Don’t Blame Fracking

Getting straight to the point, fracking, the process of using fluids to unlock petroleum reservoirs is not causing more emissions and contaminating drinking water. At this point, any environmentalist or eco-activist is going nuts and probably tooling up for an argument. For those folks, there is no changing their mind but for the rest of mainstream America, here is what is really happening.

The Process

Most people have never worked on an oil rig or pad site, much less ever set foot on one. Even less understand the complexity it requires to punch a hole in the ground and the even more complex process to get viable feedstock for fuel to come out, so before everyone starts flipping out about the above premise, let me explain. For natural gas or oil, the process is similar. Geologists and company specialists locate a potential site to place a well based on a wide variety of factors, include previous wells, seismic data, algorithms and more. This process takes hundreds of man hours before any one even approaches the site. Once a site is picked, a lease has to be secured, permits submitted and approved and the pad surveyed and prepared. This adds even more man hours to the overall process. So before a drill is even sunk, thousands and thousands of dollars are spent looking for the fuel to heat your home or move your car.  After all these odds and ends are taken care of a company puts up a rig and starts drilling. This is the part most people see and most people complain about.

Reality

Most aquifers and potable water sources lie relatively close to the surface, usually within 5,000 feet of the surface. The reason is, lighter water does not permeate as deep as heavier water such as brine water. Wells, especially in shale go much deeper than 5,000 feet. Usually these wells go past 10,000 feet and then lateral into the gas or oil bearing strata. At this level there is no contamination between the well and the surface, in fact what contamination that does exist is from the strata to the well, not the other way around. This is because the surrounding strata is at a higher pressure and this is one of the reasons drillers must use “mud” or other fluids to keep the pressure equalized. Basically, they are trying to keep the water out.

Once they reach the target depth, they will run a series of pipe called casing and then plug and wait for the fracking crew. The casing, and surrounding cement that holds the casing in place does not allow fluids to pass from the walls of the well to the outside or from the outside in. Only the zone to be fracked is perforated. This zone is well below any aquifer. So how can water get from the aquifer to the well or can fluid from the well get to the aquifer. Unless there is a failure in the casing, it doesn’t happen. Before you scoff, consider this. If fluid leaks out of a well then that means there is less fluid at the top of the well. This means there is a big difference in pressure. If there is a big difference in pressure then the well is unproductive and can not be used. Even if a pump jack is installed if the well bore is not tight and is leaking fluids out then the company can not recover any gas or oil and the well is worthless. It is just basic common sense. No oil company is going to keep going on a well that is unproductive and a leaking well is just that unproductive. Companies have a built in reason to make their wells tight as possible. Studies that have been done on actual well bores have demonstrated this time and time again. Thanks to modern innovations in cameras, some wells are visually inspected all the way down to the target zone. At this point, there is no contamination from most well heads to the aquifers despite what anti frackers want you to think.

Fracking

Almost every person who is against fracking understands the basics of the fracking process. High pressure fluids are pumped into the target strata to force openings for gas and oil to free flow into the well bore. This is the gist of what occurs in fracking and it takes place over a week or so. During the process, the well bore is not damaged. If it was, again there would be no well or at the very least have to be redrilled. Every once in a blue moon a well bore will collapse during fracking but it is highly rare. When this does occur, the fracking fluid is trapped at the bottom and still can not contaminate an aquifer. When it is redrilled, new casing is run and the old taken out and disposed of. Again, no contamination occurs. To put it bluntly, fracking does not cause well water or aquifer water to become contaminated.

Contamination is Real.

This is going to be confusing but bear with me. No one is attempting to say that the well water is not contaminated with methane or other gas or fluids. Also, despite appearances, I am not saying that drilling is not absolved of blame. What I am saying is that fracking, is not what is causing the problem. Let me give you an example. My in-laws live between two oil fields in North Texas, The North Dove Oil Field and the South Dove oil field. Two small oil fields located near the Oklahoma border. These two fields have been in production for decades and when hydralic fracking came online, new wells were drilled to recover more oil. Before this, my inlaws well water was pure and clear. Their well lay at a depth of around 250 feet in the local aquifer. A year or so ago, they started noticing a rotten egg smell coming from the faucet. Over time it got stronger and they began to suspect that local oil drilling and fracking were to blame. After testing, the water showed slight traces of H2S gas. Hydrogen Sulfide gas is indeed found while drilling and can be extremely dangerous in high concentrations. It is naturally occurring and the concentrations in the water were not high enough to cause a problem but the smell was still a bother. Almost immediately the question became; “Was this cause of fracking?”

Not Fracking

Even I had to admit, I had to question as to where fracking could have caused the contamination of their water. There had been 13 new wells drilled over the past two years in this two fields and given the fact they live exactly between the two it was only logical that fracking could have something to do with it. So began a years long research project to determine if fracking was really the problem. Pouring over GIS data from the USGS and maps that went as far back as 1901 and digging through archives and with queries to companies, I was almost convinced that the drilling was to blame. Then an important, almost seemingly insignificant piece of information was run across. Just before the contamination was noticed, a local farmer had attempted to sink a deep water well on a property less than a mile from my inlaws. Trying to cover all the bases, I dug deeper into this water well, so to speak and discovered that the depth of the well was over 2500 feet. The purpose of the well was to try to find deep water to protect against drought. Since they discovered only brine water at that depth, they plugged the hole and moved on.  Comparing this with the GIS data and the company data that indicated that H2S was present in near by wells it became clear that the water drillers had hit a pocket of gas and that when the well was plugged, the entire bore was not cemented. Thus giving the gas the ability to permeate upwards into the surrounding zones. In effect, contaminating local wells as the gas struggled to find a way to the surface. It was not fracking that caused the problem but a careless water driller.

What About Others?

Not everyone, who has contamination in their water is going to have the cause of a careless water driller. Still, one of the key things that I learned was that fracking takes place at such a depth that it can not be the source of the contamination. So if that isn’t what is causing the contamination what is? Pockets of gas lay at all different depths. Some of the pockets are small, some large, some isolated, some connected but these pockets will lay in zones higher than 10,000 feet. When these pockets are penetrated, they will travel from the zone of high pressure to the zone of low pressure as best they can. This usually means they will migrate to water wells and depending on the circumstances emanate from seepage in creeks and low areas. Here is a site that explains gas migration, http://energyindepth.org/marcellus/the-simple-facts-on-stray-gas-migration/

It Is NOT FRACKING

Fracking is not causing the problems and certainly it is not causing earthquakes, that is a different subject I will get to in another article. Using fracking to attack the oil industry is attempting to solve a problem without addressing the real problem. Fracking does not cause well contamination, nor does fracking cause higher emissions. Fracking is just a process. Like many things, people don’t understand the process or the science that goes behind it. All they see is gas in their well water and see an increase in drilling and think they are one in the same. Often, that is not the case. Banning the process of fracking will not solve anything. Take Denton County, Texas, they just banned hydraulic fracking but does that ban cover explosive fracking? Does it cover high pressure perforation? There is more than one way to skin a cat and make a well productive. All Denton did was make it more expensive to get at the fossil fuels underneath. It won’t stop anyone, in fact as the price of oil increases, and it will go back up, those other methods of getting the oil or fuel out becomes attractive.  So if those other methods are more dangerous than fracking but fracking is banned, which are the drillers going to use? Banning fracking doesn’t solve a problem, it creates one and it misses the point of the overall problem in the first place.

 

 

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