By Deborah Jackman, PhD, PE, LEEDAP™ - originally posted on 08/14/2013

oil-rigs-in-baku.jpg

An Historical View of the Oil and Gas Industry:

In this installment of Studies in Sustainability, we are going to look at the environmental implications of one segment of the modern oil and gas industry-- that portion that encompasses hydraulic fracturing (i.e. fracing). To add context, it is interesting to first look at some of the history behind the development of the modern oil and gas markets. To assist us in gaining some historical perspective, we turn to "Oil Rigs in Baku at Caspian Sea," a 1911 painting by the German artist, Viggo Langer. The location and date of this painting are highly significant in the history of the modern energy industry. Baku is located in Central Asia in modern day Azerbaijan. It is an area that even today continues to hold large oil reserves. The Caspian Sea basin became one of the earliest centers for oil production in the world because of its geology. This region lacks cap rock over its oil reserves and consequently crude oil spontaneously seeps to the surface [1]. Because of this seepage, it was known for centuries that crude oil existed in the region. When modern drilling technology began to be developed in the late 19th century, Baku was among the first places where large scale crude oil production began.

In 1911, most crude oil was used to produce kerosene, the fuel of choice for lanterns. Kerosene replaced whale oil as a lantern fuel in the mid 19th century, after whales became scarce due to overhunting and the whaling industry declined. However, the demand for kerosene in the US had begun to decline at the start of the 20th century. At that time, natural gas was piped into cities to supply gas lamps, and electricity and electric lights were being introduced. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was rumored to be concerned for the welfare of his company, over concerns of declining kerosene demand. But Rockefeller had nothing to fear because just as kerosene demand began to decline, Henry Ford introduced the first mass-produced automobile in 1908-- the Model T Ford (a.k.a. the “Tin Lizzy”). The rise of the automobile not only stabilized the crude oil market but caused it to grow exponentially. Around this same time, demand for natural gas also began to increase. Even though electric lights gradually replaced gas lamps, natural gas was used (along with coal) to fuel electric power plants. By the mid 20th century, natural gas had also largely replaced both coal and oil as a fuel to heat homes. Collectively, usage of all forms of fossil fuels increased and the 20th century saw a rise in global energy demand unprecedented in human history. This increased energy demand fueled increased industrialization, urbanization, and a rise in the standard of living across the globe.

Today, our global thirst for gasoline, natural gas, and other fossil fuels remains unabated. Just when the developed world began to make progress in slowing the growth of their use of fossil fuels through conservation, increased efficiency, and the gradual introduction of renewable energy sources, rapidly developing nations such as China and India came of age and the increasing demand for energy continues. However, the continued use of fossil fuels is very problematic for two reasons: 1) the supply is finite, and 2) the production and use of fossil fuels has serious environmental impacts, including contributing to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to global climate change. The subject of this essay is hydraulic fracturing -- popularly known as "fracing." It is a subset of the larger oil and gas industry and is perhaps one of the most controversial practices ever to arise within the energy industry. As responsible citizens and consumers of energy, we need to understand what fracing is, what its impacts are, and what alternatives exist. Under what conditions, if any, can it be defended?

What is Fracing?

Induced hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracing") is a technique used to recover crude oil and natural gas from geological rock formations for which traditional drilling techniques are ineffective. Many types of geological formations such as shale and sandstone contain small pores and void spaces which are filled with oil and gas. (Think of a wet sponge, whose pores hold water.) But because these pores are small and integral to the rock formations, and because internal pressure gradients within the rock formation are not high enough to force the gas and oil out, these materials will not flow into a well created by conventional drilling. (The sponge does not release its water just by sitting on the countertop. One must squeeze it, i.e., create pressure gradients, to release the water.) The oil and natural gas therefore can’t be recovered using conventional drilling.

The advent of fracing has allowed vast reserves of previously inaccessible oil and gas to be recovered. A vertical well is drilled down thousands of feet into the layer of rock that contains the trapped oil and gas. Once that layer of rock is reached, horizontal (directional) drilling commences, which creates a horizontal well channel running parallel through the oil- and gas- rich rock. A portion of the horizontal well has access holes bored through the casing to allow fluid to be injected into the rock layer. A fracturing fluid solution comprised mainly of water, with various chemical additives and proppant (particulate matter consisting of either sand or aluminum oxide), is pumped at high pressure into the well. The high pressure liquid causes portions of the rock near the access holes to fracture. The size of the fractures created are on the order of a millimeter or so in length. After fracturing is complete, the fracturing solution is withdrawn. However, the proppant particles remain behind and serve to keep the newly created fractures propped open by wedging themselves into the openings. With the enlarged pore structures and fractures created, hydraulic pressure gradients in the rock formation are now sufficient to overcome the hydraulic resistance, and oil and gas can flow into the well casing and be recovered.

Although fracing has been known within the oil and gas industry since the 1950s, large scale fracing operations were not practical until the technology for directional drilling was developed, in the 1980s and 1990s. This is because rock formations containing oil and gas typically run in horizontal layers. To enable efficient extraction of oil and gas, the fracing operation must be able to access a relatively large area of the rock formation. This can only be done if a horizontal channel can be drilled within a specific horizontal layer of rock [2].

Fracing is very water intensive, with each fracing event using between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons of water per well. Since some wells have to be refractured several times over the course of their useful lives, a single well can require a life-time consumption of as much as 3 to 8 million gallons of water [3]. Clearly, in arid areas, this high water requirement is a serious problem, with water having to be transported to the well site. Even in non-arid regions, the water required for fracing operations can place a strain on local water supplies. It is this water intensiveness that is one of the biggest concerns surrounding the fracing debate. Since the fracing water is mixed with a number of chemical additives, and since it mixes with some crude oil or natural gas while in the well, it cannot be readily reused or recovered for subsequent drinking or irrigation purposes, without extensive (and expensive) treatment. Nor can it safely be released to surface waters. For this reason, one common practice within the industry for disposal of spent fracing solution has been deep well injection-- pumping the wastewater deep underground, far deeper than the deepest drinking water aquifer. However, this practice, too, has come under scrutiny, as discussed below.

Environmental Impacts and Political Issues

Smith [4] provides an excellent summary of the various environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing. These include:

  • Disruptive Land Use and Noise Pollution -- A typical drilling site for a fracing well requires 2 to 6 acres of land and requires a holding pond for water effluents. Hundreds of trucks a year must traverse the property, hauling water and wastewater to and from the site. Wells seldom exist in isolation, and "gas farming" -- areas where large swaths of land are populated by multiple wells -- can be very disruptive. Many of the drilling sites are located in populated areas (e.g. western Pennsylvania) and such activities contribute to local traffic problems as well as to noise pollution. Proponents of fracing cite that landowners are paid lease fees and royalties for the drilling occurring on their land and are therefore fairly compensated. However, many of those impacted by noise and traffic congestion are not land owners, but rather the general public who live in the area. Furthermore, recent media reports [5], [6] suggest that some landowners are not being compensated commensurate with the value of gas or oil being removed from wells on their property, despite having legal agreements with the energy companies. This brings into question the ethics and general credibility of the energy companies involved in hydraulic fracturing.
  • Induced Seismicity -- Seismic activity is generated in two ways during fracing operations. The first way is through the hydraulic fracturing itself, during which high pressure fluid induces fractures in the rock layers. The second way is during the disposal of spent fracing fluids by deep well injection. The amount of seismic activity induced during the fracing operation itself is negligible because the magnitude of the seismic event is proportional to the length of the induced fracture, which in the case of fracing is on the order of only a millimeter or so. Rumors that fracing operations themselves have resulted in measurable earthquakes are unsubstantiated by science. However, deep well injection of spent fracing solutions are linked to potential earthquakes. As such, US regulations require Class II injection wells to be located in areas far from identified fault lines, and injection rates are limited to prevent substantial increases in pore pressure in the well. Seismic monitoring at deep well injection sites is used so that injection can be slowed or stopped if seismic activity is detected. The state of the art is that the causal mechanism between deep well injection and earthquakes is not well understood and more research is required.
  • Harmful Air Emissions -- Air emissions come from a variety of sources. During drilling, emissions come from diesel or gasoline engines used to operate drilling rigs and fracturing engines. Trucks used to deliver water to the site and remove wastewater also contribute to negative air quality. In response to these increased vehicular and engine emissions, some states are in the process of tightening air quality standards to force drillers and haulers to operate cleaner engines and to incorporate better emission control technologies. The methane in the natural gas itself is a potent green house gas and the US EPA is taking steps to require gas producers to appropriately separate and recover any natural gas that enters the fracing water. This separation and recovery is called “green completion” and is being mandated by the EPA for all fracing operations beginning in 2015.
  • Adverse Impacts on Water Supplies and Quality -- Unquestionably, the biggest potential detrimental impacts of fracing lie in their potential to negatively impact water quality and quantity.
    • Water for drilling and fracturing often comes from local surface or ground waters. Given the large volume of water used, it is critically important that hydrological studies be completed prior to the commencement of fracing operations to ensure that sufficient water resources remain to supply other local water needs for drinking water, local industry, and local agriculture. In the event that local water is not sufficient to supply the fracing process, the energy company has to consider trucking in additional water from elsewhere. Not only is this expensive, but it simply shifts the burden from one local water supply to another remote supply in another region. Recent technological advances hold promise in the reuse of fracing liquids from one well to the next, and in the employment of advanced water treatment technologies to clean up fracing water to levels that would allow it to be released into the local water supply, rather than deep well injected. However, these technologies are expensive and in their infancy.
    • Possible groundwater contamination by fracing solutions. Despite what some opponents of fracing say, it is unlikely that fracing solutions used in the shale gas layers of rock can independently migrate into aquifer layers holding drinking water. The same lack of permeability in the rock layers that require fracing to extract the gas prevents fluid migration in undisturbed rock between the shale gas layer and the aquifer layer. Shale gas rock is typically located thousands of feet below the deepest drinking water aquifer and fracing solutions can’t migrate through that much rock. However, in the event that the well casing is defective or fracing solution is spilled above ground during deployment, seepage into the ground water can occur and under those conditions ground water contamination will result. For this reason, technology improvements and new regulations are focusing on preventing and detecting well casing leaks, spill prevention, disclosures by companies of the exact chemical compositions of their proprietary fracing fluids, and the development of "greener" fracturing fluids.

Despite the environmental threats discussed above, fracing proponents in the US have been able to forestall much federal legislation to date that might significantly curtail it or ban it altogether, as has occurred in France. This is because fracing has some very positive short term political and economic benefits. These benefits exist in opposition to the negative environmental issues discussed above:

For the first time in decades, the US recently became a net exporter of energy, in the form of natural gas. This not only provides revenues to oil and gas companies, but fracing proponents point out that it helps to bolster national security. One aspect of national security that has been highly problematic in the last several decades has been energy security. Until the advent of fracing, the US was heavily dependent on the Middle East and other politically unstable or politically unfriendly regions of the world for oil supplies. A disruption in energy supplies due to war or political unrest in these regions could have a catastrophic impact on the US. Having a secure, domestic supply of energy alleviates some of this risk. However, the energy picture is not as totally positive as it seems on the surface because energy supplies from fracing are largely in the form of natural gas, although some additional domestic oil is being produced. Yet, the US infrastructure, especially automobiles, runs on gasoline, derived from crude oil. In order to become truly energy independent from the fruits of the fracing boom, the US would have to make investments in its infrastructure to convert much of its fleet to natural gas-based vehicles and would need to build a system of natural gas re-fueling stations, on par with the number of gas stations currently in existence. Since this has not yet occurred, US energy independence derived from fracing is still more a goal than an accomplished fact. Instead, there is currently a glut of natural gas on the market, which is driving natural gas prices down, making fracing operations less profitable overall.

In addition to the promise of energy independence, fracing has helped segments of the US economy. In addition to providing tens of thousands of local and regional jobs in boom areas like western Pennsylvania, Colorado, and North Dakota, it represents a technical area in which the US holds significant leadership globally. The US has been the leader in developing directional drilling and other technologies related to fracing and stands to gain by exporting this technology to other countries.

As a result of both the perceived and real political and economic benefits associated with fracing, and despite growing public concerns over its environmental impacts, there currently are no federal initiatives within the US to curtail or ban it. It has been banned in France, and the United Kingdom has recently taken steps to strengthen its regulations and more tightly regulate it. In the absence of federal actions, state and local governments are intervening on behalf of their citizens in order to place controls on fracing operations. These actions include zoning law changes, noise ordinances, stricter state environmental regulations, and the like. Recently, Michigan drafted a bill in its state legislature to ban fracing in the state, although it remains to be seen if this bill will become law.

Final Thoughts

I began this essay by posing a question: Can hydraulic fracturing be defended? As is the case with most things, the answer is more nuanced than one might initially expect. While there are many negative environmental impacts associated with fracing, these negative impacts are also being recognized, and with that recognition energy companies are proposing and employing a variety of technological approaches to mitigate impacts, such as water reuse, advanced water treatment technologies, improved well casing design, greener fracing fluids, green completions, etc. Federal, state, and local governments are also beginning to heed citizen’s concerns and are beginning to introduce legislation to protect the environment from some of the potential impacts of fracing. However, despite all of this, and despite the boost that fracing has given to certain segments of the economy, I would still answer the question with a “no”. The reason for my “no” lies not so much with the issue of immediate environmental impacts -- although those are real and of concern -- but because fracing is giving our society a false sense of energy security and delaying the important work we must do to begin to transition to an economy based on increased energy conservation and renewable energy supplies.

We can use a familiar analogy to understand the dynamics of the world energy economy today. The analogy is that of a relay race. In a relay race, the point at which the runner passes the baton is critical. Pass the baton too soon and the baton might be dropped. But wait and pass the baton too late, and the race could be lost. Like in a relay race, we need to begin transitioning away from fossil fuels well before the supply runs out, not just to protect the environment, but to ensure against disruptions in the energy supply and to promote a smooth transition. While the advent of fracing has brought with it increased natural gas and oil supplies by allowing us to access fossil fuel reserves we could not utilize before, it is important that we recognize that these fossil fuels are still finite and will eventually become depleted.

Proponents of fraccing and those politicians and business people who advocate for continued reliance on fossil fuels -- in lieu of development of a robust and comprehensive alternative energy infrastructure -- like to cite cheap and available energy as a reason for the major advancements made by the human race -- in science, education, manufacturing, medicine, and public health—during the 20th century. (Many of these same individuals also conveniently ignore or discount the negative effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases on global climate change.) But, these very societal advancements are jeopardized by a failure to plan for a smooth transition to the post-fossil fuel economy. The discontinuity that would be created in the world economy by an abrupt fall in fossil fuel supplies without commensurate alternative energy systems availability would threaten all of these hard-won societal advancements. Furthermore, technologies that threaten our increasingly scarce water supplies or which contribute to global climate change threaten the well-being of human beings both in the US and across the globe.

In recognition of the need for a plan to better manage and coordinate our energy and water resources and to plan for future energy needs, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [7] in late 2012 recommending a coordinated approach for establishing comprehensive US energy and water policies, and asked Congress and other federal agencies to consider the effects that national energy production and water use have at the local level. The report also urges the Department of Energy to take steps to create a long range energy policy for the nation, as prescribed in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but never implemented. This need for a long range plan for transitioning away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy is critical. Yet, fraccing only delays the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources through the false promise of continued cheap fossil fuel availability for decades to come. In the meantime, it arguably does harm to the environment (a cost that fraccing proponents do not fully account for when making claims of cheap energy). We are like Nero fiddling while Rome burned -- with our groundwater supplies threatened and increasing levels of greenhouse gases causing global climate changes, we fail to plan for a smooth transition to the era when fossil fuels are no longer readily available.

Does technology exist (or can it be developed) to minimize at least some of the worst environmental impacts of fraccing? As discussed above, the answer is "yes." But, does the cost and effort associated with employing this technology make sense in the larger scheme of things? Probably not. Economists often refer to the concept of lost opportunity cost. Surely the cost, technical know-how, and human effort we are putting into trying to make fraccing marginally more environmentally acceptable would be better spent on facilitating the transition to sustainable energy sources. This transition is not a question of whether, but when. A wise nation would begin to phase out its commitment to fracing -- not end it abruptly, because that would create economic disruptions -- but allow market forces reigned in by stricter environmental regulations work to make fracing less profitable. At the same time, we would shift our attention to transitioning into a post- fossil fuel based economy, via implementation of a comprehensive, long range national energy policy. That is what a wise nation would do.

References and Further Reading:

  1. Flynt Leverett, course materials for 17.906 Reading Seminar in Social Science: The Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of Global Energy, Spring 2007. MIT OpenCourseWare (http://ocw.mit.edu), Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Downloaded on 15 July 2013.
  2. Robbins, K., “Awakening the Slumbering Giant: How Horizontal Drilling Technology Brought the Endangered Species Act to Bear on Hydraulic Fracturing”, Case Western Reserve Law Review, 2013. (http://law.case.edu/journals/LawReview/Documents/63CaseWResLRev4.6.Article.Robbins.pdf)
  3. “Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer”, the Ground Water Protection Council; ALL Consulting; National Energy Technology Laboratory (April 2009). (http://www.netl.doe.gov/technologies/oil-gas/publications/EPreports/Shale_Gas_Primer_2009.pdf), retrieved July 16, 2013.
  4. Smith, Trevor, “Environmental Considerations of Shale Gas Development”, Chemical Engineering Progress, Volume 108, Issue 8, August, 2012, p. 53-59.
  5. "Pennsylvania Landowners Feel Cheated by Royalty Payments from Fracking”, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, broadcast July 29, 2013. Retrieved on August 12, 2013 from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=206728504
  6. “Chesapeake, Encana sued in Federal Antitrust Action,” Reuters News Agency, February 25, 2013. Retrieved on August 12, 2013 from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/25/chesapeake-encana-antitrust-idUSL1N0BPBZ420130225
  7. “The Energy-Water Nexus -- Coordinated Federal Approach Needed to Better Manage Energy and Water Trade-offs,” GAO -12-880 , the Government Accountability Office, September 13, 2012, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-880 , retrieved August 12, 2013.

Coming in December 2013, is an essay based on the painting, "The Print Shop," exploring the impacts on the modern environmental movement of noted environmental authors such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and others.