Does "Fracking" Make Eonomic Sense?
Bob "The Clean Energy Guy" Mitchell
January 24, 2012
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled into a discussion on Linked-In on the subject of “Do you think fracturing will become illegal in the United States in the wake of the increased seismic activity?”
The conversation wasn’t new and already had quite a few comments when I jumped in with a concern that I had about the amount of fresh water that is utilized in the fracking process.
My comment was almost immediately ridiculed as being uninformed and while my feelings were a bit hurt, I had to admit that I had never really read up on the subject. Other than a few passing mentions of the technology and some potential problems that it might be causing regarding the contamination of drinking water and possible seismic activity, my understanding of the procedure was almost exclusively based upon a documentary film called “Gasland” that I had seen about a year ago.
So, I decided to read up on the subject and what I found was that “Fracking” still has a lot of unanswered questions regarding the procedure and that the oil and gas industries are hell bent to move forward with its implementation!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, “Fracking” refers to a process utilized by the oil and gas industry where they inject “fracking fluid” (which consists of water, sand and generally a proprietary mixture of chemicals) into a well. The “fluid” is pumped in under sufficient pressure to “fracture” rock formations that hold trapped natural gas or oil. The technology allows the oil or gas company to recover oil and natural gas that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to be recovered. More importantly, it does this in such a way that the oil and natural gas companies believe that they can make a profit on their efforts.
So far, so good! Who can argue with a technology that can reduce our dependence on foreign sources of these fossil fuels?
Well (pun intended), this is where the problems start. When I looked into fracking in more detail, I found out that I was right about the water issue. Fracking uses a great deal of water! While sources vary, the figure that I saw the most was that an average of 3.1 Million gallons of water is used per well. I found this to be believable because I later found a web site operated by Chesapeake Energy where they put the amount of water used in their wells at an even higher number of 4.5 million gallons. Either way, it’s a lot of water!
That water is mixed with a proprietary mix of fracking chemicals which generally only make up about 2% of the combined mixture of water, sand and chemicals. And while expressing the amount of chemicals in this way tends to give the impression that their use is minimal, 2% of just the water component of the mixture still adds up to over 90,000 gallons of chemicals per well being injected deep into our planet.
So, what chemicals are we talking about here? Again, going to the Chesapeake Energy site, these chemicals consist of: acids, anti-bacterial agents, breakers, clay stabilizers, corrosion inhibitors, cross linkers, friction reducers, gelling agents, iron controllers, PH adjusting agents, scale inhibitors, and surfactants. When you read it this way, it really doesn’t seem all that bad, does it?
That is until you examine the list in greater details and see that these chemicals are also known by names such as; benzene, lead, ethylene glycol, methanol and others. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens and others are highly toxic. The industry response when this is pointed out is that these chemicals don’t pose a threat because they are being injected deep into the earth, far below the water table.
When I read up on this statement, what I found was that the industry is again telling a half truth. What they say about the chemicals being injected much deeper than the water tables is true. What they don’t tell you is that the fracking fluid doesn’t stay there! It migrates through cracks and porous rock formations.
When this fact is pointed out, the industry response is that the earth is an excellent filter and that by the time that the fracking fluid would come in contact with the water table, that it should be filtered. Again, another half truth!
In a perfect world this would be a whole truth, but unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world! While the oil and natural gas companies do hire geologist to study these formations before they drill, they can’t know everything. An example of this lack of knowledge is the fact that a typical well only recovers between 20% and 80% of the fluid that they inject into the well and they never truly know which end of that spectrum a well will fall into.
The end result is that since the oil and natural gas industries have been pursuing this trapped gas, that there has been hundreds of complaints filed with various state agencies charged with regulating the practice. In December 2011, the EPA announced that it had found chemicals in a water aquifer in Wyoming that was “Very Likely” the result of fracking activities.
The other part of the “earth as a great filter” argument that doesn’t hold up is that while the earth is a great filter when it comes to particulate matter, that it doesn’t do such a great job on dissolved toxins in water. Many of these fracking chemicals are known to dissolve in water and wouldn’t end up being filtered!
So, I was right on the water issues. How about some of the other things that I was concerned about such as the very simple question of does fracking make sense from an energy payback point of view?
Now, to be honest, I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer to this question. I did find that the energy payback ratio of natural gas in general is somewhere between 2 and 4. That is, that you get somewhere between 2 and 4 btus of energy back from the gas that a well produces for every btu that you put into producing that gas.
With “fracked” gas, you have additional energy inputs such as the manufacture of the fracking chemicals and the transportation of the chemicals, water and sand to the well site, as well as the energy required to provide the pressure, etc. Are these additional energy inputs mitigated by other factors such as the fact that most fracturing is done during horizontal drilling and that horizontal drilling allows for the use of only one well head? I honestly don’t know, but my suspicion is that it doesn’t.
I’d love to find an authoritative and objective study of this issue. If nothing else, I think that this should be the starting point for an objective analysis of the technology.
My gut level is that while it may indeed be profitable from the gas company’s point of view to pursue this technology, that from society’s point of view that it simply isn’t worth taking the risks associated with the technology.
What say you?
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