Fracking is not a new technology. It has been in use since the 1950s.
By Burton Speakman
A LACK OF CLEAR DEFINITIONS and misleading information has led to numerous myths and misunderstandings about hydraulic fracturing.
Major oil and gas companies continue to invest million of dollars in the Utica Shale — bringing expectations of economic development and fears of environmental ruin.
Many environmentalists cause problems by not being accurate in terminology, said Matt Watson, senior energy policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. They use fracking to define everything involved in oil and gas production.
The same thing happens within the industry. The industry will say “in 60 years there has never been groundwater contamination involving hydraulic fracturing,” Watson said. “The statement is technically true, but it’s also misleading.”
The public can look online and quickly find there have been instances where oil and gas production have led to groundwater contamination, he said.
Environmental groups should stop using fracking as a general term, Watson added. Fracking should be distinguished from the highest-risk activities for oil and gas production.
“Of all the risks associated with oil and gas production, hydraulic fracturing is pretty low on the list,” Watson said. “The larger concerns are groundwater spills and improper cement casing of wells.”
Misinformation has made it hard for the public to differentiate between fracking and the rest of the oil and gas production process, Watson said.
So, here’s an attempt to separate fracking from fiction:
Fracking causes earthquakes
There is a lot of misconception that the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process led to earthquakes in Youngstown in 2011 and 2012.
Hydraulic fracturing does cause low levels of seismic activity, but nothing that could be felt by people, Watson said. The levels are low enough they can be registered only by machines designed to record seismic activity.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the earthquakes that shook Youngstown in 2011 and 2012 were caused by the injection well operated by D&L Energy Inc.’s on Ohio Works Drive.
The oil and gas industry is exempt from oversight
“The oil and gas industry is very highly regulated,” Watson said.
The question that remains, according to Watson: “Is the current regulation adequate?”
“I think you can show that’s not the case because you’ve got all the oil- and gas-producing states continually coming up with new rules,” Watson said.
Ohio is an interesting example. Because production came to the state later, Ohio has been able to learn from what other states have done and tailor regulations accordingly, he said.
“Pennsylvania, where things came a lot earlier, has just been trying to play catch up,” Watson said.
Fracking will ruin the groundwater
There are risks to water that are associated with oil and gas production, but fracking is not chief among them. Well construction and surface spills are larger concerns.
Industry and environmental groups alike agree proper well construction is necessary to protect drinking water.
“Natural-gas methane in water has traditionally been an exploration tool for the oil industry. We find it, we call them to come and drill for gas,” said Michael Economides, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston in testimony before the congressional committee on science and technology. “That is what they have found out. In fact, had they had a baseline for their measurements, most likely the methane in drinking water would have gone down because production reduces the reservoir pressure, which is the driving force for this gas and, therefore, it would have a negative impact.”
There are examples of water contamination that those who are opposed to fracking bring up all the time that have nothing to do with Ohio or the conditions in the state, said Heidi Hetzel- Evans, an ODNR spokeswoman.
“There are no examples in Ohio where hydraulic fracturing has been responsible for groundwater contamination,” she said.
In fact, out of 150 or so complaints that ODNR receives about concerns that fracking has caused damage to water, the grand majority are the result of the homeowner’s well being poorly constructed or not maintained, Hetzel-Evans said.
“There are maybe three out of 150 where something involved in the drilling process has caused a problem with a well,” she said.
Natural-gas production in the United States can result in energy independence for the country
There are a lot of people that make this argument, but the reality is natural gas is not going to replace oil, Watson said.
“There are also people that argue increasing domestic production will lower prices,” he said. “Oil is going to continue to be priced on a world market.”
The U.S. needs to use all possible energy sources, not just natural gas, to meet the growing demand for energy, said Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Program.
“Twenty percent of our energy use right now goes just toward computers. We aren’t going to start using less computers,” she said.
Shale plays around the country have allowed the U.S. to reduce the amount of oil it imports from 60 percent to around 50 percent in most recent statistics, Reda said.
Hydraulic fracturing is a new technology and, therefore, the risks are unknown
Both horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are technologies “with established track records,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Slant drilling has been done since the 1930s, and fracking has been in common use since the 1950s.
“All wells need to be stimulated. Fracturing is just one way of stimulating the well,” Reda said.
In the early days, the fractures were caused by dynamite or nitroglycerin that were dropped down the well, she said.
In addition, according to a 2009 report sponsored by the Department of Energy, “horizontal drilling can significantly reduce the overall number of well pads, access roads, pipeline routes and production facilities required, thus minimizing habitat fragmentation, impacts to the public, and the overall environmental footprint.”
Drilling for natural gas is ruining roads in rural areas
Ohio requires road-use agreements for the rural roads that will be used by trucks going to and from drilling sites, said Mike Chadsey, from Energy in Depth, an industry-sponsored organization.
“Both the government entity and the companies must agree on the condition of the road. After drilling is completed, the company is responsible for returning the road to that condition,” he said.
The companies have followed every promise they’ve made in agreements with the county, said Mike Halleck, commissioner for Columbiana County.
“I haven’t received any complaints, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any,” he said.
There is no economic benefit to natural-gas drilling
Studies from industry and private groups have varied significantly in terms of how many jobs they state, from a low of 20,000 to a high of more than 200,000.
“More than 9,000 jobs have been created thus far in Ohio by the oil and gas industry,” Reda said.
The biggest issues facing the industry in adding more workers in the state is a lack of skilled workers in machining, welding, commercial driving and other areas who can pass drug tests, she said.
Hydraulic fracturing is going to be done in suburban neighborhoods
Horizontal-drilling technology in existence would not allow for a well site to be placed in a suburban neighborhood because of a lack of space, said Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.
Wells would have to be drilled adjacent to neighborhoods and drilled under communities if space allowed.
Injection wells are poorly regulated
There are a number of regulations that Ohio has regarding disposal wells, Chadsey said.
Requirements include not being allowed to drill disposal wells in pre-Cambrian levels of rock, measuring pressure while injecting, and having a seismic-reading machine nearby to determine early if the well is causing seismic activity.
Ohio’s government did a good job of stopping the disposal wells in the Youngstown area until the proper rules were put in place, Watson said.
These companies must be in financial trouble. They come into an area, do a bunch of work and then just leave with nothing done for months
Wells are often fracked and then left for months to allow reserves to build as part of the normal production process, Reda said.
There are 17 oil and gas companies operating in Columbiana County, Halleck said.
“They’re different people and they’re doing different things, but they’re doing a lot of work,” he said.
The key now is companies need to do the work to allow them to ship the natural gas to markets.