Fracking Update: Fed Loosens Chemical Disclosure Rules, A New Study Predicts Fracking Fluids Can Spread to Aquifers In a 'Few Years'

natural gas drilling rig, Alvarado, Texas

In the never ending battle between regulators and the fracking industry’s biggest players, yesterday proved to be another victory for industry profits over public safety interests, as the Obama admin backed off on its proposed new fracking chemical reporting rules for drilling operations on public lands.

Under present law, oil companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing on public lands are exempted from complying with chemical reporting laws mandated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In a response to calls from public interest and environmental groups, the Obama admin had recently proposed new rules requiring disclosure of the chemicals used in drilling operations 30 days before a well could be drilled.

But on Friday, following meetings with lobbyists from ExxonMobil, XTO Energy, Apache, Samson Resources and Anadarko Petroleum, the federal government’s Department of the Interior announced changes to these proposed rules that would require reporting of fracking chemicals only after any drilling and formal operation begins, claiming that reporting prior to, or following, drilling did not matter. Rather, amassing a record of fracking fluid chemicals that scientists can analyze and trace was the more important issue.

The new rules cover drilling on some 700 million acres of public land, presently under the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) control, and over 50 million acres on tribal lands. The BLM estimates that 90% of the 3,400 new wells drilled each year use some form of hydraulic fracturing, a heavy industry process  in which millions of gallons of pressurized fluid (a mixture of water, sand and liquid chemicals) is forced deep underground to fracture shale beds and release trapped gas.

The rule pullback has been widely viewed as bowing to election year political pressure from critics and complaints from the Oil Industry that compliance costs would be too great, hold up the drilling permit process, and potentially reveal “trade secrets”. This latter claim is being questioned owing to the fact that a large portion of the chemicals used in fracking fluids are unknown — even by those companies that use them.

There is, however, some good news for environmental groups and landowners: the revised rules expanded the types of waters that must be protected during drilling. The new definition of “protected waters” still encompasses “fresh waters” but now also includes “usable waters” such as water used in agriculture and  construction.

Source material for this post cam from the NY Times article: New Proposal on Fracking Gives Ground to Industry by John M. Broder.

Ground Water Could Be At Risk from Migrating Fracking Fluids Sooner, A New Computer Model Predicts

The main industry argument that hydraulic fracturing poses only minimal risk to the environment is centered on the claim that the rock layer being fractured is deep underground (often a mile below any known aquifer) and provides an “impermeable” barrier to any residual fluids (not pumped back out) from leaking or contaminating the ground above it.

But in a recent computer modeling study by independent hydrologist Tom Myers, this rock layer was found to be quite permeable, owing to existing rock fractures and faults which are made worse by the fracking process of pumping highly pressurized fluid against this rock layer.The model predicts that chemical fluids following these natural faults and fractures — artificially expanded by fracking — could leak to the surface within “just a few years”. Previous estimates cited much longer times scales for any potential leakage and/or ground water contamination.

“Simply put, [the rock layers] are not impermeable,”says Myers [source:]

The model focused on the Marcellus shale beds in New York State which have seen some of the most intense drilling operations in recent years. “The Marcellus shale is being fracked into a very high permeability. Fluids could move from most any injection process,” said Myers [source:].

The Myers study, published in Ground Water (the journal of the National Ground Water Association) did not used any sampling data of actual fracking sites (a difficult thing to do, since the needed samples are so far underground) but rather utilized software designed to simulate how the fracking fluids might spread over time, accounting for both the natural fractures in these rock layers and impacts from the fracking process.

ground water flow diagram
Relative groundwater travel times.(source: PD-USGOV-INTERIOR-USGS.)

The model confirms what would seem to be fairly obvious: fracking greatly speeds up the movement of fluid chemicals injected underground this way; fluid migration that would take normally many thousands of years, can now occur in less than a hundred years. When the model integrated the faults and fractures that naturally occur in similar shale formations, that migration speed was increased by a factor of ten (i.e., trapped or leaked fluids could reach the surface in tens of years, or less).

One other result of the study: the effects for fracking don’t end when the drilling stops. The forces created by fracking can take up to a year to ease and as a result, leaked or trapped underground chemicals may still be forced upward; it can take five or more years for this pressure to equalize and return to normal.

Criticisms of the Computer Simulation on Migrating Fracking Fluids

Several pro-drilling geologists have criticized the study for relying on modeling and not observations (thought this criticism goes both ways), and that the computer model is not based upon the known geology of the Marcellus formation, arguing that if fracking fluids could travel as fast as predicted by the Myers Model, then there would be no need for fracking to open up the shale bed’s gas deposits. The predicted migration times for fracking fluids would require a a huge degree of “porosity” in the fractures, critics claim.

But Myers counters these criticisms by likening his approach to a cracked window pane and looking at the entire panel of cracked glass, not simply one intact piece. Myers also asserts that his simulation’s fluid migration results are valid for other fracking locales throughout the country and not just the Marcellus.

Both camps agree, however, that more direct sampling of rock layers and shale beds is needed to validate any claims for or against. However, this , such direct sampling is technically difficult and, so far, no attempts have been made to do so. In the meantime, Myers advocates installing monitors near fracking sites to detect any (chemical) changes in the groundwater supply.

The study was paid for by Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation.

Some source material for this post came from the Pro Publica article: New Study Predicts Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years by Abrahm Lustgarten

Top Photo: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble); CC – By – SA 3.0


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