Will Hydraulic Fracturing Poison America’s Groundwater?

You might be surprised to know that America actually has large oil reserves trapped deep underground in non-porous shale rock. Until horizontal drilling and fracking came along these reserves could not be breached.

The average fracking mixture is 99.5% water and sand. As you can probably imagine, water is used in copious amounts –from 65,000 gallons to 600,000 gallons. This may sound like a lot of water, but not when put into perspective. The amount of water used in fracking is smaller than the amount used in agriculture, manufacturing and municipal water supplies.

In the process of hydraulic fracturing, different chemicals can be used for different functions. Some chemicals limit the growth of bacteria, while others are used to prevent corrosion. Other chemicals are added to make fracking more efficient and effective. A typical fracture treatment uses low concentrations of anywhere from three to twelve additive chemicals.

The initial drilling is a vertical wellbore that extends far below the water table. Protecting the integrity of the well means using casing and cementing to keep the wellbore open and ensuring there are no leaks. The casing is a hollow steel pipe used to line the wellbore and combined with cement will protect groundwater and aquifers throughout the drilling process. There are specific state requirements that must be followed, plus the American Petroleum Institute (API) has established standards for proper cement types. All these precautions and standards are what keep the ground water from becoming contaminated, as does the disposal of the used water and chemicals. There have been experiments with recycling the used fracking mixture, which should help conserve water and allay some drinking water fears.

According to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, “hydraulic fracturing has been effectively used to safely stimulate job-creating domestic energy resources over 1.1 million times.” That’s a pretty good record. The water table is about 1,200 feet below the Earth’s surface and hydraulic fracturing takes place at least 5,000 feet below that. Problems with drilling are caused by inadequate casing during the initial phases of the operation. Another issue is identifying the chemicals used in fracking. Some states have already begun to require natural gas companies to list all chemicals that will be stored and used at a drilling site.

Before hydraulic fracturing operations begin in a new area, American Petroleum Institute guidance (API – HF1) recommends a baseline assessment to include sampling of nearby water wells. Fresh water wells should also be sampled once hydraulic fracturing operations are complete. This way it will be provable if there was a breach in regulations.

Requiring companies to report their use of chemicals and disposal or recycling of used fracking water will certainly put both advocates’ and critics’ minds at rest. This country cannot afford to write off a viable source of energy that can employ thousands of people and provide clean, less expensive energy. The onus rests with the well owners to confirm that all activity is done by the book with as little accident risk as possible.

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