Getting Frank About Fracking

At what point do the direct costs and indirect costs of crude oil and natural gas production get too high?

WC isn’t talking about the price of gasoline at the pump, or the cost per cubic foot of natural gas to heat your home.

WC is talking about the true costs of producing oil and gas by tracking. Ars Technica reported,

In late 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency published a draft report on an investigation of groundwater contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming, where fracking had jump-started an oil and natural gas field that includes the Wind River Reservation. It’s an unusual geologic setting, with little separation between the drinking water aquifer and the rocks being fracked for gas. Add poorly sealed gas wells, the draft report concluded, and you get fracking contamination that appeared to have reached the drinking water aquifer.

Controversy ensued, and the EPA withdrew from the investigation before the report was ever finalized, giving the state of Wyoming control.

Okay, but it turns out the lead scientist on the draft report, Dominic DiGiulio, quit the EPA and went to Stanford University, where he and Stanford colleague Rob Jackson tabulated all the EPA data that was sitting around unreported. DiGiulio used a Freedom of Information Act request to access EPA data from a couple of water samples that weren’t in the draft report.

Pavillion Gas Field, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Pavillion Gas Field, Wind River Range, Wyoming

And published it (paywall). No surprise: it shows that the toxic chemicals used to “frack” the oil-bearing rock had migrated up into drinking water. So one of the hidden prices of all that “cheap” tracked oil and gas is a serious risk of contamination of our domestic water supply. It’s not a hypothetical; it’s real. And that doesn’t even address the issue of leaking well pipes. Part of the fracking process involves injecting water, sand and secret chemicals into the well at immense pressures. Pressure at which well pipes can and have failed. Injecting the toxic stuff into the water supply.

Shame on the EPA for backing down in the face of controversy and not letting the scientific process proceed. Props to Prof. DeGiulio for finding a way around the EPA’s spinelessness.

The second hidden cost of fracking involves the immense amounts of contaminated water that the process creates. Not only is scarce water badly contaminated by toxic chemicals, a serious problem in the drought-stricken areas where much of North American fracking takes place; you have to dispose of the stuff as well.

For years the toxic byproduct of fracking was left in open ponds around the drilling area. From there, is infiltrated local water supplies as it sank into the ground, and poisoned birds and other animals that tried to use it. The solution the fracking industry developed to the the surface contamination problem was to inject the water deep underground. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Geology, that’s what. Lay persons think of the rocks under us as being stable as, well, rock, if they think of them at all. But those rocks are under immense stress, a consequence of millennia of plate tectonics. Sure, areas like Oklahoma and Texas are a long ways from the high-profile plate tectonic zones like the Pacific Coast, but rock can transmit pressure immense distances, and hold those stresses for millions of years. Those deep-down rocks are in a delicate balance between pressure and friction. If you inject water, a lubricant, into that age-old balance, you reduce the friction and the rocks move. It’s not smart to mess with Mother Nature.

Which is why Oklahoma has had a series of earthquakes hundreds of miles from traditionally active seismic zones.

Seismicity map for Oklahoma and nearby areas – Dark blue circles indicate earthquakes from pre-2009 while circles of other colors indicate earthquakes since 2009.

Seismicity map for Oklahoma and nearby areas – Dark blue circles indicate earthquakes from pre-2009 while circles of other colors indicate earthquakes since 2009. Via Wikipedia.

By Alaska standards, the quakes are relatively modest, capping out at ML 5.6 or so. But Alaska construction is designed for seismically active zones. Oklahoma? No so much. Not at all, in fact. So the ML 5.6 earthquake in the Prague, Oklahoma area caused more than $1 million in property damage. Earthquakes, even modest earthquakes, cause far more damage in areas where infrastructure construction and building codes haven’t required quake-proof standards, are going to cause more damage.

The oil and gas industry in Oklahoma is running an uncontrolled experiment to determine how much geologic stress can be released by injecting fluids where they have never been. We don’t know if still bigger quakes are looming. Certainly there is no reason to think all of those geologic stresses have been released.

So an additional risk of fracking, a hidden cost of all that “low cost” oil and gas, is that suite of problems arising from disposing of the contaminated water. More ground water contamination from leaving it on the surface? Or earthquakes when you inject it deep below the water table? Feathers or lead?

And we should never lose sight of the even bigger problem of climate change. Cheap oil and gas means more fossil fuels get burned, which means more CO2 in the atmosphere, which means even more anthropogenic climate change.

The price tag for fracked oil and gas is very high, when you start to count up the indirect and hidden costs. And we may not even yet know all of the costs. Blind, unquestioning acceptance of the relatively new technology is dangerous. And the consequences of more fossil fuels being burned simply disastrous. We need to re-think fracking.