What is the “vaccines cause autism” of your industry?
Fracking is bad.
This is something most of us “know” to be true. It’s not; this is a myth (or largely so). Allow me to elaborate and please bear with me.
I am a leftist, a progressive democrat, a tree-hugging Bernie-lovin’ green energy environmentalist. I’m also a geologist and regardless of how I feel about our devastating reliance upon fossil fuels, that doesn’t allow me to just pick and choose facts to believe in. And the simple fact is that fracking, when done properly, is not bad for the environment. I hope you’ll continue to read and understand why that is.
I can almost hear hundreds of outraged voices exclaiming, in unison at their computer screen, what the ****? Is this guy some big oil republican pretending to be someone he’s not? No. In fact, my PhD (which was not completed) was in renewable resource exploration, seeking out high-heat producing granites for geothermal exploitation. And guess what technology is required to make that work? Fracking.
There are two reasons usually given for why fracking is the devil: it ruins people’s water and causes earthquakes. Both of these factors are simultaneously correct and incorrect. Nuance is a bitch, folks.
Ruining your water:
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) is the process by which fluid is pumped into a targeted layer within the Earth to shatter it, to fracture it. You pump too much water into a closed vessel and eventually it will explode; it’s the same principle within the Earth. In the oil and gas industry, there are factors called permeability and porosity. Porosity is the amount of pore space- cavities- within the rock that could hold oil or gas. You need a lot of pore space in a hydrocarbon-bearing rock or else drilling into it won’t yield very much at all. If there’s no pore space, there’s no volume to potentially hold the oil and gas you want to extract.
Let us illustrate it- and I’m not providing pictures, you’ll just need to employ the power of your imagination- with a glass full of Pepsi. You’ve got your glass filled with ice and in between the ice cubes, you’ve got Pepsi. You obviously want to have plenty of space between the cubes so you can get some Pepsi out of your straw. If your glass doesn’t have any space between the cubes (your glass is a solid block of ice), you’re not going to find any soda down there. The space between the ice cubes is your porosity.
Next is permeability- that’s how connected those pores are. You see, having a lot of pores is great, but it’s kind of useless if they aren’t connected to each other. Imagine the ice in your glass of Pepsi is all welded together, completely sealing off each Pepsi-containing pore space. You’ll get a soda from any individual pore your straw penetrates, but you won’t be able to access most of the contents of the glass. Pumice is an example of a rock with a ton of pore space and terrible permeability. It floats on water because the water can’t infiltrate the pore spaces. If it could, it would fill with water and sink like the rock it is.
So, to maximize oil and gas production, you need to drill into a layer with high porosity AND permeability.
Well, no rock layer is ever really that ideal. Oil and gas drilling operations end up leaving a lot of oil behind because you just can’t access everything. In places with poor permeability, you used to have oil fields with tons of oil derricks all over the place because each well could only access oil within a very short range. You ended up with places that looked like this:
With hydraulic fracturing, though, the target unit is pressurized and shattered, creating vastly higher permeability- interconnectivity of the pores. Each well can access hydrocarbons from a much larger area; instead of expensively and damagingly drilling 40 or 50 wells, 1 or 2- maybe 3- will suffice. The surface of the Earth is no longer horrifically scarred. It’s a win-win for everyone… except when this happens:
Ok, so obviously this is something that no one wants to see happen. But this is something that does not happen… when fracking is done correctly. And this is the big thing here. Anything, when done stupidly or irresponsibly, can be dangerous. Fracking is no exception. You see, there is no connection between an oil/gas-bearing geologic unit and the water table. Oil and gas float to the surface. The only thing that allows them to be trapped underground are impermeable layers that trap them in structures that are intuitively called “traps”. Here’s a diagram of just one simple type:
The geologic layers a water well is accessing are very very close to the surface. If there are hydrocarbons below, it is only because they are trapped under an impermeable cap rock. Without that cap rock, you’ve got the La Brea Tar Pits.
So, what’s happened in these cases where people’s water has been fouled is that some jackass driller who doesn’t have a clue what the f*ck they’re doing has shattered the cap rock with their fracking. It’s bad for everyone. Terrible for the environment when that happens, terrible for the residents, but it’s also economically bad for the drillers who are losing their valuable oil and gas now. It’s just a stupid f*cking thing to do from everyone’s viewpoint.
Ironically, it’s rarely the big oil companies that everyone loves to hate on that do this. Exxon and Chevron and such know they’ve got big “sue me” signs on their backs and their PR departments are already working overtime just because of who they are. More importantly, they’re filthy rich and can afford to hire knowledgeable experts to do things right in the first place. The real danger is from local small firms, cowboy drillers who have a cavalier attitude about the rules and risks. They don’t have much money and so can’t afford to hire experts and try to skirt the rules just as much as they think they can get away with. And what you end up with is flammable or oily water. Happily, cases like this are incredibly rare, especially in consideration of just how widespread fracking is today.
Most cases of water fouling are the result of poorly cased wells. Each well should be cased (the well walls are surrounded by metal so that oil/gas does not leak into the layers of rock through which it passes). Leaking well cases are probably always to blame in situations where oil has contaminated groundwater (since oil can’t migrate underground that quickly). Due to the usually large vertical distances between groundwater and hydrocarbon traps, poor casing is probably to blame in many situations involving methane in groundwater, if not most.
It’s a practice that’s perfectly safe when done properly. Banning the practice is silly considering the immense benefits. What’s really needed is better regulation and enforcement, especially with smaller drilling operations. I watched 10 minutes of an episode of the old series “Black Gold” and was so incredibly pissed off I wanted to break my TV. Cowboy drillers. Bunch of assholes who don’t think rules and regulations apply to them. That’s how you end up with messes. Big companies aren’t completely innocent; they play that game too, as much as they think they can safely get away with- look to Deepwater Horizon as an example of a big company cutting corners. Again, regulation and enforcement is what’s needed.
But the earthquakes!
Yes, we’ve all heard of how fracking causes earthquakes. Look at Oklahoma and its recent earthquake swarms.
The problem is, these earthquakes aren’t caused by hydraulic fracturing. Fracking does cause tiny, barely detectable, earthquakes while it’s happening, but they stop immediately when the fracking is done. These big earthquake swarms aren’t caused by fracking; they’re caused by something similar, but not the same, called wastewater injection. You see, drilling creates a lot of wastewater. A lot. Often far far more than the amount of oil or gas coming out of the well. Some wells will produce up to 100,000 gallons (~400,000 liters) of briny wastewater each day. That water is usually lousy with toxic salts and various chemical nasties. There are three options for dealing with this waste: pump it into ponds and let it evaporate, leaving behind a toxic crust and hoping you don’t kill too many birds or have some sort of an overflow during a heavy rainstorm or whatever. You can ship it in massive tanker trucks to a treatment facility, which is really expensive. Or you could pump it back into the ground really really deeply, aka wastewater injection.
That last option is almost always the cheapest and easiest which is why it’s what’s usually done. The problem is that this pressurizes the deep unit you’re pumping the water into, which can then lubricate long-dormant faults and lead to earthquakes. While fracking, when done right, is entirely safe, wastewater injection is always risky. While the point of this post is to say that the whole “fracking is bad” thing is a myth, I’m not defending wastewater injection at all. That’s some bad practice, folks and let’s not confuse the two.
Darcy Cordell points out that fracked wells often generate more wastewater than conventionally drilled wells, resulting in a direct correlation between fracking and earthquakes. However, if the wastewater from those wells was not injected, but instead treated at the surface, there would be no (or very few) earthquakes which is the point I’m making here. Related processes, but not the same. That’s why I’m not defending wastewater injection. And some conventional wells do produce a lot of brine, even when not fracked, so it’s not 1:1.
My own experience with fracking comes from the geothermal industry. To maximize access to the Earth’s heat, several wells need to be drilled into hot rocks kilometers down. Water is pumped in at one end and pulled up at the other. And in order to allow the fluid to travel through the rock and pick up its heat, reaching the other side for withdrawal, the unit must be hydraulically fractured to provide pathways for the water to travel through. We frack it. And except for the absence of hydrocarbons, it’s really no different from the fracking that so many of us are terrified of. In fact, fracking could be important to carbon capture and sequestration operations in the future.
The fact is, when done properly by knowledgeable experts, fracking is incredibly safe and low-risk. Only in rare cases, usually involving small cowboy drilling operations, does any kind of contamination occur. If Exxon told me they were going to drill a well and frack it at the edge of my property, I’d be fine with that. If Billy Bob and his 10th-grade-graduate team of sons and nephews plan to drill and frack the same location, I’m going straight to court or a regulating agency to put a stop to it (or see that it’s done properly). The solution is not banning this important technology, but regulating its use (and enforcing those regulations). It’s also vitally important to understand that fracking and wastewater injection are two totally different things and that it’s dangerous to conflate the two. Even my precious Bernie Sanders can be faulted on that count. This myth about fracking is one I’m sick and tired of hearing.