Where the water burns
July 19, 2013 6:26 PM   Subscribe

From Slate's 'Behold' photo blog: This Is What Fracking Really Looks Like. See more of photographer Nina Berman's documentation of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region at her website collection called fractured: the shale play.
posted by flapjax at midnite (57 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A different perspective: I live in central Oklahoma. I've never felt an earthquake in this part of the country until 2010, then we had one in late 2010, then several in 2011 (including the 5.6) and another in 2012. There is a journal paper out there that explored a correlation with fracking activity on that fault zone.

What sucks about this is that it's almost impossible to find unbiased information. I think the normal route here is get the expert opinion of a professor, but the closest one here would be inside the OU ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics.
posted by crapmatic at 6:56 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I live in Michigan where fracking has been used for 50 years with no flaming faucets that I know about. I have oil and gas clients (CPA) and I study the industry, but I'm not an engineer. I don't know what is going on in Pennsylvania.
posted by Mojojojo at 7:15 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Earthquakes aren't a bad thing in of themselves. You get them from pressure building along a fault. Eventually the energy is released. So you could actually make a strong case that the micro tremos caused by fracking is a good thing. What would you rather have, controlled release of energy like a ball rolling down a hill, or an explosion? Where earthquakes become problematic is when property and people are involved. There's another scale besides the richter scale that measures earthquakes in this manner. I forget what it's called. Put another way, a 8.9 earthquake in the middle of the desert isn't as bad as a 7 in Rome.

I feel like I should be a fracking apologists. It would be fairly easy to do, but I find the practice to be environmentally unsound the way we are doing it now, so I won't try to defend it.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:20 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Since I can't find the clip of the angry dome, I don't want to live on this planet anymore.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:24 PM on July 19, 2013

There have been a ton of little tiny earthquakes in my part of the region, too, in Arkansas and southern Missouri and Illinois, likely from fracking and the like. In other news, Promised Land was actually a good movie, even though no one saw it.
posted by limeonaire at 7:30 PM on July 19, 2013

Earthquakes from fracking aren't the main concern. Earthquakes from injecting the wastewater from fracking into deep injection disposal wells - that's the main concern.
posted by tommyD at 7:30 PM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

A recent study published in Science suggests earthquakes far away might trigger earthquakes at deep injection disposal wells. Mother Jones has a story as do some others.
posted by tommyD at 7:50 PM on July 19, 2013

We're done one way or the other...it'll either be global warming catastrophic events or it'll be this beast awakened by fracking....choose your death...or not.
posted by snsranch at 8:00 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know the gentleman who initiated the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, which Ms. Berman participated in (and which is referenced in the first article), and I saw the five photographers' work in the show when it debuted in Pittsburgh. It is currently touring, now at the Center for Photography at Woodstock (there is a link in the article), and I would say it is worth seeing the photographs up close if you happen to have the chance. Each photographer took a slightly different tack, and the collection as a whole holds itself to a good documentary standard. The show was previously in Philadelphia and is headed to Ithaca College in late August.
posted by buffalo at 8:11 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

As tommyD says, a lot of the concern around fracking is misplaced. There are things that can be bad about it (e.g., how you dispose of the wastewater after fracking, which includes environmental concerns and earthquake concerns), but a lot of what is shown here is trying to sell you a story that may not be true. (There has always been methane in the groundwater in some of the Marcellus-producing areas, which is why this has not been a problem in other shale gas areas, as observed my Mojojojo).

The science is moving along quickly, although it's being slowed down by data confidentiality and lawsuits, as noted in this Science abstract.

If you don't like fracking, that's ok, just focus your energy where it could make a difference and is backed up by science. I made this point about opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline (here) - focusing all of the angst on opposing one bit doesn't even begin to solve the problem. I wish I hadn't been right.

From a technical/scientific point of view, there is nothing inherently bad about fracking - it can be done responsibly and safely (mining would be a good analogy, you can do it right, but there are a lot of ways to do it wrong). Ensure that there is proper regulation in place and that it is followed, particularly for the disposal of wastewater, and you can make the world (or at least parts of Pennsylvania) a better place.
posted by grajohnt at 9:05 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I fly gliders over southeastern PA on summer weekends, and every season brings something new: new pads over here, a derrick there, ponds over there, the crazy zigzag of freshly-laid pipelines cutting through forest and pasture. There's plenty to take in from just a few thousand feet above the earth.

You would think that gas flares would do a good job of kicking off the thermal updrafts that gliders use to stay airborne. I find this not to be the case.

When the day is over, I put the plane away and drive back to Pittsburgh, where my tap water doesn't catch on fire.

Maybe there is a right and safe way to frack, one that doesn't scar countryside and poison groundwater. I don't trust that they're doing it that way here.
posted by tss at 9:10 PM on July 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

I made this point about opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline (here) - focusing all of the angst on opposing one bit doesn't even begin to solve the problem.

Dave Roberts on The virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone:
The argument of Keystone protestors is not that there’s One True Way, but that eventually there has to be some way. Somebody’s got to start taking these dire warnings seriously and do something, something specific and concrete. You can’t support Doing Something but oppose Doing This Particular Thing forever. Sooner or later, people have to draw lines and take sides. Progress does not happen without struggle.

Maybe Keystone isn’t the right line. Maybe the next line won’t be the right one either. But the longer folks like Revkin hover over such fights at an ironic distance, never quite satisfied with this target, or that spokesperson, or this policy, or that strategy, the more they’re going to get blowback from people gripped by a sense that there’s not a lot of time left to fuck around and at the very least we have to stop making it worse. The ranks of such people are growing. At some point, dithering over incrementalism in the imaginary center will come to be seen as a failure of moral clarity and judgment. I wouldn’t want to be the last person dug into that trench.
posted by crayz at 9:15 PM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

grajohnt, I disagree that fracking can be done safely. There's just an inherent amount of gas leakage, transport spills, and contaminated water tables. And it's never been explained to me how we dispose of the massive amounts of contaminated wastewater.

But even if there was a way to frack safely, we've been shown time and time again that regulations will not be enforced, that regulatory agencies will be captured, and so any best-case scenario is just a whitewash on the same old cut corners.

The fact that fracking is almost certainly going to win any given political battle doesn't mean we should start cheering for it just so we can feel good for being affiliated with the winning team.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:08 PM on July 19, 2013 [14 favorites]

daveliepmann: “And it's never been explained to me how we dispose of the massive amounts of contaminated wastewater. ”
They drill very deep wells and pump it deep underground. I am not making this up.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:28 PM on July 19, 2013

Fracking must be safe. Why else would they have made it exempt from EPA Safe Drinking Water Act regulation?
posted by notmtwain at 12:19 AM on July 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

We should continue to get our energy from the middle East. That way the only people inconvenienced by our ongoing energy demands will be brown people.
posted by zoo at 1:04 AM on July 20, 2013

Or, you could open up more of your offshore areas to exploration. That kind of drilling doesn't have the same kind of drinking water issues.

And Macondo-style events are rare.
posted by Mezentian at 1:11 AM on July 20, 2013

They drill very deep wells and pump it deep underground. I am not making this up.

What a terrifically fabulous idea! Out of sight, out of mind. I can see how this could possibly go wrong!

When we talk about environmentalism, about climate change the thing that makes me angry on a continual basis is how the average person foots the bill for the ecological damage. Maybe the current generation maybe a generation or three later. But the guys making the profits never pay it. Because if they did, well that wouldn't make money hand over fist and it might not be worth pursuing, and by golly, we can't have that!
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:33 AM on July 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

Where earthquakes become problematic is when property and people are involved. There's another scale besides the richter scale that measures earthquakes in this manner. I forget what it's called.

Mercalli intensity scale
posted by Wonton Cruelty at 2:23 AM on July 20, 2013

What a terrifically fabulous idea! Out of sight, out of mind. I can see how this could possibly go wrong!

Depending on where you are, and the geology, it is a fabulous idea. Assuming the rocks work.
As I see it there are two major issues:
1. Every lithology is different. What might work in the Eagle Ford in Texas may not work in the Bakken in terms of deep storage.
2. The volumes of produced water coming from unconventionals are far beyond conventional wells where water production is something they've been dealing with without too many issues for decades (albeit mostly as saltwater and not fraccing fluids).
posted by Mezentian at 3:05 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It would be great if fracking were done safely, but that ain't happening in Pennsylvania.
posted by angrycat at 4:23 AM on July 20, 2013

We here in the UK have all the fun of fracking to look forward to. Thanks for the heads-up America.
posted by marienbad at 4:31 AM on July 20, 2013

Fracking uses massive amounts of water. Even if you don't contaminate the water with solvents (in which case, as I understand it, slightly more water is needed to have the same effect), fracking uses massive amounts of water. Most of the US was in a serious drought for a significant portion of last year, and large regions of the country have significant permanent water use issues. The fact that fracking uses massive amounts of water is inherently bad.

Fracking, aka shale gas extraction, is a more costly and difficult method of extracting fossil fuels than traditional oil wells. Like tar sands extraction and deep sea drilling, we're seeing more and more of it because traditional oil fields are running out of oil, and the economics have changed enough so that these costlier extraction methods are now profitable (so long as companies can offload the costs of environmental contamination to the general public as an "externality", at least). This whole state of affairs is inherently bad in a canary in a coal mine sort of way. But also, given that capital for energy development projects is a limited resource, and given the problem of anthropogenic climate change from the carbon we keep pumping into the atmosphere, the fact that so much capital is being sunk into fracking instead of non-carbon, renewable energy (wind and solar) or reducing energy needs in the first place (eg. by retrofitting older buildings with decent insulation and requiring green construction going forward, building decent public transportation networks in the US, switching to more local production of food and other goods, and developing more efficient manufacturing practices across other industries) is inherently bad.

Those are two reasons, off the top of my head and with limited technical knowledge of fracking procedures, why fracking is inherently bad.
posted by eviemath at 4:55 AM on July 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Landmark Federal Study: Fracking Doesn’t Contaminate Groundwater

Did you not RTFA? The headline is misleading, if not outright lying. Here's some choice excerpts (emphasis mine):
Although the results are preliminary — the study is still ongoing — they are the first independent look at whether the potentially toxic chemicals pose a threat to people during normal drilling operations. But DOE researchers view the study as just one part of ongoing efforts to examine the impacts of a recent boom in oil and gas exploration, not a final answer about the risks.
"This is good news," said Duke University scientist Rob Jackson, who was not involved with the study. He called it a "useful and important approach" to monitoring fracking, but he cautioned that the single study doesn't prove that fracking can't pollute, since geology and industry practices vary widely in Pennsylvania and across the nation.
Yet while many people have focused on the potential threat from the chemicals, experts have come to believe that more routine aspects of the drilling process are more likely to cause problems. Poor well construction that allows excess gas to escape, spills of chemicals or other fluids that take place at the surface, and disposal of wastewater are all issues of concern.
While the lack of contamination is encouraging, Jackson said he wondered whether the unidentified drilling company might have consciously or unconsciously taken extra care with the research site, since it was being watched. He also noted that other aspects of the drilling process can cause pollution, such as poor well construction, surface spills of chemicals and wastewater.

Jackson and his colleagues at Duke have done numerous studies over the last few years that looked at whether gas drilling is contaminating nearby drinking water, with mixed results. None has found chemical contamination but they did find evidence that natural gas escaped from some wells near the surface and polluted drinking water in northeastern Pennsylvania.
On Friday, DOE spokesman David Anna added that while nothing of concern has been found thus far, "the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims."
posted by zombieflanders at 5:40 AM on July 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's also a single data point.

Poor well construction that allows excess gas to escape

Poor well construction, you say?
And that's offshore, where the oversight is intense, the risks high.
Just transport that to tobacco-chewin' backyard boys. Hundreds of them per week.
posted by Mezentian at 6:09 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Poor well construction that allows excess gas to escape, spills of chemicals or other fluids that take place at the surface, and disposal of wastewater are all issues of concern.

This is essentially what I was saying. Despite eviemath projecting the downsides of the entire carbon-based economy onto fracking (should we talk about the evils of REE mining instead? CBM? Coal?), fracking itself isn't really a problem - it's an old technique that has been upscaled for the purposes of extracting shale gas/oil. The problems are the same problems with any oil & gas extraction, with an added problem of excess fluid disposal, plus a healthy dose of NIMBYism.

I am directly involved with the construction of oil wells in an offshore environment, and I can tell you that we expend tremendous resources and effort to ensure that nothing bad ever happens. Still, things happen, you get leaks inside wells, outside of casings, etc. This can and does happen in any oil or gas well, and with shale gas, you have a lot more wells. So if you'd like to prevent this from happening, stop focusing on fracking and start focusing on limiting oil and gas extraction, because this is really what you're after. You can do this by changing the laws to prevent oil and gas extraction in certain areas (this is not unprecedented - do you know why there are no oil/gas exploration wells off the US East Coast? Florida? ANWR?), or by reducing demand (the costs are prohibitive if demand doesn't support it). Focus your energy on these things, rather than a cause du jour (e.g. fracking, or Keystone XL), and you're working towards solving the problem. Base it on science, and you'll have the 100% support of scientists like me. Base it on emotion and making stuff up, and you undermine your case.

To be 100% clear here, I'd rather see, as eviemath suggests, similar resources spent on renewables than on shale gas extraction. Unfortunately, the economics don't support it right now. The economics can be changed by public policy (they've tried to do this in Germany, for example, for better or worse), so that's something else that is worth spending effort on. I am commenting here not to defend an industry, but to help your further your actual goals, rather than wasting time on quixotic campaigns.
posted by grajohnt at 6:35 AM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Driving through central PA a few months ago I saw a nice flaring well. Kind of exciting. As a person with ties to the southern tier of NY and born in Warren, PA, I definitely 'feel the pain' of these folks. I still remember emailing my sister who lives in rural central PA telling her not to worry.

If she and her husband had sold their farm then they could've practically retired. Not worth much now due to the I drink your milkshake truism.

I still think it's not something to worry about if it was done properly. I just get a sick feeling that some operators have the safety standards of carnival ride operators.
posted by nutate at 8:02 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

"the safety standards of carnival ride operators"

Sums it up nicely.
posted by sneebler at 8:46 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stanford University's Marc Jacobson has shown that 100% of the world's electricity could be provided by renewables by 2050. This is what we should be gearing up for, rather than creating earthquakes and flammable tapwater through fracking, and poisoning our coasts by offshore oil-drilling.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:24 AM on July 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

The Australian Energy Market Operator released in April found moving to 100 per cent renewable energy was technically feasible, but would come with costs and significant challenges.

It found moving to a 100 per cent renewable energy system would cost $219 billion to $338 billion and require wholesale electricity prices to double from current rates. The operator did not compare these costs with other future scenarios including business as usual.

There's also the entrenched economic interests, who will fight tooth and nail against any threat to their investments (sunk costs on pipelines, gas fields, poles, power stations), and workers who are concerned about jobs. I doubt a wind farm employs as many people as a coal mine.

Jacobson's plan is admirable, but it doesn't seem to really address baseload issues (to be fair, his talk about grid redesign and swing production is a bit over my head) and seems to be at odds with what the AEMO found with regards to costs, but I daresay east coast Australia has a smaller population within a larger area than New York State
posted by Mezentian at 10:19 PM on July 20, 2013

grajohnt, let's get this straight. NIMBYism is opposing something that you're in favor of simply because it's in your backyard. So, someone who likes airports and highways but is opposed to a noisy airport or smoggy highway cutting through their backyard could be called a NIMBY. Calling someone who is opposed to fossil fuel extraction a NIMBY because they're also opposed to a specific form of fossil fuel extraction that might likely poison their water table is...a fairly significant misuse of the term.

stop focusing on fracking and start focusing on limiting oil and gas extraction, because this is really what you're after

It sounds like you're saying that it's politically easier to ban all oil and gas extraction in a given area, rather than ban a subset of all oil and gas extraction in a given area. That's far-fetched at best.

For instance, New York has gobs of natural gas wells and a moratorium on fracking. There's a grassroots effort in the state to make the moratorium into a permanent ban. The best the environmentalists could accomplish was a ban on fracking within NYC's watershed. (This has always struck me as an amazing show of chutzpah. The state said "well, don't frack where it might poison us rich city folk...but you could use the money out in the sticks, so go ahead and mess up your water table all you like.")

Do you seriously think opponents of fracking would have been more politically successful if they had given up lobbying the DEC during the fracking review process, and focused instead on an out-of-left-field initiative to roll back the untold number of small-scale natural gas wells that are already peppered across state and private lands in NY? You can't be serious. That's absurd on its face.

Base it on emotion and making stuff up, and you undermine your case.

You're not easy to be friends with.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:26 PM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

No, I'm a misanthrope through and through - guilty as charged.

Your worry is that 'fracking' can harm the groundwater in an area. My point is that fracking itself has effectively zero chance of harming ground water, as noted in the DoE study above. You have to believe that fractures are somehow propagating from a (very) deep reservoir into a (very) shallow aquifer for that. Given the depth profiles and pore pressures involved, this is effectively a physical impossibility. Do you have any science that says otherwise?

Can shale gas extraction in your area cause groundwater contamination? Yes - via poor well construction and inappropriate disposal of fracking fluids and/or formation water. The difference is in the sheer scale - more wells = more chance of something going wrong, and it's uglier to boot. These things are absolutely worth being concerned about. Therefore, there's a real scentific/engineering reason to limit this, but to ascribe all of the ills to fracking puts the entire premise on shaky ground. Dangerously shaky ground if you'd like such a ban to stand for very long.
posted by grajohnt at 2:19 AM on July 21, 2013

Dangerously shaky ground if you'd like such a ban to stand for very long.

Oh, you know what? FUCK fracking and the greedy bastards who are pushing it through. They don't give a flying rat's ass about anyone's wells or anyone's property values or anyone's health concerns or anything else beyond their profits.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:33 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

grajohnt, when people say they are opposed to fracking, they mean the whole process, including the waste disposal. Redefining terms in an attempt to win an argument on a technicality is one of the same dishonest tactics that paid industry shills use.

One top of that, let's look at your technicality. Just restricting ourselves to the part of the process where liquid at high pressures is forced deep into the earth through small pipes in order to fracture shale rock at a particular geologic strata, thereby releasing gas to be captured and sold. You seem to be trying to claim that:

(a) those pipes never crack or break, leaking the (generally solvent-laden) water into shallower water tables, or leaking the gas being extracted or the waste liquid on its way back up, not even after some of the little earthquakes have occured that scientists have ascribed to fracking-related activity (you sort-of address this point at least, if in an incomplete and minimizing way); and

(b) high pressure liquid in deep aquifers never seeps up through pores and micro-cracks into higher aquifers:
(i) naturally, under natural pressures, with undisturbed rock - the liquid in those deep aquifers got there all at once at some long-past geologic event and now has zero interaction with shallower aquifers, however slow and mediated through many layers of filtration through rocks, or
(ii) naturally, but under the artificially increased pressures that are the whole entire purpose of pumping giant amounts of pressurized liquid down into the ground, or
(iii) artificially, via new fissures that open due to the seismic activity that scientists have shown to be caused by fracking-related activity, but based on natural pressure of the liquid already in the deep aquifer level, in a manner similar to how oil kept pumping out of the broken Deepwater Horizon well once that unplugged hole was available, even though it wasn't being intentionally and artificially pumped out of the ground, or
(iv) artificially, due to newly created fissures as above, in conjunction with the injection of extra pressurized liquid for the express purpose of causing rock in that deep aquifer layer to break up and release gas;

and that (c) the midwest and west of the US are so rich in water that those deep aquifers don't matter, 'cause we're only drawing from shallower aquifers and will be for the forseeable future (at least on geologic time scales consistent with the length of time it will take for the deep aquifers to recover from the contaminants injected due to fracking); and there's no way that known water usage pressures depleting the shallower aquifers could cause new or potentially unexpected geologic phenomena, eg. by affecting the rate of natural seepage between the deeper and shallower aquifers


Technically, your claim should involve probabilities, not im/possibilities. Also, it is only even potentially true on a very short-sighted short time scale, and ignoring all other drilling for water or mining activity.
posted by eviemath at 6:56 AM on July 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also also, this "show me the science" argument cuts both ways. Show me the science that says that given the geologic changes caused by fracking, we won't get groundwater contamination?

I like science. I support the Higgs boson particle collider experiments. I'm not overly concerned about probes bound for deep space being nuclear powered. I'm in favor of stem cell research. When we have a new situation about which little is scientifically known, however, industrial activity on massive scales is not a substitute for controlled scientific experimentation. And when it comes to industrial activity on massive scales whose effects are unknown but which has the potential to seriously limit the potable water available for drinking and growing crops for food? This is why the Precautionary Principle is a named thing. The "you can't scientifically prove that it's harmful" argument is slightly intellectually bullying, and when applied in these sort of situations, unfairly gives science a bad name, so that general lay people are less likely to support policy decisions based on actual science, like vaccination programs. I like science, and I like evidence-based policy, so this sort of mis-use as a shield against precautionary principle arguments, in situations where there's not a preponderance of evidence on either side of a policy debate, or where there are few independent scientific studies with no conflict of interest in the funding stream really pisses me off.
posted by eviemath at 7:34 AM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do work in the industry, but I am no shill - as I have said, our view of where we should go in the future is not too different. Let me say categorically that if I believe a practice is unsafe - either to people or the environment, I would rather quit than conduct that operation. I have sat on the 'petroleum company side' of meetings and been personally praised and thanked by a director of the WWF for my 'enlightened view and work to ensure that practices are safe for the environment'. These things are important to me, despite my misanthropy.

I say 'show me the science', because in the case of this particular post, all of the pictures are 'my drinking water is full of methane' and 'fracking gave my wife breast cancer', etc - none of which have a basis in actual science, and there has been a lot done on this topic by groups that would love to show that fracking is bad. To say that no studies have been done by independent groups is veering towards conspiracy theory. I can toss the 'vaccine hater' argument right back at you, because they make the same sorts of claims (all of the science is funded by the drug companies that make the vaccines, so how do you know - isn't it safer just not to have vaccines? Wouldn't the Precautionary Principle apply here as well?).

I get that you don't like shale gas - there are real risks, my main point is that you should focus on those, and I am not trying to convince you to not be opposed to it. I'm pointing the way towards doing it right, rather than going down exactly the sort of path that the 'vaccine haters' end up on. Showing pictures of autistic kids with parents saying 'we got a MMR vaccine, and then my child was diagnosed with autism - and did you know they put mercury in that stuff?' - that's what this content of this post is, and that's why I reacted.
posted by grajohnt at 8:45 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ah, so you weren't saying above that there was nothing inherently risky about fracking, nor that there was basically zero chance of the non-waste-disposal parts of the process leading to contaminated groundwater - I guess I misread and didn't realize that you were actually talking about methane in tap water and cancer risks in those statements, albeit without mentioning those terms specifically.

So for the purposes of our present academic discussion, can you link me the scientific studies that show that methane levels in tap water have not increased at any fracking sites, and that cancer risk is definitively not correlated with fracking, or with any of the chemicals used in the fracking process anywhere? Because I've only read three or four news articles on the topic, and taken one geology class once, so lacking expertise in the topic, I've really just been reacting to how you've refered to science for rhetorical purposes in your comments on this thread. Thanks in advance.
posted by eviemath at 11:48 AM on July 21, 2013

Sure, here you go. This paper shows increased concentrations of methane in groundwater near shale gas wells. Be sure to read the conclusions, not just the abstract.

Based on the spatial distribution of the hydrocarbons, isotopic signatures for the gases , wetness of the gases, and observed differences in 4 He:CH4 ratios, we propose that a subset of homeowners has drinking water contaminated by drilling operations, likely through poor well construction.

Note, poor well construction is what I specifically mentioned as a problem earlier - this could happen with any oil or gas well, and is a cause for a concern. The problem is that although this is a rare failure mode (this was one of the many things that went wrong in Macando), by drilling very many more wells (and potentially shoddy ones by crappy operators), you increase the likelihood of a failure just by statistics alone. The authors do say that it is theoretically possible that this could be due to fracking, but they also immediately dismiss it by noting that natural gas will be soluable in the formation waters, which essentially robs it of its upwards mobility potential - this is one of the real science problems with 'fracking causes methane in groundwater'.

...this is a followup of an earlier paper by the same research group that noted the following:

We found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids.

There's just no physical mechanism to make this realistically possible. Hydrocarbons are buoyant relative to pore water, and so can be driven towards the surface, but fracking fluids can't get into groundwater by 'fracking' They can, however, get there if something goes terribly wrong in the well construction. There is a good discussion about this in the first paper.

I 100% agree with their conclusions - groundwater should be sampled prior to any kind of oil and gas activity, and mud gas compositions should be documented and disclosed. Fracking fluid contents should be published and should include unique tracer combinations that make it possible to show that they are definitively not contaminating groundwater. Testing programs like this one should be mandatory in all hydrocarbon-producing areas. Improvements in the regulatory framework here would be good for everyone involved. They note in the papers that many people in these areas use shallow wells for drinking water that are unregulated and untested. If groundwater contamination in general is a concern, wouldn't it be a good idea to put some quality standards on those as well? They've certainly done some terrible environmental things in PA in the past that could put some seriously nasty stuff in the ground water.

So, I'll pass it back - you said there's a lack of independent studies on this - are there conflict of interest problems with the National Academy of Sciences? Any of the authors of this study? Can you show me something that reasonably proposes how fracking itself can cause fracking fluids to get into ground water? Are there things happening here that do not happen in other oil and gas producing areas?
posted by grajohnt at 1:51 PM on July 21, 2013

Abrahm Lustgarten's back-and-forth with Andrew Revkin might elucidate why I'm not on board with your "it's not possible!" position:
What strikes me as most significant is not only the establishing of probable pathways, but Engelder and others’ reaction to that finding. In years of reporting on this issue — and the waste injection well issue, which really concerns the same questions about pathways — the public explanation has consistently been that no underground migration at all is possible. We’ve been told we know this because of logic (there is so much separation there is simply no way…) and because of geology (the Marcellus and other layers are so impermeable no fluids can get through them, or there are no fractures or faults to allow movement). This is what the oil and gas industry trade groups say in public, it’s what the regulators say (the New York SGEIS, for example), and so on.

In the scientific community geologists are less universally confident, but the consensus conventional wisdom is still largely the same: This can’t happen. It’s virtually impossible.

And yet the National Academy of Sciences article published yesterday says that it is happening. (And in the first articles in my series about injection disposal wells I cited several other cases in Ohio and Florida where it happened through natural pathways). When yesterday’s research came out, I expected the gas industry, for example, to struggle to address the idea that pathways exist, but instead they tell me they have long known that underground migration happens. The question, they now ask, is how long does it take? Engelder says the same — that even though the public has generally been led to believe upward migration is impossible, he has long known that it happens in some places. Well since when? And why haven’t these same people discussed the potential of natural pathway migration before?
In other words, we've been told that groundwater contamination wasn't possible before, using the same language and reasoning, and we were wrong. That means we should have a higher standard of evidence this time around.

I also find the argument that these incidences of poisoned groundwater aren't due to fracking, but rather the proliferation of shale gas and wastewater-injection wells 100% caused by new fracking technology to be overly pedantic. Clearly the best political response to the evidence you're raising is to ban fracking, since without fracking we won't have this proliferation of low-quality, poorly-regulated shale gas wells.
posted by daveliepmann at 3:00 PM on July 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

So many people I know who oppose fracking also oppose GMOs and are into organic food and all sorts of fringe Green causes, so I'm pretty suspicous of anti-fracking arguments. Brian Dunning thinks its okay.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:58 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I'm not trying to be pedantic, or to muddle this issue at all. Fracking is one technology that allows the extraction of oil and gas from tight reservoirs. There are other methods. Ban fracking, and given the resource potential here, I assure you that someone will find a way to do this without 'fracking'. It's a temporary fix, whereas addressing the other problems (or banning oil and gas extraction in these areas) is not.

Lustgarten there is not being factually correct in this statement, "(Fracking is an identical process to waste injection, but isn’t regulated under the same program because of exemptions)"

No, no it is not an identical process. When you overpressure a formation above its fracture gradient, you open fractures, and when you lower the pressure below that threshold, they close. In fracking, you overpressure, and then inject sand or another proppant to keep the fractures from closing, and then immediately depressurize. (Before you say 'aha!', if you were going to create a theoretical fracture up to the shallow aquifers, you'd create a volume significantly larger than the amount of proppant you actually put in a well). In an injection well, you just keep pumping fluid down over and over and over again. If this pressure is over the fracture gradient, you could end up propagating the fractures more and more, and you are also generating a drive mechanism that can drive these fluids up towards aquifers. This also can induce earthquakes. This is why you should be correctly concerned about injection wells - in that, Lustgarten is correct.

The cited examples are from Ohio and Florida and all of the rest of Lustgarten's arguments are about injection, not fracking. But with one little disingenuous point, he lumps it all together. There's still no theoretical way that 'fracking' can do this. This is 'free energy' from a scientific point of view, which is why scientists don't buy it (but do sometimes hedge and say that 'maybe something unexplainible happens here' - but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and there's none of that here).
posted by grajohnt at 9:07 PM on July 21, 2013

So many people I know who oppose fracking also oppose GMOs and are into organic food and all sorts of fringe Green causes, so I'm pretty suspicous of anti-fracking arguments.

I oppose GMOs. I'm into organic food (or, as your grandparents called it,"food"), and I'm waaaay out there on the fringe with various Green causes! Haha! Can't imagine being pro-GMO (we have NO IDEA what's going to result from all this brand new tinkering with the very building blocks of life!), can't imagine preferring fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers over those grown without, and most all *Green* causes that I know of are ones that support the health and sustainability of our fragile environment and natural resources (all that stuff that keeps us alive)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:36 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have now had the time to read your links grajohnt. Thank you for providing them. They don't deal with cancer risk, but do seem to bear out the "my drinking water is full of methane" concern. Whether that is due to industry shirking on safety measures in well construction, where some ideal wells in a non-capitalist utopia where companies have no financial incentive to cut corners on safety measures would theoretically be perfectly safe, or whether that risk is inherently present even in imaginary ideal situations is really quite immaterial to the people who are opposing the actual process as it is actually carried out in the real world in their actual communities. Groundwater is being contaminated. That means that there is some pathway for this to happen (even if it involves cracked pipes due to human error, though I don't offhand see why cracked pipes due to seismic activity is a zero probability event either). But the policy debate around fracking (which is really all that concerns most people) is not a debate over some ideal process, nor even over the particular pathway through which contamination happens, but is about how fracking is actually occurring and the actual and likely net effects on real people.

I understand that you agree that there are problems with this actual process, so perhaps we are arguing over tone, but making claims that it is impossible for shallow wells to be contaminated from the fracking process, and only stating in the small print or later arguments after your initial statement has been challenged that, well, you really were only talking about the original extraction wells and not the waste disposal parts of a fracking operation, and you were really only talking about ideal wells, not the actual wells going in near people's homes, etc. ignores the empirically observed fact that people's wells are being contaminated. (And your linked studies even show that proximity to an extraction well is the primary causal link to rates of contamination.)

The problem with taking that tact, if you truly value promoting scientific literacy and evidence-based policy, is that, yes some people have exaggerated fears, but there is a real, empirically observed, scientifically validated correlation between proximity to fracking operations and groundwater contamination. And ordinary people who are not hugely scientifically literate may be prone to exaggerated worries when they lack adequate information, but they're not blind or stupid or completely lacking in reasoning capacity. So when they hear from you your primary message of "there's no scientifically valid way for this contamination to occur", they don't hear all of your hedging and hemming and hawing, they just hear that obviously false statement, coming from someone speaking with some scientific authority, and it diminishes their trust of scientific authority.

If you want people to listen to you, and if you want people to listen to scientifically valid arguments in general, starting out by contradicting what they've personally witnessed or minimizing or belittling their fears is (social-scientifically proven) a quite ineffective approach. An effective approach is to give an indication that you've heard and understand where they are coming from first, then address the substance of their empirically verifiable claims, then go into technicalities as relevant and appropriate. On the other hand, negating people's lived experience and only allowing for the possibility later as a technicality, whilst relying on an appeal to scientific authority argument, is a great way to spread confusion and buy time on a public policy debate, which is why this is the approach that industry shills use. Which is another good reason not to use this approach if you don't want to sound like or be associated with industry shills yourself personally.

Again, I have heard and understand that you are also opposed to the way fracking is actually occurring, and I believe that I understand that you are arguing from a position of frustration around general scientific illiteracy, and that you are indeed concerned with the environment. What I am saying is that, while your heart may be in the right place, you're doing it wrong. Also that, if winning an argument over people always using science exactly correctly all the time is more important to you than preventing large-scale environmental degradation due to common industry practices, I would gently suggest that you reconsider your priorities. As well as your assessment of what constitutes an achievable goal (though maybe that's just the cynic in me).
posted by eviemath at 5:45 PM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I appreciate your measured response, eviemath, and I will absolutely take your points on board with how I discuss the issue. I guess the overall general point that I am trying to make is that the only difference between what we've seen from 'fracking' (if you define it as 'shale gas extraction') and historical oil and gas extraction is the sheer scale in these areas. There are smart ways to challenge/reduce/ban these practices without going right up against the arguments that those of us who understand fracking and what it should and should not be able to do - otherwise, this is a Sisyphean task. For example, putting a limit on the number of wells per acre in an area, not allowing drilling within a certain distance of a water well, prior testing of aquifers, etc. These types of constraints could achieve the goals you have, and alleviate a lot of the concerns of residents in the area (visual pollution, groundwater contamination, etc.) that are the basis for the reactions in the pictures in this post. Be aware that I am fighting this same battle from the 'other side', as I am working hard to ensure that we do all we can to make sure that no one is ever harmed in the course of 'doing business', as that's not acceptable in any case, IMHO. I am very lucky to work for a company that puts this in very high regard, and regulatory constraints and close enforcement followup are the only way to keep other companies that do not feel the same way on the straight and narrow, which is why I support them.

One of the things I really appreciate about Metafilter is the high level of discourse that can and often does occur. It makes the comments worth reading, unlike most of the the rest of the internet. I appreciate you taking the time to understand my points and to offer suggestions for improvement, as these are truly useful. Metafilter is literally the only place I would consider commenting on a story for this very reason, and I hope you don't think that I have lowered that level of discourse in the process of trying to make my point.
posted by grajohnt at 4:28 AM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's a map of fracking-related environmental accidents across the US (and some in Canada). Fracking proponents will of course find the skull and crossbones symbols and the site as a whole one-sided (it is, in fact, advocating an anti-fracking viewpoint), but if you click on the symbols, you get a brief, factual summary of each incident, which seems to me to give a good sense of what the current problems and complaints are.

Seeing them in map form is quite interesting too. The map is color-coded to indicate regions where fracking is currently occurring, and where it is proposed. It doesn't indicate how extensive the current fracking activity is, but one can perhaps reasonably conclude that either there is quite a bit more density of wells and fracking activity in Pennsylvania and New York along the Marcellus formation, and/or the regulations in that part of the country are more lax, and/or the companies developing in that area are more lax in their safety procedures. It would be interesting to know how much each factor plays into the density of incidents in a given region. Although I think that, given the water use issues and the fact that fracking development requires investment in new infrastructure when we should be investing in renewable energy infrastructure (so I see it as different from ongoing oil extraction from already developed fields in this sense), that this is interesting mostly from an academic perspective.
posted by eviemath at 8:29 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

New signs have emerged in recent days which indicate that extreme measures are being taken in order to suppress evidence of the pernicious effects of the energy extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:37 AM on August 12, 2013

Oil Companies Are Quietly Fracking the Seabed Off the California Coast
I don't want to be "that guy" (and I though I had addressed this, so it is possible my comment was modded, but I see no evidence of that.

Fraccing, per se, isn't standard operating procedure in offshore wells.
It's requires space (lots of it) and returns. I'm not familiar with offshore California, but I understood that drilling in offshore locations was forbidden in the US outside Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

Traditionally, because of the nature of reservoirs, it isn't (at this time) worth fraccing offshore wells. When they are discoveries they tend to flow at higher rates than onshore wells. And onshore wells are cheaper.

A lot of the issues with fraccing onshore wells are, I expect, not applicable. There's no water table (that will affect people) to contaminate, and despite what things like Gasland might tell you, reservoir zones tend to be sealed well.

(Which is not to say that fraccing can't do damage, it might).
posted by Mezentian at 3:51 AM on August 13, 2013

Mezentian, are you saying that the linked article, and this one that it in turn links to, misreports the situation? It seems pretty clear-cut:
Hundreds of pages of federal documents released by the government to The Associated Press and advocacy groups through the Freedom of Information Act show regulators have permitted fracking in the Pacific Ocean at least 12 times since the late 1990s, and have recently approved a new project.
Apparently it's to pump a little more juice out of retired wells.
posted by daveliepmann at 6:23 AM on August 13, 2013

No. My point was that I understood offshore US (GOM and Alaska aside) were of limits. It seems that there are leases existing offshore California that are still being exploited.

"Retired wells" is a description that means nothing.

And 13 times since the late 1990s? Nothing. I'd be curious to see fluid studies on frac fluid movement out to three miles, since as understand it the idea of a frac is that the formation fluids rush towards the wellbore (and push most of the the frac fluids out during clean up) in the process.

Even at its worst, I understood that fraccing could cause reservoir communication, but so far offshore it wouldn't be an issue. The formation fluids aren't under that much pressure.

But I am not a reservoir engineer.
posted by Mezentian at 8:57 AM on August 13, 2013

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