Sandy
    Posted at 5:43 pm, February 4, 2014

    Hi Stu,

    Happy New Year!! Lois and I have also been immersed in the fracking issue – gave the latest presentation at Marsh Lake last week – so far we’ve instigated a number of “frack-free” resolutions in communities.

    Just read your blog article which I thought was right on! I have a couple of comments:

    “There is economic incentive to be an early adopter because there is risk that late adopters will have to develop infrastructure when prices are much lower due to a massive global increase in supply. Politicians, in particular, want to see development within a political cycle so that they can fund popular initiatives with new revenue and lay claim to the trickledown effect of cheap energy on their local economy.”

    • late adopters will also likely have to address far more opposition as cumulative environmental effects start to emerge! We are already seeing this….mounting opposition world wide;
    • the whole issue of price is fraught with uncertainty – with exports of LNG to explode in N.America over the next decade, there are concerns that the cheap N. American prices (now ~$3.50USmmBTU) will increase towards world price (which is ~5X’s North American price). There are also concerns that in the race to supply the far east in gas from either gas pipelines from Russia, or methane hydrate capture (e.g. Japan), there will be a world glut for a while and lower world prices.
    • the NEB has approved 7 LNG export applications in Canada – the volume of gas in those applications exceeds current Canadian production. To achieve these volumes, BC will have to drill 50,000 new wells over the next couple of decades (see David Hughes report which I will forward to you separately);
    • the political frenzy over shale gas totally excludes the warnings from IPCC and IPSO regarding climate change and state of the
    • oceans – the resources going into shale gas diverts from renewables which should be where we’re going;
    • the volumes of water you reference severely low-ball the volumes used in NE BC, especially in the Horn Basis where most of the new gas will come from. Will Koop just completed a report on volumes/well as report in FRAC FOCUS – his report Frack Math Confidential (online), reports
    • that the Horn Basis wells require much higher volumes – as high as 170k cu m/well and there are typically 12- 16 wells/pad.

    • I attended a presentation by Brad Hayes, a member of Cdn Soc of Petroleum Geologists, and working with Petrel Robertson (petroleum consultant)who on one hand acknowledged the significant volumes of water used (but also said that the amts don’t amt to much when compared to other uses!!). They have just completed maps of aquifers for Alta and NEBC for the industry which will be released shortly. He stated that the industry is looking more and more at sourcing frac water from the deep aquifers, i.e. ancient waters, to alleviate concerns over surface water withdrawals (sounds like a spin). He couldn’t answer questions about what happens to the integrity of deep formations when large volumes of liquid are removed – although he thought it an interesting question.
    • I’m not sure if you’ve seen the increase in water use authorizations for NE BC – here is a link to a time lapse that shows it pretty clearly: and here is a similar depiction of industrial activity: it is amazing how this has fallen under the radar in BC!!

    All the best…thanks

  • Dennis Harrington
    Posted at 7:00 pm, June 21, 2014

    I would be interested in your opinion on an article that I just read regarding fracturing below the known aquifers, and the water held below the shale formations. It would seem that this possible recharge system is below the fractured areas… and it’s possible effects to future contamination by fracking fluids. Here is the link.

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