If you’ve been watching the presidential candidate debates over the past several weeks and news over the past several years, you’ve probably heard the term ‘fracking’ come up at least once. Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a technique that increases the amount of extractable oil and natural gas in a well. A mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is injected into a wellbore at high pressure to create fractures that allow fluids to move more freely and come to the surface.
Because of its potential impact on the environment, fracking has become a highly-charged issue, and candidates are expected to have not only clear opinions on the topic, but ideas about how to regulate fracking and reduce the possibility of harm in areas where it’s performed. What is the current state of regulation for this controversial procedure?
Risky Business, No Regulation
Fracking has become a more common practice over the past several years, and public concern about the associated risks has grown. Fracking could contaminate underground water sources and pose risks to human health because of the chemicals involved. Hydrochloric acid helps dissolve minerals and initiate cracks in the rock, while ammonium chloride, glutaraldehyde, and hydroxymethyl-phosphonium sulfate eliminate bacteria in the water that produces corrosive byproducts. Stabilizing agents such as sodium chloride, isopropanol, and methanol are also used, along with boric acid and potassium metaborate to maintain the fluid’s viscosity. Fracking is especially effective for shale formations, because the properties of the rock typically do not allow hydrocarbons to flow to wellbores.
With these and many other chemicals being put into the earth, environmental groups have questioned whether there is adequate management of well integrity and of fracking’s undesirable byproducts. Prior to 2015, federal regulations around well drilling were over 30 years old, and had not been updated to take fracking risks into account. Amid growing concern, a Final Rule to regulate fracking was proposed in May of 2012. After three years of fine-tuning, the new laws became effective on June 24, 2015. An article in the New York Times summarized some of the controversy around the regulations. Recently a lawsuit was awarded to two families from Dimock, PA for contaminated drinking water supplies.
Key components of the existing legislation include:
To prevent groundwater from being contaminated, wells must pass an integrity validation, with cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones through which the wellbore passes.
Drilling companies must disclose the chemicals they’re using in fracking to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) via a public website called FracFocus. Disclosure must occur within 30 days of completing fracking operations.
Stricter rules around storage of waste fluids recovered from fracking.
Drilling companies must provide detailed information on the geology, depth, and location of pre-existing wells so that the BLM can better evaluate and manage site characteristics.
These regulations technically apply only to American tribal and federal lands, which encompass around 11 percent of U.S. natural gas production and 5 percent of oil production. Some state and local laws around fracking existed before this legislation was passed, but one of the aims of the law is to serve as a model for state regulators, who have authority over their own fracking sites.
A 2013 U.S. Energy Information Administration survey of global shale formations outside the U.S. revealed that more than half of the world's shale oil reserves are in Russia, China, Argentina, and Libya. However, fracking remains largely unregulated in these countries, with progress hindered by insufficient technology and funding. France, Bulgaria, Germany, and Scotland have banned fracking outright, and several other countries currently have moratoriums on the practice.
Measuring Fracking’s Environmental Impact
As already mentioned, fracking involves the injection of various chemicals into shale in order to optimize the overall process. In addition, additional compounds from the shale layers come to the surface including salts and metal contaminants, and depending on the subsurface geology, can contain radioactive isotopes. Thus one can measure the impacts of hydraulic fracturing by the measurement of these contaminants. Another useful method to assess the impact of fracking on the local environment is to measure the gas content in nearby groundwater. This can be done by testing for dissolved gases using static headspace gas chromatography, then calculating results according to Henry’s Law.
Another option is to saturate water with a gas standard or a mix of gases and use that water to build a calibration curve via sequential dilution. This approach is currently being validated by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).
In either of these testing methods, gas chromatography is a vital tool for evaluating water near fracking sites to ensure the continued well-being of the environment.
Change on the Horizon
Although fracking isn’t highly regulated right now, that is likely to change over the next few years, as more than one of the presidential front-runners have expressed an intention to take measures to further protect the environment. Fracking is closely linked to larger debates about energy supply and sustainability- just one more reason why we should pay close attention whenever this issue is touched upon by our future leaders.
Visit these additional resources if you’re interested in hydraulic fracturing and its application to gas chromatography.