The U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn more than 3,200 acres of forest land from a federal oil and gas lease sale scheduled for Wednesday, December 7, 2011. The acreage in Athens, Gallia, and Perry counties was to be included in a broader sale of leases for 20,949 acres of federal land in Ohio, Mississippi and Louisiana. This land was to be auctioned for Hydraulic Fracturing. The Buckeye Forest Council, an environmental coalition, opposed the sale stating that the environmental statement was outdated because it did not mention hydraulic fracturing. In addition, they feel that Ohio does not have the regulatory framework to deal safely with fracking. The auction plan is on hold pending the review of the environmental impact statement which could take up to six months and lead to required revisions in the 2006 environmental impact statement which could delay the auction further. The 3,200 acres currently have nearly 1,300 shallow gas wells.
Our ability to recover natural gas buried a mile or more beneath the earth has increased. Advances in horizontal drilling which allows a vertically drilled well to turn and run thousands of feet laterally through the earth combined with advances in hydraulic fracking, the pumping of millions of gallons of water and laced with thousands of gallons of chemicals into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale. Hydraulic fracking is a technology that was unknown 60 years ago. Until recently there was no economically feasible way to extract this gas.
Thought industry executives say fracking has been widely used for decades without problems, hydraulic fracturing has changed, the type of hydraulic fracturing the industry executives are talking about is coal bed formation fracturing. The volume of water needed for hydraulic fracturing varies by site and type of formation. Fifty thousand to 350,000 gallons of water may be required to fracture one well in a coal bed formation while two to five million gallons of water may be necessary to fracture one horizontal well in a shale formation. Water used for fracturing fluids is acquired from surface water or groundwater in the local area. Wastewaters from the hydraulic fracturing process must be disposed of and several ways have been used. Several of the techniques tried have been to dispose of the water underground using injection wells, discharged to surface waters after treatment in a waste water treatment plant designed to remove only solids and biological contaminants, or applied to land surfaces where it can seep into the water table.
The millions of gallons of water used for fracking shale contain up to 15,000 gallons of chemical additives. The chemicals serve to increases the viscosity of the water to a gel-like consistency so that it can carry the propping agent (typically sand) into the fractures to hold them open so that the gas can flow. Determining the proper methods for the safe disposal of the large quantities of this fracking fluid that may also contain contaminants from the geological formation including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants is essential. The deep well injection of the waste in Texas is believed by scientists to have triggered the earthquakes near the Dallas airport. The impact of so much waste water on our water resources must be measured and monitored. Finally, care must be taken to avoid degradation of watersheds and streams from the industry itself as large quantities of heavy equipment and supplies are moved on rural roads and placed on concrete pads.
There are many possible routes to contamination from fracking. Errors in natural gas well construction or spills during injection can occur and lead to drinking water contamination. Drinking water wells contaminated by methane and potassium chloride have been reported. In Pennsylvania, flammable levels of methane in drinking water wells and potassium chloride levels high enough to salinize a drinking water aquifer have been reported in the vicinity of some gas wells. Fracking fluids can spill before they are injected and fluids recovered from fracturing can contaminate surface waters. The EPA estimates that 15-80% of the volume of fracking fluids injected will be recovered. The amount of fluid recovered depends on the site geology. Additionally, drilling into the subsurface through the water table can create pathways for fracking fluids or natural gas to find its way into water supplies and wells, if grouting isn’t properly done and the gas well properly constructed. The horizontal sections of the wells are not cased in cement and, introduce a potential point where fracking fluids can reach the outside of the grouting during flowback.
Hydraulic fracturing should continue slowly. A limited number of wells should be installed with careful monitoring of local and regional groundwater supplies as well as verification of proper well construction and wastewater recycling. Limiting fracking to a small area of the federal and state forest lands would allow the development of experience, knowledge and data, and could ensure careful restoration of the area. Instead of leaving unwary homeowners to the “land men” and their leases written entirely to favor and protect the drilling and gas companies, allow the state governments to develop standard language for the gas leases and the federal government to collect real time data in a secluded area away from residential impact.
Currently, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is studying the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources, but they are only focusing on the potential to directly pollute the drinking aquifer, not looking at potential changes in the groundwater hydrology. The geological impact of Hydraulic Fracturing should be examined by the U.S. Geological Survey. No one has ever looked at what the long term implications are for the hydraulic balance when fracking occurs. The removal of millions of gallons of water, the fracturing of the geological formations, and the injection of contaminants even at low concentrations into the subsurface could cause significant changes in groundwater flow and quality.
The current regulatory framework concerning hydraulic fracturing has a number of gaps that need to be addressed before unlimited fracking takes place. There were several recommendations made in the report of the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. The report had a rational approach to regulation recommending disclosure, testing, evaluation and modification of regulation and practices based on the information and data obtained. It assumes information and data will be gathered and analyzed. That is not yet being done. The data needs to be collected on a state level and provided to the US Geological Survey and US EPA to consolidate on a national level.
In the past decade the advances in drilling and fracking technology have been adapted to exploit gas in the Barnett shale in the Fort Worth Basin in Texas and applied to a series of major shale gas deposits that could not have been viable without the advances in drilling and fracking. The Fayetteville shale, the Haynesville shale, the Marcellus shale reserves all in the United States and the Horn River shale reserves in Canada are now accessible. At the current rate of natural gas consumption North America is reported to have a 100-year supply of proven, producible reserves and even with expanded use of natural gas, there is more than a generation of currently accessible reserves. We need to treat both the earth and its resources with respect.
In truth we have no viable option to hydrocarbon fuel. When the oil and gas is gone it will be a poorer future without airplanes, freighters and trucks. Sailing ships will not transport raw materials and finished goods around the earth. Solar and wind power will produce unreliable power supplies and mankind will adapt (not happily) or discover new sources of fuel. Before that future world arrives, the shale gas and oil sands and whatever else is discovered will be exploited. There is no urgency, but you cannot permanently stop that trend. These deposits will become more valuable over time as the world becomes more desperate for energy. Now is the time to carefully develop and study the methods to exploit these resources without destroying or further damaging the earth.