|Extent of Marcellus Shale within the Devonian Shale of the Northeast- USGS|
Last Thursday the New York Times reported that an analysis on fracking prepared in early 2012 was leaked to their paper. This analysis was prepared last year after the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2011 draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on drilling comment period was closed and might have been prepared in response to the comments received. The 8 pages obtained by the New York Times were characterized by the paper as containing an analysis that showed that hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, could be safely done in New York by implementing the proper mitigation measures. The report, obtained by the New York Times from and “expert who did not believe it should be kept secret,” was characterized by State Department of Environmental Conservation, DEC, as an out of date summary that was nearly a year old and will undergo significant changes. The revised version of the Environmental Impact Statement has not yet been completed or released and the DEC’s health assessment is being reviewed by three outside experts. I think someone may have violated the terms of their consulting contract.
The report (or summary) the New York Times had seems to be in agreement with the recommendations made in the report of the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board in 2011. That 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 and seems to be the accepted view, but fracking is a highly complex issue whose greatest risks are to our water resources. There needs to be much more data collected over time and analyzed. That has not being done in the past and until extensive data is collected and studied we will not truly know. The data needs to be collected on a state by state basis and provided to the US Geological Survey (USGS) and US EPA to consolidate on a national level. It is essential that the USGS be involved because of the unique expertise and research in geology and water resources.
In 2011, the EPA began a series of research projects into the impacts and potential impacts of fracking on water that are scheduled for completion in late 2014. These projects will be the basis of their actions and future regulations for oil and gas operations. Whether the EPA will regulate oil and gas exploration nationally or leave the oversight in the hands of the states is an open question. There is an argument that water resources and geology are very local phenomena and cannot be generalized over the nation and that hydraulic fracturing should remain under local oversight. According to the New York Times the leaked report rejects performing a quantitative risk assessment because such an assessment would ‘involve making a large number of assumptions about the many scenario-specific variables that influence the nature and degree of potential human exposure and toxicity.”
The EPA research projects may help with that though all the answers will not be known in 2014. The current fracking projects at the EPA are a series of studies. Existing Data from multiple sources have been obtained for review and analysis. Well construction and hydraulic fracturing records provided by well drillers are being reviewed for 333 oil and gas wells across the United States; data within these records are being examined to assess the effectiveness of current well construction practices at containing gases and liquids before, during, and after hydraulic fracturing.
Computer models are being developed (or expanded) to identify conditions that may lead to impacts on drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing. The EPA has created hypothetical scenarios for water acquisition, well injection, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal stages of the water cycle that they hope to have the models evaluate. Computer models are also being used to explore the possibility of subsurface gas and fluid migration from deep shale formations to overlying aquifers in different scenarios. The effectiveness of the models would be dependent on how closely the model predicts transport behavior in rock and shale and the similarity in behavior of different formations.
Laboratory studies are being performed to identifying potential impacts of inadequately treating hydraulic fracturing wastewater and discharging it to rivers. Experiments are being designed to test how well common wastewater treatment processes remove selected contaminants from hydraulic fracturing wastewater, including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants. Since wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove more than biological waste and bacteria, any removal of fracking chemicals and contaminants would be incidental.
The EPA has identified chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids from 2005 to 2011 and chemicals found in flowback and produced water. The EPA is performing toxicity assessments based on chemical, physical, and toxicological properties for chemicals with known chemical structures and using exiting toxicology models to estimate properties in cases where information is not available. The important thing that EPA is doing is bringing together all the data and previous work to get as complete picture of what we know about how hydraulic fracturing may be impacting our water resources and that would allow a broad quantitative health risk assessment to be performed along the identified routes of exposure.
New York placed a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale in 2010 while it assessed the effects of fracking. New York DEC’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on drilling was released in the fall of 2011 and recommended that drilling be permitted, but with conditions. The comment period was extended and the DEC began a revision to the EIS that has been going on for over a year. The leaked report indicates that the DEC is recommending lifting the ban on hydro fracking in New York, but that is not certain and fracking remains controversial for good reason.
A large swath of southwestern New York sits atop the Marcellus Shale, which is the third-largest natural gas field currently known in the world. The Marcellus Shale alone is estimated to be 500-trillion-cubic-feet of gas reserve. This resource could heat our homes for a generation or more, and power our electrical generating plants, even fuel cars either directly or through plug in hybrids. The possible impacts to our economy and environment are far reaching. The potential risks are also far reaching.
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 chemicals and water into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale. Hydraulic fracking while old has made tremendous advances in the past 15 years have made it possible to economically access this gas. Our knowledge of the impacts from fracking has lagged behind our ability to access the gas.
In hydraulic fracking on average 2-5 million gallons of chemicals and water is pumped into the shale formation at 9,000 pounds per square inch and literally cracks the shale or breaks open existing cracks and allows the trapped natural gas to flow. Each stage of the fracking water cycle is a potential area for impact to drinking water supplies especially from human error and irresponsibly and improperly handling chemicals and contaminated water and poorly managing and protecting our water resources. Water used for fracturing fluids is acquired from surface water or groundwater in the local area. Billions of gallons of water will be used in each region for fracking. Wastewaters from the hydraulic fracturing process (flowback or water produced in the well) needs to be properly treated before it is returned to the waters of the earth. The reality is all water on earth has been here for 4.5 billion years and no new water is being created. The fate of the water that flows back after fracturing has to be addressed, but not all fracturing fluids injected into the geologic formation are recovered. The EPA estimates that the fluids recovered range from 15-80% of the volume injected depending on the site. The long term fate of any residual fluid has not been studied.
There have been documented cases of seepage into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells. An ongoing monitoring and data collection program needs to be part of the permitting process. Potential impacts to our water supply from hydraulic fracking needs to be studied over time and regulations modified to better protect our water supplies and natural resources as fracking expands in the region. Our water resources are sacred and irreplaceable. The gas will be there when we know how to access it safely. The least risky course might be to delay lifting the moratorium until the US EPA finishes its research in late 2014 and then slowly allow a limited number of wells that will include monitoring over decades of the groundwater resources in the area with all the data given to the USGS for analysis. Any area in consideration for fracking should have several years of quarterly groundwater testing and analysis before fracking begins to establish a base line for groundwater study. Now would be a good time to start developing groundwater monitoring programs.