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Refuting myths about fracking

12th February 2013
Refuting myths about fracking

Paul Moore works with a corporate housing provider in North Dakota's Bakken area, where the oil industry is the mainstay for the local economy. Follow Paul on LinkedIn.


Tue, 2013-02-12 09:42
Paul Moore deconstructs what he calls fracking 'myths' which paint an unrealistic picture of the risks associated with the process
Refuting myths about fracking
The industry has developed techniques that recycle 70-100 per cent of all fracking fluids for reuse in other wells

A 2012 Pew public opinion poll revealed an interesting fact about the hydraulic fracturing technique called 'fracking' and which is used to extract natural gas and oil from shale deposits: 74 per cent of Americans know little or nothing about it.

Of course, in this age of hyper-partisan politics, a general lack of understanding never stops us from arguing about anything. Television news programs, blogs and print articles have all taken pot shots at the process, compiling a long list of perceived environmental sins committed by the fracking industry in recent years.

Even Hollywood has weighed in on the issue with the Matt Damon-John Krasinski recent release, The Promised Land — a film that's somewhat reminiscent of Jane Fonda's anti-nuclear power movie, The China Syndrome.

But, whether we've received our information from our little screens, the big screen or printed paper, it's time we take a more objective look at some of the popular ‘myths’ that have grown up around the industry and find the facts.

Myth #1: Fracking pollutes drinking water.

False: The water tables from which drinking water is pumped are within a few hundred feet of the earth's surface. Typically, fracking is done on shale that is more than 7,000 feet beneath the surface, and there are layers of solid — not porous — rock between the water and the gas deposits. The Bakken Formation, which is fueling the boom in North Dakota, reaches a maximum depth of some 11,000 feet.

In addition to the sheer depth and solid rock that separate gas deposits from the aquifer, drillers also line their wells with casings that are made with a minimum of four layers of steel and concrete. These casings are cemented in place and provide a solid barrier to prevent the oil and gas that is being brought to the surface from getting into the water.

Added testimony to the safety of drinking water is the fact that fracking has been done since the 1940's on more than one million wells. If the process contaminated drinking water, it would be happening all the time.

As a corollary to this myth, there's a notion that fracking can make drinking water flammable, as witnessed in the Matt Damon movie when a local teacher sets a model of a barnyard on fire as a classroom demonstration. Whenever this has been observed, environmental officials have found that it has been caused by water wells drilled in areas with a lot of natural methane gas.

Myth #2: Fracking uses extreme amounts of water. 

False: Fracking uses less water than is used in either the coal or nuclear power industry. In 2010, there were about 3,500 shale-gas wells drilled in the US, and they only used about 0.02 per cent of the nation's water consumption.

In addition to that, the industry has developed techniques that recycle 70-100 per cent of all the fluids for reuse in other wells. Over a two-year period in Pennsylvania, recycling rose from a mere one per cent to 14 per cent, and according to Halliburton Water Solutions, more operators are beginning to appreciate the economic and political benefits of recycling.

Myth #3: Fracking causes earthquakes.

False: US Geological Survey senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards William Leith told National Public Radio: "Fracking itself probably does not put enough energy into the ground to trigger an earthquake. That’s really not something that we should be concerned about."

However, the waste water disposal wells have been known to cause tremors. The steps to solving this problem are not difficult:

  • Reduce the volume of water injected;
  • Reduce the depth of the water wells;
  • Avoid earthquake-prone areas.

Myth #4: Fracking pumps are extremely toxic and secret chemical brews into the ground.

False: Generally, around 99.5 per cent of what is pumped into the ground during the fracking process is water. Furthermore, most of what is added to the water is sand mixed with various chemicals that are found in most homes. In 2009, the US Department of Energy's Ground Water Protection Council wrote: "...many of these additives are common chemicals which people regularly encounter in everyday life." Material data sheets are publicly available. Here's an online PDF that gives a breakdown of the chemicals.

The issues commonly involved in the extraction of oil and gas from shale deposits have accompanied the industry for many years. However, excessive hype has muddied the waters and contaminated the debate. As a result, no one should object to setting straight some of the misinformation.