Here is a pretty detailed description of the process of hydraulic fracturing, no need to reinvent the wheel. And it’s written by the industry. *Note the image of the US does not show the Monterey Shale, which lies under Ventura County and other parts of CA.
Curious about how much water has been used in the wells that we know have been fracked? How many gallons of chemicals did it include? Read my article today in the Ojai Valley News about water and oil and gas operations in and around the Ojai Valley.
Should we worry about water and fracking?
It’s a loaded question. Of course the response depends on whom you ask. A lot of it has to do with what we know and what we don’t know and rocks. It has a lot to do with rocks and pressure.
Think about risks vs. benefits – energy independence for California. Eliminating the need for tankers and trucks to bring petroleum to our shores. Our water supply, used for drinking, agriculture (our food sources), livestock, wildlife and so on.
There are issues of quantity, and whether oil & gas production is a wise use of water, and issues around protecting the water from contamination. And remember, fracking occurs on and offshore. Those platforms out in the channel use fracking too. How do you feel about it happening in the ocean?
Let’s set aside the quantity of water issue for now, and just look at the quality issue.
Everyone says they want to protect the water. Those who make their living from oil, at all levels, depend on clean water too. Their families drink water. It would seem that when they say it is important to them, that we can take that to the bank. They point to the fact that fracking has been happening for decades. This is true. It has been happening in California for decades. We just haven’t been paying much attention. The industry and their supporters say that they haven’t contaminated the water during all that time, it is a safe process – when done correctly.
Industry reps, and to be frank these folks include experts. Engineers versed in all things having to do with water under the ground. How it moves, and interacts with other substances underground. It is within their best interest to know about this - it helps them find the oil and get it out in the most efficient way possible.
They mention things like “cap rocks” that have sealed in the water, and protected it from oil and other subsurface substances. They talk about “impermeable layers and confining formations,” again strata that have protected the water where it lies underground for thousands of years. Those same formations have also held in oil and natural gas for thousands of years.
They talk about drilling and fracking depth. How when they are drilling down so deep – tens of thousands of feet in some cases with fracking- they say it is actually safer for aquifers and groundwater sources because it is so far underneath them and the fractures will not reach those areas. They mention the differences in California, and how our shale is less consistent - In both hardness and in depth. That horizontal drilling and fracking in those horizontal holes– east coast style- is different than what happens in California. That it’s mostly vertical drilling, and fracking in vertical holes in our state. But in reviewing well records, over the past few decades, I find reference to directional drilling, and horizontal drilling which seem to indicate that it does take place here, or at least permits have been issued for it.
Maybe those who are worried about water contamination are just worrying over nothing?
The problem is there have been cases of contamination. Forget about fracking for a moment. The industry admits that the work they do carries risk and that if folks cut corners, things will happen. Things do happen. There ARE documented cases of contamination over the years. There is an EPA Superfund site in Fillmore. The groundwater under that site (no drinking water wells have been found to be contaminated) is contaminated with Benzene from oil refinery waste that was stored in unlined pits. Chevron (the site was operated by Texaco when the contamination occurred) is continuing to clean up the site that borders the Los Padres National Forest and is within 3 miles of 10,000 people who rely on groundwater as their sole source of water.
According to Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity, and environmental organization, there are 1,000’s of confirmed cases of contamination from fracking. He points to the farmer in Bakersfield (the center of production in CA) whose almond trees died after the water he used to irrigate was contaminated with fracking fluids. He has been awarded millions of dollars in damages, (to help cover the cost of his loss) but the case for punitive (meant to punish the company responsible) fines is ongoing. There is also the practice of settling out of court, so there is no precedent set, no judgments on the books - fewer confirmed cases of contamination.
Responding via email to requests for a comment on the claims the industry makes that there are no confirmed cases of contamination linked to fracking, Jason Marshall, the Chief Deputy Director at the California Department of Conservation said "That statement has been made specifically about the use of hydraulic fracturing; no one would dispute that there have been spills and incidents of contaminated water during the 100-plus-year history of oil production in California." In fact, according to records obtained (click to view excel spreadsheet) from the Ventura County DOGGR (Div. of Oil & Gas) office there have been over 800 reported cases of spills and leaks on and offshore - these may include natural seeps. It is illegal to not report spills or leaks, but DOGGR depends on the operators to report them, a few are found during routine inspections.
Let’s get back to the rocks and pressure for a minute.
Environmental groups (and of course they have their experts too – able to stand toe to toe with industry) and some members of the public ask about how they can know those fractures don’t reach the water. They point to the fact that in order to get down deep they actually have to drill through that “cap rock” that is sealing in the water, and sealing out other substances that could contaminate it. They mention that current regulations don’t require the necessary testing before drilling and fracking to ensure no contamination is occurring.
The Industry's response – as I understand it – involves the “integrity of the casing”, which is something that current drilling regulation focuses on heavily, according to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (part of CA, Dept. of Conservation). And it is a focus of their discussion draft regulations for fracking. If the casing is put in and maintained properly – according to state and federal rules- then the water is protected. Look at the part in this description of fracking titled “Fractures; Their Orientation and Length” here is an excerpt
“Hydraulic fractures are formed in the direction perpendicular to the least stress. Based on experience, horizontal fractures will occur at depths less than approximately 2000 ft. because the Earth’s overburden at these depths provides the least principal stress. If pressure is applied to the center of a formation under these relatively shallow conditions, the fracture is most likely to occur in the horizontal plane, because it will be easier to part the rock in this direction than in any other. In general, therefore, these fractures are parallel to the bedding plane of the formation. As depth increases beyond approximately 2000 ft., overburden stress increases by approximately 1 psi/ft., making the overburden stress the dominant stress This means the horizontal confining stress is now the least principal stress. Since hydraulically induced fractures are formed in the direction perpendicular to the least stress, the resulting fracture at depths greater than approximately 2000 ft. will be oriented in the vertical direction. In the case where a fracture might cross over a boundary where the principal stress direction changes, the fracture would attempt to reorient itself perpendicular to the direction of least stress. Therefore, if a fracture propagated from deeper to shallower formations it would reorient itself from a vertical to a horizontal pathway and spread sideways along the bedding planes of the rock strata.”
This is where the experts seem to diverge a bit. Some indicate that they can know the length and direction of the fractures. And because they know where the groundwater is they can ensure that no fractures reach the groundwater. Others respond by saying that you simply cannot guarantee that the fractures will only go as far as you think they will. They say the fractures could go farther, causing frack fluids, oil and gas to get into the water. And causing other substances, like methane gas to reach water wells and surface.
Keep reading at that link above, and you’ll find info on a study done (the study is done by a Halliburton company – Halliburton helped develop fracking technology back in the late 40’s and early 50’s, and is currently one of the main fracking service companies, in other words they do a lot of fracking) supporting the idea that they can know – using mapping techniques- what the fracks will do underground.
Folks in California don’t seem convinced. What about all of our faults?
In February I attended a full day seminar on fracking held in Santa Barbara, put on by The Seminar Group http://www.theseminargroup.net/seminar.lasso?seminar=13.FRACCA
During the lunch break I listened to a geologist employed by the State of California (he did not want to be named in an article) and he said that the geology in Ventura County, and specifically the areas around the Ojai Valley, and Los Padres National Forest are some of the most interesting and diverse in the world. He mentioned the many fault lines that run through the area, and how the plates move over each other here in unique ways.
While earthquakes have not been linked in any way directly to fracking, scientists do know that a related practice, the underground injection of wastewater (from fracking and conventional drilling) can cause earthquakes. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-03/largest-earthquake-ever-linked-lightly-regulated-wastewater-wells
While that is a whole other issue, it seems to beg the question – What would the effect be of drilling through fault lines? Could that cause unexpected movement? How would that movement affect fractures? Could it change the subsurface that they have mapped, and cause fractures to operate in unexpected ways?
Again, more questions.
What do you think? Is fracking safe in terms of water contamination?
Would you be comfortable with fracking happening near your water supply?
Is it a risk that is worth it? Having energy independence?
Do we want California to export oil and no longer be dependant on tankers coming to our shores?