Letter to the Editor: Fracking – The rest of the story

Fracking: The rest of the story
By Donald A. Neeper, Ph.D.
Los Alamos

On Sunday Jan. 5, the Los Alamos Monitor carried an article on fracking of petroleum wells, authored by Marita Noon, spokesperson for organizations that, as the article explains, “influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom and the American way of life.” On Jan. 12, the Monitor carried a follow-up article by Gerald Ansell, who praises fracking technology for its production of oil and gas, but warns that all petroleum reserves are limited. Neither article explored just why the public has an extreme fear of fracking, some of which is valid, some of which misplaced.

Ms. Noon argues that the public fear of fracking (hydraulic fracturing), its water consumption, and the chemicals used in fracking are unjustified. She neglects to mention that the public’s main fear is contamination of ground and surface waters due to fracturing through the pressure-bearing geologic formation. This apparently occurs in some cases, but it is difficult to prove absolutely the cause of the contamination.

In Wyoming, the Environmental Protection Agency found widespread upward leakage of oil and gas along the outside of wells due to imperfect cementing of the well casings. Experts from New Mexico Tech offered a similar conclusion in testifying to a NM legislative committee. This problem is overlooked in the public arguments, and is also ignored by the authorities. New Mexico regulations do not require testing of the cement after it is injected to form a seal between the casing and the larger borehole.

Noon says the fracking chemicals “are now mostly food-based and can be consumed with no ill effects.” But the New Mexico rule, revised at the industry’s request, says disclosure of the chemicals is not required if the industry considers them “proprietary” or “secret.” If the chemicals are as harmless as Noon suggests, there should be no reason for secrecy. The chemicals in your toothpaste are listed on the label, although the exact mixture may be proprietary.

Fracking of a well may use a million gallons of water, of which a large portion is returned to a pit at ground surface. The return water contains the injected chemicals, reaction chemicals created underground, and toxic hydrocarbons from the petroleum reservoir.

Noon says the industry is cleaning up the return water so that it can be “either irrigation or drinking water.” That may be true in a few cases. However, at the hearing in 2012 (requested by industry to weaken New Mexico’s pit rule) an industry expert witness gave sworn testimony as follows:

If we start with freshwater going in, approximately 20 to 50 percent of that will come back … It will be … 20 to 50,000 parts per million chlorides … the difficulty of reusing flowback water … the technology is not completely developed to be able to reuse less than freshwater …

As Noon says, the public fears the consumption of fresh water by fracking. However, the public also fears the contamination by upward movement of the petroleum, whether from the fractures or from the wellbore. So long as the industry responds with denial rather than facts, the fear is reasonable. The public is less aware of releases of the contaminated return water to the ground. In New Mexico, the industry proposed a rule that would allow holding the return water indefinitely in a single-lined pit. In the hearing, my testimony showed that the proposed specifications of the liner would allow it to seep 20% to 40% the contents of such a pit into the soil in one year. Fortunately, the regulators required a second liner and drain to catch the seepage.

Part of the public fear may be unjustified, but the fear is amplified by the suppression of information when contamination occurs. Unfortunately, industry is busy overturning the environmental rules. It doesn’t help when Ms. Noon’s lobby groups obscure the facts.

Editor’s note: Don Neeper served for three years on an EPA-supported board that reviewed oilfield regulations of many states. Since 1996 he has participated in work groups and has testified as an expert witness in regulatory hearings in New Mexico. He is a member of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water.