Rule 1: Do not speak of “fracking” unless you mean fracking.

With a growing number of countries considering shale gas extraction via the process of hydraulic fracturing, communities across the world are regularly reassured by the arriving energy companies that this an old, time-tested technology or that “there are no documented cases to link fracking to groundwater contamination”.

It is here, amidst clever wordplay and misconceptions around complex definitions, where the fracking debate reaches a stalemate between proponents of the technology and those opposing the global shale gas advancement.

The first stumbling block comes down to lack of common understanding around the definition of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. In recent years, the word seems to have been adopted by the general public to refer to the entire window of shale gas extraction and production – the clearing of well pads, pipelines and compressor stations; the thousands of trucks bringing in all the additives; the drilling of the well; the explosions in the shale layer; the pumping down of fluids and the production of the gas.

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As a result, the words “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” have become synonymous with any possibility for one of the shale gas extraction processes to impact groundwater.

However, in reality, the term refers to a brief, albeit essential, activity used in the development of unconventional gas.

During hydraulic fracturing, perforations are made between the production casing and the shale rock to allow a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to be forced down under high pressure and release the trapped gas.

In fact, the fracking process itself, happening at thousands of feet below the ground, is arguably the part of the gas extraction process with the least – not zero – likelihood of causing problems.

This misunderstanding has severely sidetracked the public discussion and, while the everyday person grapples with the technical jargon, false assurances that “fracking has never contaminated drinking water” regularly go unchallenged.

So, if fracking isn’t too blame, how do contaminants – whether stray methane, chemicals or elements resident in the shale – enter water resources?

And how did glutaraldehyde, a powerful biocide used in the fracking fluid, wind up in the Philips water well in Bradford County, Pennsylvania (a case I discovered in the US) and cause the entire family, including their 6-month-old baby girl, to suffer severe health impacts?

Mike Philips relays the horrors on Paradise Road in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, after water supplies were impacted by nearby gas drilling activities; click to enlarge (pic: Jolynn Minnaar).

To answer these questions, we have to shift our focus – and vocabulary – up from 4000 feet below to the surface where most of the possibilities for water contamination exist.

1. Surface

On the wellpad, an enormous amount of additives are handled that include chemicals that are capable of contaminating millions of litres of water in minute concentrations and others that are carcinogenic or known to impact the nervous and endocrine system. This is the first possibility to introduce contaminants directly into the environment through commonly occurring surface spills and toxic releases into the air.

Fine grained silica sand, a key ingredient in the fracking fluid, escapes into the air on a well pad in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. The substance has been declared a “Health Alert” by US government agencies who are warning workers that exposure could lead to silicosis, an incurable lung disease; click to enlarge (pic: Jolynn Minnaar).

2. Drilling

Moving onto the drilling phase, as was most likely the case with the Phillips’ well, there is a possibility that subsurface aquifers can be punctured and exposed to the drilling mud which includes acids such as hydrochloric acid, powerful biocides and anti-corrosive agents similar to ones you have in your car’s radiator.

3. Well construction

The well casing, where the borehole meets the surface, acts as conduit from the shale and is the source most responsible for contamination during natural gas extraction.

Substandard casing jobs will compromise aquifers whether the well is vertical or horizontal, fracked or unfracked. The steel and cement jobs need
to be designed and implemented to ensure that no drilling additives, brines or hydrocarbons exit the well – either from reservoir or closer to the surface around the well casing – while drilling or when the fracking fluid passes through twice (going down; coming up) or whilst producing gas or afterwards, when the well is declared exhausted and forever abandoned.

I will unpack the all these challenges in a later article.

4. Alternative pathways

Foreign fluids can also migrate via fractures in the rock and, in the Karoo, companies have been dealt a couple of curveballs, they have yet to encounter elsewhere in the world: the hefty dolerite dykes and sills and an artesian geology which introduces a significant risk of encountering vertical movements of contaminated fluids to the surface and surrounding water supplies.

Brines from deep below the surface spew out of an old, abandoned Soekor well on a farm near Merweville in the Karoo; click to enlarge (pic: Jolynn Minnaar).

5. Flowback fluid

Once the well has been drilled and fracked, around 20-60% of the 20+ million litres of fresh water sent down returns to the surface. This fluid is laced with the original chemicals sent down the hole and the elements found naturally in the shale: concentrated salts; heavy metals, such as lead and arsenic, and naturally occurring radioactive materials including uranium, radium and barium.

This toxic fluid needs to be handled and somehow stored in such a way that it never comes into contact with water resources and the outside environment. Companies are still experimenting with possible disposal methods.

Previous attempts include open frack ponds that threaten public health, strainingmunicipal sewerage systems and injecting the fluid back into the earth, which, in turn, reintroduces a major risk of contaminating water sources or causes earthquakes.

Now you know Rule 1 in Frack Club: Do not speak of fracking unless you mean fracking.

Wondering how the rule has been bent up until now to calm the public about the potential for water contamination? When someone said ‘fracking’ instead of “all activities associated with the entire cycle of natural gas production or shale gas development”?

This video, featuring US Senators, the administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the chairman of Shell South Africa, best illustrates the abuse of the wordplay:

 

Originally posted on Green 24 

Written by Jolynn Minnaar

Jolynn is the director of the upcoming South African fracking documentary Unearthed. She has spent over 18 months researching fracking and has interviewed close to 400 people on all sides of the debate – from the heads of multinational energy companies and US Senators to hydrogeologists and specialized engineers; from workers in the field to communities living in the gas drilling areas. After filming throughout South Africa, in the US, Canada and the UK, she is at the forefront of information on shale gas extraction and has already presented her findings at various conferences both locally and abroad.