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Special Digest

The "2 Million Safe Fracks" myth

22/07/2013

Summary.

Pro-fracking lobbyists are misleading bot Parliament and the public.

1. Peter Lilley and Cuadrilla are misleading the public in stating how many wells have been fracked in the US.
2. Peter Lilley and Cuadrilla are wrong in suggesting there is no confirmed evidence for water contamination by fracking itself (it is clear that there is evidence showing contamination from the wider practice involved in shale gas wells).
3. UK lack of regulation is likely to encourage unmonitored migration of fracking fluids out of shale formations and possibly eventually into aquifers, even without accident.

The Case

On BBC 4 Radio Question Time this week over-the-hill climate sceptic Nigel Lawson said "There is not a single authenticated case of fracking causing water contamination in the US."

In parliamentary debate Lilley said:
"There have been some 2 million wells fracked in the United States and not a single person has suffered from water contamination as a result."

and the Cuadrilla lackey said, according to a BBC report:
"There have been over two million hydraulic fracture treatments carried out globally, the majority in the US, and from that activity we are not aware of one single verified case of fracturing fluid contaminating aquifers."

Looking first at the comments about numbers, are either of these near the truth? If we take what a paper for the Institute of Petroleum Engineers said in 2012, the answer is no, neither.

The paper, by George E King of Apache Corporation said:
"Millions of fracs have been pumped (Society of Petroleum Engineers estimate 2.5 million fracs worldwide and over 1 million in the US) and tens of thousands of horizontal wells have been drilled over the past 60 years."

Since this article was published by the IPE it is assumed they confirmed the figures he quoted.

Another article in the NY Times quotes Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, as saying at a Congressional hearing in 2010:
"There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one.”

The first point to make is that clearly the two million figure quoted by Peter Lilley is seriously exaggerated. And even if we accept that according to Cuadrilla the majority of 2 million were in the US, which is in conflict with the 2012 IPE data, then many of the wells "fracked" have been outside of the US and we have no data to judge any water impact. If the US has been lax in regulation and secretive we can assume on past experience that the impact of fracking in the rest of the world remains to be uncovered.

But the second point to make is - again clearly - whether it is one million or a few more, the figures quoted for the US are NOT hydraulic fracturing as we understand it in recent technology terms. The estimate of US shale gas fracked wells stands at around 50,000 according to a September EU report. No way have these each been fracked 20 or more times.

The Lilley and Cuadrilla figures are simply deception, designed to make the safety record look better.

But tackling them on their own terms, is it even true that fracking has no documented history of pollution of water supplies?

A recent survey by Duke University reported pollution of water wells in Pennsylvania was high within a kilometer of shale gas wells. The main pollutant was methane. Thois puts the lie to Lawson's claim. However the study did not find any fracking fluid in the water they tested. Perhaps one reason was that they did not know the full range of fracking fluids to test for. Due to a lack of US disclosure requirements and industry secrecy it is not clear what frackers use. You can't test unless you know what you're looking for. A more recent report from Pennsylvania injected tracer into fracking fluid and monitored the result. During the period of the study - a year - there was no indication of fracking contamination of wells. Maybe if they come back in another few decades they might come to a different conclusion. The concern is of long-term migration. As slickwater fracking is relatively new, it is simply to early to know what might be the future consequences, which renders reports like this of questionable value..

So yes, if we interpret the fracking activity in a wider sense, including all activities relating to fracking, from drilling through fracking to production, just on the Duke University report there IS evidence of water contamination.

But is there evidence of fracking itself contaminating water? The pro-frackers demand an answer NO to justify their case.

As it turns out there is. Hidden away in a 1987 report on waste management by the US Environmental Investigation Agency is the killer blow to the argument that fracking itself has NEVER caused water contamination. EPA/530-SW-88-003 Report to Congress, Management of Wastes from the Exploration, Development, and Production of Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and Geothermal Energy Vol 1 Dec 1987.

"In 1982 Kaiser Gas Co drilled a gas well on the property of Mr. James Parsons. The well was fractured us1ng a typical fracturing fluid or gel. The residual fracturing fluid migrated into Mr. Parson's water well (which was drilled to a depth of 416 feet). according to an analysis by the West Virginia Environmental Health Services Lab of well water samples taken from the property. Dark and light gelatinous material (fracturing fluid) was found, along with white fibers. (The gas well is located less than 1,000 feet from the water well.) The chief of the laboratory advised that the water well was contaminated and unfit for domestic use, and that an alternative source of domestic water had to be found.
Analysis showed the water to contain high levels of fluoride, sodium, iron, and manganese. The water, according to DNR officials, had a hydrocarbon odor, indicating the presence of gas. To date Mr. Parsons has not resumed use of the well as a domestic water source. (API states that this damage resulted from a malfunction of the fracturing process if the fractures are not limited to the producing formation, the oil and gas are lost from the reservoir and are unrecoverable.)"

Here is the evidence that fracking fluid wastes migrated into a well. It is irrelevant that the gas well was less than 1,000 metres from Mr Parsons' well, or that the gas well casing only extended some 10 metres below the sandstone from which Mr Parson's well drew its water.

The report states that although the area might have been prone to "natural" pollution from other contaminants -
"However, the constituents of concern found in this water well were the gelatinous material associated w1th the fracturing process, and hydrocarbons."
The report is clear - this contamination was down to fracking.

How general was this likely to be? The report could not say, it attempted only to identify causes for concern rather than any statistical analysis, which was impossible for several reasons.
"First, record keeping varies significantly among States...
Second, very often damage claims against oil and gas operators are settled out of court, and information on known damage cases has often been sealed through agreements between landowners and oil companies. This is typical practice, for instance, in Texas. In some cases, even the records of well-publicized damage incidents are almost entirely unavailable for review. In addition to concealing the nature and size of any settlement entered into between the parties, impoundment curtails access to scientific and administrative documentation of the incident...
A third general limitation in locating damage cases is that oil and gas activities in some parts of the country are in remote, sparsely populated,
and unstudied areas. In these areas, no significant population is present to observe or suffer damages, and access to sites is physically difficult."

So there it is. It only takes one case to disprove what Lilley and Cuadrilla are claiming, and there it is. Add to that the evidence that well failures have led to water pollution. Not least add all the "anecdotal" evidence that is piling up.

Lilley and Cuadrilla are either ignorant or wilfully misleading.

It's worth another look at the EIA's comment on the reasons Mr Parsons' well was tainted.

They blame fracking extending beyond the target (producing) formation.

Cuadrilla claim the Bowland shale is something like three times as thick as the US shales. This makes them able to horizontally fracture at three or four levels within the 790 metres they quote as shale depth they have found. Assuming four horizontals spread evenly through the shale this would put the upper horizontal around 100m below the top of the shale formation.

In his work for Durham University Professor Richard Davies recommended a minimum distance of 600m and preferably double that between any fracking and aquifers. This was on the grounds that in the data he studied from the US the maximum distance fractures travelled was around 600m. In the Marcellus the fractures had a probability of 20% or so of exceeding 100m and 5% or so of exceeding 200m. On US experience, with Cuadrilla's projected 4,000 wells, fractures extending beoyond the shale WILL happen.

If fractures extend into other than the target formation this is not only a matter of concern for creating the opportunity for migration of fracking fluid up towards aquifers, but it would be contrary to the Waste Directive which requires wastes to saty in the target formation, and requires operators to track, seal and monitor.

This is, of course, not represented in UK regulation nor in EA ability to monitor. The conclusion we can draw is that fracking fluid waste is very likely to migrate beyond the target shale. And where it ends up then is anybody's guess. Cuadrilla certainly don't know, as Mark Miller once indicated.

Are there more reports of contamination from shale gas wells? There certainly are. We've already mentioned the Duke University peer-reviewed June 2013 report.
"The scientists analyzed 141 drinking water samples from private water wells across northeastern Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus Shale basin.
They found that, on average, methane concentrations were six times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a shale gas well. Propane was detected in 10 samples, all of them from homes within a kilometer of drilling."

There are more recorded cases of trouble in Pennsylvania. Frack Off has uncovered data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Protection which lists citations for violations of regulations preventing contaminating water sources by well activity. These violations are available for public view on the DEP's web site. Frack Off lists 6 specific well violations and a further 14 more. It also lists 140 cases of other
wells unlawfully discharging pollution into surface waters.

To add another nail in the coffin of the no contamination myth, in July 2013 news came in that an Exxon subsidiary is being sued for polluting Pennsylvania drinking water. XTO Energy is accused of polluting groundwater with fracking waste from its natural gas well pad and storage facility in Hughesville, Lycoming County, according to a federal lawsuit.

The idea that there are no documented, verifiable and clear cases of contamination of water supplies is simply wrong. The idea that our water will be safe, without any adequate regulation from the government because they do not believe water contamination is a possibility is wrong.
This makes Lawson, Lilley and Cuadrilla very dangerous people.

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