OVER THE PAST DECADE, HYDRAULIC FRACTURING, OR “FRACKING,” HAS BECOME PERVASIVE in Wyoming. These days virtually all new oil and gas wells are fracked.
The University of Wyoming hosted a forum in September on the practice of hydraulic fracturing in order to explore, in a public way, the technical and environmental issues related to this technology and its widespread use.
The two-day conference in Laramie featured industry representatives, state and federal agency regulatory officials, landowners, and representatives of environmental groups, among others. The Wyoming Outdoor Council was part of the steering committee that helped plan the forum and its agenda.
While the outcome of the forum is yet to be seen, one consensus conclusion did seem to emerge from the conference: certain best practices, such as baseline water testing, should be required of all drillers and operators.
In the spirit of furthering this conversation, I’d like to highlight some basic requirements that the Wyoming Outdoor Council would like to achieve in order to protect drinking water and surface water.
Making hydraulic fracturing safer and less likely to harm people and the environment should be the goal of industry, regulators, and environmentalists alike.
First, a little background.
What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Simply put, hydraulic fracturing is a drilling technique used to release oil and gas from hard rock formations.
It involves creating fissures in the rock by pumping large amounts of water and chemicals (known as “fracking fluids”) under very high pressure down a wellbore into the ground. This high-pressure liquid mix also includes what the industry calls a “proppant,” usually referred to as “sand,” which stays in the newly created fissures and “props” them open so the gas can flow.
Among the chemicals and additives that can be found in fracking fluids are biocides to kill bacteria; anti-corrosion agents; gelling additives; polymers, various alcohols; various acids; and many other things—some of them toxic and some that are known to be carcinogenic.
In 2010 the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved a groundbreaking measure to require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process.
We supported and worked to strengthen this measure because it is our position that citizens, medical professionals, and regulators need full disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing in order to make sound decisions about how to manage this potentially dangerous industrial activity.
How might water contamination happen?
If aquifers were to be contaminated by the hydraulic fracturing process it seems more likely that the contamination would occur as a result of a mishandling of the fluids on the surface or because of a problem with a well casing at or near the surface—rather than from a migration of the fracking fluids from deep underground.
Another potential way that aquifers could be contaminated by the hydraulic fracturing process is if new fissures or pathways are created for the methane (rather than the fracking fluids) to travel up to the aquifer.
If gas wells are not properly cased or if water wells in the vicinity are not properly cased—or if unused wells are not properly plugged and abandoned—drillers could unintentionally contaminate an aquifer with methane released during the hydraulic fracturing process.
Old technology, suddenly pervasive
Hydraulic fracturing has been around for decades. But there have been advances in the technology, the process, and the chemical formulae.
This—coupled with the fact that most, if not all, of the domestic oil and gas that was “easy” to get out of the ground has already been brought up and burned—has led to a scenario where virtually all of the new oil and gas wells drilled in Wyoming are fracked.
Water Contamination Is Not the Only Issue
As recent scientific studies have linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, fracking has become a hot-button issue and a controversial practice in communities throughout the United States.
But it is also important to be aware that the process of hydraulic fracturing uses, and can permanently taint, enormous amounts of water. A “frack job” on a given oil and gas well in Wyoming, for example, usually consumes 1 to 2 million gallons of water per well.
So we are witnessing a new and significant use of Wyoming’s groundwater resources. A use that could reach into the hundreds of billions of gallons in the coming years.
What we’d like to achieve
Here are some basic best practices that the Wyoming Outdoor Council asserts should be the law of the land for drillers and operators in Wyoming:
- Require that hydraulic fracturing operations are set back at least 1/2 mile to 1 mile from groundwater wells and houses.
- Require what’s called “pitless fracking,” where all fracturing fluids must be stored in tanks, rather than in open pits on the surface. The fluids would then have to be removed from the site, recycled, or reused.
- Require baseline water testing of streams, rivers, lakes, springs, and groundwater wells located within a mile radius of the drill pad site—prior to the drilling operation. And require follow-up testing after the frack job.
- Require better well integrity standards for both the wells used to do the fracturing and—importantly—all other wells in the vicinity of the drilling operations.
- Properly plug abandoned wells in the vicinity of the hydraulic fracturing job. Old wells and improperly abandoned wells can serve as unintended conduits for methane and fluids released during a frack job.
- Regulate all injections of hydraulic fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is designed to protect underground sources of drinking water.
Steve Jones, watershed protection program attorney, Wyoming Outdoor Council, can be reached at 307-332-7031 x12 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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