Review of fracking issues

The release and exploitation of natural gas from shales using the unconventional means of in situ hydraulic fracturing – ‘fracking’ – has had plenty of bad press, including some hammering in Earth Pages. Now, what seems to be a balanced academic review has appeared on-line in Science magazine (Vidic, R.D. et al. 2013. Impact of shale gas development on regional water quality. Science, v. 340, DOI: 10.1126/science.1235009). The review focuses on hazards to groundwater resources from a variety of environmental effects, primarily gas migration, contaminant transport through induced and natural fractures, wastewater discharge, and accidental spills.

English: Protests against shale gas drilling i...

Protests against shale gas drilling in Bulgaria (credit: Wikipedia)

Much attention has centred on faulty seals put in place to stop gas escaping from drill targets. Yet fewer than 3% of seals are said to have proved problematic, with some finger-pointing at natural gas leakage from the hydrocarbon-rich shales. After all, there are plenty of natural fractures and completely ‘tight’ stratigraphic sequences are rare. in fact toxic effects of natural gas leakage on surface vegetation have been widely used as exploration indicators for conventional petroleum. The review does point out that there are so few pre-drilling studies of natural leakage that this controversy – including widely publicised blazing household water supplies – can not yet be resolved. Obviously more independent monitoring of areas above prospective shales are essential; but who will fund them? The one well-documented before-and-after study, from 48 water wells in Pennsylvania, USA, showed no change, though it seems that monitoring after fracking was short-lived.

The chemically-charged water used to induce the hydrofracturing obviously leaves an unmistakable mark when leaks occur, and there have been cases of considerable environmental release. The fluids are indeed a wicked brew of acids, organic thickeners, biocides, alkalis and inorganic surfactants, to name but a few infredients. To some extent re-use of such fluids, which are costly, ought to mitigate risks. However, once a shale-gas field is fully developed, large volumes of the fracking fluids remain in the subsurface and may leak into shallow groundwater sources. But what pathways do these fluids follow when they are pumped into shales under very high pressure? The review warns of the lesson of toxic fluid leakage from underground coal mines.

The University of Pittsburgh team who compiled the review usefully outline why shale gas is both profitable and feasible. They deal with what methane does in an environmental chemistry sense. It isn’t a solvent, so carries no other materials such as toxic ions, but its interaction with bacteria creates reducing conditions. A now well-known hazard of subsurface reduction is dissolution of iron hydroxide, naturally an important component of many rocks, that can adsorb a great range of dangerous ions at potentially high concentrations, including those involving arsenic. Reductive dissolution lets such ions loose into natural waters, even at shallow depths. Yet methane is emitted by a host of sources other than hydrocarbon-rich shale: landfill; swamps; other bacterial action; conventional petroleum fields both active and abandoned; and even deep water boreholes themselves. A recent study of groundwater geochemistry in relation to fracking in Arkansas, USA (Warner, N.R. et al. 2013. Geochemical and isotopic variations in shallow groundwater in areas of the Fayetteville shale development, north-central Arkansas. Applied Geochemistry, v. 33, doi/10.1016/j.apgeochem.2013.04.013) does address changes in groundwater chemistry, but not for all the ions cited by the WHO as potential hazards.

Whereas the mechanisms involved in vertical and lateral migration of subsurface fluids are well understood there is little knowledge of natural structural features such as deep jointing, fractures and fault fragmentation that control actual migration from area to area. The use of natural seepage as an exploration guide was largely abandoned when many studies showing apparently high-priority targets proved to be far removed from the actual source of the moving fluids. The most easily investigated route for leakage is the actual ‘plumbing’ that fracking uses. This is held together by cement that high pressures can disrupt before it sets, resulting in leaks. A lot depends on ‘due diligence’ deployed by the contractors, whose regulation can leave a lot to be desired. Vidic and colleagues devote most space to the matter of wastewater and deep formation water, yet make little if any case for routine geochemical monitoring of domestic groundwater supplies in shale-gas fields. Much is directed at the industry itself rather than independent surveys.

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One response to “Review of fracking issues

  1. Pingback: Fracking and earthquakes |

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