OCTOBER 31, 2011

THE THINGS IT CARRIED

The troubled relationship between fracking and water is often characterized as an issue for individual homeowners with contaminated wells. But hydrofracking is a major problem for public water treatment plants and tap water. In other words, it's an issue for all of us.

One hydrofrac requires something on the order of 3 million gallons of fluid, according to USGS. (The Union of Concerned Scientists says "several million" [HOW IT WORKS: WATER FOR NATURAL GAS 2010].)

If only 15% or so of the hydrofrac fluid comes back up and must be dealt with [WASTE MANAGEMENT OF CUTTINGS, DRILLING FLUIDS, HYDROFRACK WATER AND PRODUCED WATER 2010 web info by the New York State Water Resources institute at Cornell University], we surface dwellers are faced with a major challenge. For a 3-million gallon frac we get around 450,000 gallons of salty, toxic sediment-laden fluid back (the Marcellus is the remains of a saltwater ocean that once covered the area). The drillers would probably just dump it all back into the stream above the treatment plant, but the plants can't handle all that mess, not even close. So various methods are used to pre-treat the water to remove solid waste, supposedly. As each load of used fracking fluid must contain well over 100 tons of sediment packed with NORMs (naturally occurring radioactive material) ["THE SCIENCE OF MARCELLUS SHALE" (pdf) 2010 speech on hydrofrac wastewater treatment tech by Timothy Keister, describes a treatment process called Sequential Precipitation.], it's literally a huge problem. Regulation of disposal of this junk is spotty or nonexistent. Basically, the industry just wants to dump whatever radioactive waste they are required to remove from the water into regular landfills. And the rest becomes a gift for the People through the public drinking water. Various agencies are working out their regulatory response to these issues as we speak, several steps behind.

So enjoy your "cheap" gas. It actually comes at great cost.

If you look at the image above, you start to grasp the immense scale of these things. Millions of gallons taken from area streams and blasted through miles of cracks underground for each hydrofrac. The water picks up tons of radioactive sediment. Hundreds of tons of sediment (and it also carries those 15,000 gallons of proprietary chemicals including, perhaps, benzene and formaldehyde). The contaminated water is kept temporarily in these huge pits, and then dumped into public watersheds or treatment plants, or injected back into the earth, after various forms of treatment and non-treatment.

In addition to the problem of contaminated drinking water, simple availability of fresh water seems mathematically certain to become an issue if it hasn't already. If you're sucking 3 million gallons of fresh water at a time from streams or aquifers, multiplied by several hundred separate operations, what happens to your stream or aquifer?

America's boom in petroleum production is a story of water first and energy second.

This site, FRAC IN DEPTH, part of a massive onslaught of industry P.R., tells us that fracking is a "safe, well-regulated, environmentally sound practice..." Well over a million hydrofrac operations have been completed and not a drop of water anywhere has been contaminated from it, they say. That's their story and they're sticking to it.

More on the ENERGY & TRANSPORT PAGE.