Fracking, the Water Cycle, and Sacrifice Zones

Normally, I never write on energy topics, even though, as a resident of the Northeast, I heat the house in the winter. That’s because, along with most other Mainers down to the convenience store clerks, I believe the energy markets are totally gamed and rigged, and who wants write about a market like that? Maine also has the oldest housing stock in the nation [ticks box], and the greatest dependence on home heating oil. Back when I heated with oil, I’d run out on the last day or three of the month before the next delivery, and I’d have to take a five-gallon jerry can up to the truck stop, fill it, and pour it down the fill pipe. Oil is nasty! It’s ugly, , and it stinks so badly it gets in your clothes. Clearly, you should never touch it: It’s obvious that any sane society would instantly make it a taboo substance and leave it in the ground, forever. Now I’ve converted to natural gas — as a public utility, they can’t shut me off at the end of the month — but come to think of it, I’m not all that enthusastic about an invisible, odorless, explosive substance, either. They added for a reason…

All of which is to say I have strong priors on hydrocarbons as a substance; and I also have strong priors on the politics of fracking, since I view fracking as akin to landfills in their local impact, especially on watersheds (Our resource curses in Maine are trees, water, wind, and “empty” land. Not hydrocarbons, fortunately.) I admit my priors are stronger than my knowledge, but I will carry on as best I can! I was struck by two recently released studies on fracking and water, and the connections I saw between them:

1) “,” Christopher D. Kassotis et al, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, August 2018

2) “,” Andrew J. Kondash, et al., Science. August 2018

First, for those who came in late, I’ll define fracking, and briefly look at the politics and business of fracking. Then I’ll look at the water cycle and compare it to the fracking cycle. After that, I’ll look at fracking and groundwater. Finally, I’ll look at fracking “,” and conclude.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (PDF). “Frack” from “fracture”:

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources – oil, natural gas and geothermal energy. The hydraulic fracturing process includes the acquisition of source water, well construction, well stimulation, and waste disposal.

Hydraulic fracturing involves the pressurized injection of fluids commonly made up of water and chemical additives into a geologic formation. The pressure exceeds the rock strength and the fluid opens or enlarges fractures in the rock. As the formation is fractured, a “propping agent,” such as sand or ceramic beads, is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing as the pumping pressure is released. The fracturing fluids (water and chemical additives) are then returned back to the surface. Natural gas will flow from pores and fractures in the rock into the well for subsequent extraction.

As you can see, water is involved at every stage of the process, which is why they call it “hydraulic fracking. (, but I’m going to keep this discussion at a high level, not distinguishing between oil and gas fracking, for example, or focusing on technical detail.)

Fracking really got its start under the Bush administration, when then Vice President Dick Cheney, the First of His Name, got it exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, through the Halliburton Loophole. :

Fracking – the extreme oil and gas extraction method that involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals underground at enormous pressures to break apart subterranean rock – has exploded in the last decade…. For this we can thank the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the law that holds the Halliburton Loophole. Named after Dick Cheney and the notorious corporation he led before becoming vice president, the law (championed by Cheney and disgraced Enron founder Kenneth Lay, among others) explicitly exempted fracking operations from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. These exemptions from one of America’s most fundamental environmental protection laws provided the oil and gas industry the immunity it required to develop a highly polluting process on a grand national scale.

describes the Halliburton Loophole:

The ambiguity is typical of water tested near fracking sites. If water quality has worsened, there is seldom a bright line to the fracking. That’s partly because under the Halliburton loophole, companies do not reveal everything they inject underground, so labs do not know all the substances they should test for. And in many cases, homeowners enter into settlements with energy companies that prohibit them from revealing what happened.

(So if you see Christopher D. Kassotis et all. going through what some might regard as methodological contortions, that’s because the Halliburton Loophole makes it impossible to gather the data at the obvious source: The wellhead.) Lest it be thought that fracking is a creature of those mean Republicans, here’s how the fracking industry did under the Obama administration. :

America’s biggest oil boom came under Obama

Believe it or not, Obama has presided over , even if he can’t take direct credit for it all.

The U.S. was pumping just 5.1 million barrels per day when Obama took office in January 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Fast forward to April and the U.S. produced 8.9 million barrels per day. That’s an incredible 74% increase. In fact, in 2015, the U.S. pumped the most oil in 43 years.

The U.S. is now the world’s No. 1 petroleum producer when you count not just crude but also liquified natural gas.

(To his credit[1], through regulation, but the effort was defeated in court, and seems to have died there. Another Obama-era regulation , which Trump reversed.[2])

So the fracking industry was done quite well politically (and, given that one (that is, “I”) can heat one’s home with it, quite well for households, too). But as a business… Well, as Kevin Drum wrote in 2017, ““:

Every year, fracking operations in the United States produce more than a billion barrels of oil and gas. And we’re basically just giving it all away…

That’s right: the whole industry is a huge money sink. If you invested $100 in the S&P 500 a decade ago, you’d have $180 today. If you invested $100 in fracking, you’d have…

$69.

Fracking is bad because it releases methane; bad because it destabilizes fault lines; bad for pumping poisonous dreck into the ground; and of course, bad for climate change. But all along I figured that at least greed could explain why we put up with this. Greed explains a lot of odious human behavior. But what’s the point of frantically digging up all our fossil fuel resources now now now if no one is even making any money from it?

Frankly, I don’t know either; cray cray logic like this is why I never write on energy topics. Yes, Silicon Valley had , but at least Juicero didn’t disrupt your endocrine system. Even didn’t do that.[3]

With fracking defined and politics and the business out of the way, let’s turn to the water cycle. I learned about the water cycle back in grade school, along with civics. Here’s (USGS):

Figure 1: The Water Cycle

You’ll notice that the USGS depicts the cycle as a cycle; specifically, surface water flows into ground water through infiltration, seepage, and from fresh water, but groundwater flows to the surface also through seepage, through springs, and via the ocean. (I’ve helpfully highlighted the groundwater flow in yellow.)

And here is a diagram of “the fracking cycle” :

Figure 2: The Fracking Cycle

You’ll notice that the fracking cycle is not a cycle; it is a linear movement from “water acquistion” to “wastewater disposal,” with no involvement of groundwater whatever. (I’ve helpfully highlighted the presumably ever-pristine groundwater in yellow.)

So, who is right? The USGS or the EPA? Our first study, “,” provides the answer. From the rather dense abstract:

Unconventional oil and natural gas (UOG) operations couple horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing… Hydraulic fracturing, a common form of stimulation, involves the high-pressure injection of water, chemicals, and sand to fracture the target layer and release trapped natural gas and/or oil. Spills and/or discharges of wastewater have been shown to impact surface, ground, and drinking water. The goals of this study were to characterize the endocrine activities and measure select organic contaminants in groundwater from conventional oil and gas (COG) and UOG production regions of Wyoming. Groundwater samples were collected from each region, solid-phase extracted, and assessed for endocrine activities (estrogen, androgen, progesterone, glucocorticoid, and thyroid receptor agonism and antagonism), using reporter gene assays in human endometrial cells. Water samples from UOG and conventional oil areas exhibited greater ER antagonist activities than water samples from conventional gas areas. Samples from UOG [fracking] areas tended to exhibit progesterone receptor antagonism more often, suggesting there may be a UOG-related impact on these endocrine activities. We also report UOG-specific contaminants in Pavillion groundwater extracts, and these same chemicals at high concentrations in a local UOG wastewater sample. A unique suite of contaminants was observed in groundwater from a permitted drinking water well at a COG well pad and not at any UOG sites; high levels of endocrine activities (most notably, maximal estrogenic activity) were noted there, suggesting putative impacts on endocrine bioactivities by COG. As such, we report two levels of evidence for groundwater contamination by both UOG and COG operations in Wyoming.

So, from this study we know what the Halliburton Loophole seeks to prevent us from knowing: (1) Fracking contaminates groundwater and with it, the water cycle, and with (2) endocrine cycle-disrupting chemicals. This is bad. :

“[KASSOTIS:] There are really no other known progesterone antagonists [disruptors] in the environment. The only other is RU 486 – the morning after pill. Traces [of RU 486] might show up in sewage water, but that’s not at high levels and that’s not common.

The summarizes:

Thus, the study’s conclusion: Groundwater from near a fracked field disrupts human cells in ways that adversely affect the critical endocrine hormone messaging system, and to a more serious degree than polluted groundwater near a conventional oil and gas operation.

The fracking industry and local fracking-dependent compradors are, as one might expect, fighting the study tooth and nail, and although I’d welcome reader comment, it looks like a sound, common-sense study to me; the Archives .

From the fact of fracking’s contamination of the water cycle, let’s turn to the amount of water used, and the of the contamination. That’s the subject of our second study, in Science “.” From the abstract:

The process of hydraulic fracturing uses large volumes of water mixed with chemicals and proppant (sand) to fracture and hold open fractures in low-permeability shale and tight oil rocks to allow extraction of hydrocarbons. Despite higher water intensity (the amount of water used to produce a unit of energy; for example, liters per gigajoules) of hydraulic fracturing compared to conventional vertical oil and gas wells, it has been shown that the overall water withdrawal for hydraulic fracturing is negligible compared to other industrial water uses on a national level. On a local scale, however, water use for hydraulic fracturing can cause conflicts over water availability, especially in arid regions such as western United States, where water supplies are limited.

First, “egligible” though “overall water withdrawal” may be, holy moley, look at the growth. summarizes:

[A] new study has found that water usage for hydraulic fracturing has increased nearly ninefold in the semi-arid [Permian Basin region in Texas and New Mexico] over a five-year period…. According to the study, the Permian Basin used 42,500 cubic meters per hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, well in 2016 – the most water of all the regions – and experienced an increase of nearly 800 percent of water usage per fracking well during the study period…. in addition to an increase in water use, the salty groundwater that results from the fracking process – known as flowback and produced water – has increased by up to 1,440 percent…. Flowback and produced water, or FP water, has high levels of salts that include toxic materials and naturally occurring radioactive material, which could threaten ecosystems with spills and is extremely expensive to treat, according to the study…. The study called this increase ‘alarming given the extreme water scarcity in these regions.

The Sciencestudy presents the “local scale” contamination in these regions in map form:

So, as we can see, the “shale plays” in the West are contaminating the water cycle, presumably with endrocrine disruptors, in arid regions where there’s very little water to be had. I don’t see how this makes sense, but — see again Kevin Drum’s remarks on profitability above — . These areas have become sacrifice zones, just like colonized Maine sacrifices its groundwater for “trash from away” in landfills, but for what? Not even, it would seem, . Except, perhaps, ….

NOTES

[1] : “‘If extracted safely,’ Obama said, natural gas is ‘the ‘bridge fuel’ that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”” That “if extracted safely” is doing a lot of work. I’m not sure I buy the “bridge fuel” argument, . But that’s not the subject of this post.

[2] And why not, if fracking is not dangerous, as the controlling factions in both major parties insist?

[3] See also “,” Ashley L. Bolden, et al., March 2018. “Unconventional” meaning fracking.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

68 comments

  1. a different chris

    > But what’s the point of frantically digging up all our fossil fuel resources now now now if no one is even making any money from it?

    Because that’s what they know. We’ve seen the same thing on the laborer end of the scale (auto workers a good example). You can’t easily retrain people in their 40’s and up because they have 20 years of experience – and expectations – that their subconscious just won’t let go of.

    Just because these are rich people, they are in the “oil bidness” and they can’t easily just switch to opening Jimmy John’s. Look back at the electronics industry – when the change from tubes to solid state was made the audio companies didn’t close down, they switched or at least tried to.

    This ties in with my remark that the top tax rate doesn’t mean all that much, the money-oriented people just need to “win” with the biggest relative number. You want to win in your field. “Money” is not the oil guys field. It’s why the Kocgs don’t cash in on distributed solar or wind power.

    Reply
    1. Knute Rife

      It isn’t about the product. It’s about the investment money you can raise and burn through in pursuit of the product. Nothing has changed since Trollope wrote The Way We Live Now.

      Reply
  2. ANON

    What if this were all a relatively short term geopolitical play? The United States subsidizes its fracking industry in order to ensure energy independence for the next two decades. Crises in the Middle East will therefore not affect the United States energy supplies, but will affect other’s (China, Europe, etc). What better time to invade Iran then now? And what better way to seriously disrupt America’s rivals than to manufacture an energy crises America won’t be affected by?

    Reply
    1. HopeLB

      I was just about to conjecture that fracking is actually a cover for the clearing of tunnels for our subterranean, alien, overlords and who are directing the climate change (the geoengineering /methanation) of our planet for their future colonization, but your postulate seems a little more reasonable.

      Reply
    2. steven

      I very definitely think you are on to something. Take a look at Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival. Having pissed away the nation’s wealth in their drive for “full spectrum dominance” (a necessary condition in their minds or in those of the world’s international banker, for retaining the “exorbitant privilege” of reserve currency creation?) anything that buys another decade or two of the right to continue hanging financial paper around the world must seem like a bargain to the US ruling class. After all, long term planning isn’t Wall Street’s forte.

      That’s the real message to the Russians, Chinese and the rest of the world: “We know we are doomed and going down if our people ever find out what we have done to their future. If you don’t help us keep the lid on by capitulating, continuing to turn your national wealth over to us in exchange for ever more debt, we will take you and the planet down with us.”

      Reply
  3. RBHoughton

    Very helpful and persuasive report. Thank you

    My suspicion is that fracking absorbs some of the excess money created to obscure the effects of 2008 and is therefore tolerated, perhaps endured, by the moneymen. That’s the only reason I can imagine for sinking so much credit into the frackers when the end product is not in demand and cannot be sold at a profit.

    Is this the sort of commerce the controllers of the US economy have to promote to keep themselves on top of the game. How long can they keep printing and losing?

    Reply
    1. jsn

      Yes, one would be hard pressed to find a better chart of US mal-investment than the water stress map Lambert included.

      There are lots of resources mal-investment can waste, but the genius of fracking is its profligacy with what is absolutely most essential: water, 60% of your body.

      It’s not just “printing and losing”, it is in fact very materially poisoning the well of human life. No doubt, given time, Gaia will find a use for benzene and the other crap used in fracking, but it will not be useful for life as we know it.

      Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    I’ve always assumed that fracking was simply a Wall Street scam. That is, go in and develop the fracking wells which initially did well, then cash out and leave the suckers holding an ever depleting bag. But as ANON has pointed out, there is now a strategic element at play. Fracking consumes itself rapidly so right now America is operating in a window of oil sur. Those in the know are using this window to re-establish dominance over other countries as America’s oil supply is secured at the moment.
    This partially explains the attacks on oil sur countries like Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Crush them now so that when the fracking depletes itself, the broken countries of Iran, Russia and Venezuela will be supplying all the oil needed – on the west’s terms. After all, I believe that the world’s largest institutional oil consumer is actually the Pentagon.
    The fact that America’s water basins will be chemically polluted will be unfortunate but people in power will have the money to access fresh, clean water supplies. Besides, wasn’t it a Nestlé’s CEO that stated that water is not a human right but must be a foodstuff with a market value?

    Reply
  5. redleg

    Licensed geologist here. You don’t need to know what’s in the fracking fluid because what comes out as a result of well development is, by itself, contaminated enough (with salt, hydrocarbons, etc.) to require treatment before discharging back into the wild, if it can be treated at all.
    The fracking fluid is not the problem, the formation fluids that are released are the major problem. The fracking fluids are a related problem, but not necessary when determining whether or not treatment is necessary.
    I’m repeating myself out of frustration.

    Reply
          1. Scylla

            Late to the party again.
            I keep seeing it stated that fracking components are secret and unavailable. This is untrue. What is secret are the amounts of each component, and which particular components are in a particular frac job. Below is a list that I copied from a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection PDF that was published in 2010 a few years back. I cannot recall where I picked it up, but I can email it to you if you wish. Keep in mind that most of these items are used in very small amounts. The benzene that comes back out with the produced fluid is worse than anything injected. Out west, they evaporate alot of the produced fluid using sprinklers (don’t want to be downwind from that, I’m sure). Anyway- here you go:

            Chemicals Used in the Hydraulic Fracturing Process in Pennsylvania
            Prepared by the Department of Environmental Protection
            Bureau of Oil and Gas Management
            Compiled from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) obtained from Industry
            Chemical Product Name
            2,2-Dibromo-3-Nitrilopropionamide Bio Clear 1000/Bio Clear 2000/ Bio-Clear 200/
            BioRid20L/ EC6116A
            2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one X-Cide 207
            5-chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one X-Cide 207
            Acetic Acid Fe-1A Acidizing Composition/ Packer Inhibitor
            Acetic Anhydride Fe-1A Acidizing Composition
            Acetylene GT&S Inc./ Airco
            Alcohol Ethoxylated C12-16 NE-200
            Alkyl benzene sulfonic acid Tetrolite AW0007/ FR-46
            Ammonia (aqueous) FAW-5
            Ammonium Bifluoride ABF 37%
            Ammonium Persulfate AP Break
            Ammonium Bisulfite Techni-Hib 604/ Fe OXCLEAR/ Packer Inhibitor
            Ammonium chloride Salt Inhibitor
            Ammonium Salt (alkylpolyether sulfate) Tetrolite AW0007
            Amorphous silica TerraProp Plus/ Bituminous Coal Fly Ash ASTM
            C618
            Benzoic Acid Benzoic Acid
            Boric Acid BC-140/ Unilink 8.5
            Boric Oxide XLW-32
            Calcium Chloride Dowflake
            Calcium Oxide Bituminous Coal Fly Ash ASTM C618
            carboxymethylhydroxypropyl guar blend Unigel CMPHG
            Choline Chloride Clay Treat-2C
            Cinnamaldehyde ENVIROHIB 2001
            Citric Acid Ferrotrol 300L/ IC-100L
            Complex polyamine salt Clay Master-5C
            Crystalline Silica: Cristobalite
            Crystalline Silica: Quartz Silica Sand/ / Atlas PRC/ Best Sand/ Bituminous
            Coal Fly Ash ASTM C618
            Cupric chloride dihydrate Ferrotrol 280L
            Cured resin LiteProp 125
            Cyclohexanes CS-2
            Dazomet ICI-3240
            Diethylene Glycol Scaletrol 720/ Scaletrol 7208
            d-Limonene MA-844W
            1
            Enzyme GBL-8X
            EO-C7-9-iso-, C8 rich-alcohols NE-940/ NE-90
            EO-C9-11-iso-, C10-rich alcohols NE-940/ NE-90
            Ethoxylated Alcohol FRW-14/ SAS-2/ Flomax 50/ WFR-3B
            Ethyl Acetate Castle Thrust
            Ethyl Alcohol FAW-5/ Castle Shop Solv/ Dallas Morris
            Ethylbenzene NDL-100/ PARANOX/ Uniflo II
            Ethylene Glycol ENVIROHIB 2001/ ICA-2/ LEB 10X/ Scaletrol
            720/ Sceletrol 7208/ CC 300/ Clachek A/ Clachek
            LP/ Ironsta II B/ NCL-100/ BC 140/ NCL-
            100/ Flomax 50/ NCL/ Scalehib 100/ Unihib O/
            Unilink 8.5
            Formic Acid ENVIROHIB 2001
            Gluconic Acid Interstate ICA-2
            Glutaraldehyde Alpha 114/Alpha 125/ ICI-150
            Glycerol Bio Sealers
            Glycol Ethers ENVIROHIB 2001/AMPHOAM 75/ PARANOX/
            Uniflo II/ Unifoam/ WNE-342LN
            Guar Gum PROGUM 19 GUAR PRODUCT/ Unigel 19XL/
            Benchmark Polymer 3400/ WGA-15/ Unigel 5F
            Hydrochloric Acid Hydrochloric Acid (HCL)/ TETRAClean 542/
            Muriatic Acid
            Hydrochloric Acid 3% – 35% Hydrochloric Acid 3% – 35%
            Isopropanol AFS 30 Blend/ FAC-1W/ FAC-3W/ MA-844W/ NE-
            23/ NE-940/ Flomax 50/ Tetrolite AW0007/
            FMW25 Foamer/ CS-2
            Isopropyl Alcohol NFS-102/ WFT-9511/ LT-32/ AR-1/ Flomax 50/
            NDL-100/ Unibac/ Uniflo II/ Uniflo/ Unihib O/
            WNE-342LN
            Methanol
            AFS 30 Blend/ NE-200/ Activator Superset-W/ CI-
            14/ FAW-5/ GasFlo/ Inflo-250W/ LT-32/ NE-940/
            XLW-32/ Tetrolite AW0007/ FMW25 Foamer/ 40
            HTL Corrosion Inhibitor/ NE 100/ HAI-OS Acid
            Inhibitor/ Unibac/ NE-90/ Packer Inhibitor
            Methyl Alcohol Clearbreak 400/ Super Surf/ Castle Shop Solv
            Methyl Salicylate Bio Sealers
            n-butanol AirFoam 311
            Nitrilotriacetamide Salt Inhibitor
            Phenolic Resin Atlas PRC
            Polyethylene Glycol NE-940/ EC6116A/ NE-90
            Polyethylene Glycol Mixture Bio Clear 2000/ Bio-Clear 200
            Polyoxylalkylene sulfate FMW25 Foamer
            Polysaccharide Blend GW-3LDF
            2
            Potassium Carbonate BF-7L
            Potassium Chloride Dowflake
            Potassium Hydroxide B-9, pH Increase Buffer/ BXL-2
            Propargyl Alcohol CI-14/ HAI-OS Acid Inhibitor
            Propylene Glycol SAS-2/ WFR-3B
            Silica S-8C, Sand, 100 mesh/ Montmorillnonite clay
            Sodium Bicarbonate K-34
            Sodium Bromide BioRid 20L
            Sodium Hydroxide Caustic Soda/ ICI-3240/ BioRid B-71
            Sodium Persulphate High Perm SW-LB
            Sodium Xylene Sulfonate FAC-2/ FAC-3W
            Sulfuric Acid Sulfuric Acid
            Surfactants AFS-30/ GasFlo/ Inflo-250W
            Talc Adomite Aqua
            Tetrakis(hydroxymethyl)phosphonium
            sulfate Magnacide 575 Microbiocide
            Tetramethyl ammonium Chloride Clay Treat-3C
            Trimethyloctadecylammonium chloride FAC-1W/ FAC-3W
            6/10/2010

            Reply
  6. Edward

    Even if you don’t live in an area where fracking is taking place the chemicals might still end up in your food. The agricultural state of California allows fracking, I believe. Such food probably needs a warning label. We are being used as guinea pigs at best.

    Reply
    1. JBird

      Oh yeah, we do have fracking here in environmentally aware California. It’s not as if my home state isn’t the major grower of vegetables and in a drought ⅓ of the time. Let’s just destroy what’s left of our groundwater.

      Reply
      1. Edward

        The Democratic party seems to have decided years ago to support fracking 100%. Obama sounded like a PR flack when speaking about fracking.

        Reply
    2. redleg

      The biggest impacts in California are fresh water use, wastewater disposal/treatment, and the hydrocarbons produced, not the fracking chemicals.
      And that’s not getting into the impact of $$$ on politics which then impacts everything.

      Reply
      1. Edward

        I don’t think we know how large the fracking impacts will be. The details of the process are hidden from the public. If everything is so safe why doesn’t the industry just reveal everything? Instead we just have a lot of corporate happy talk, as we did for glyophosphate…. We are being used for experimentation. In the years to come studies such as those above will give a clearer picture of what is happening.

        Reply
        1. redleg

          That’s why the focus must be on the low hanging fruit of water use, wastewater treatment up to drinking water standards, because a clear case can be made against fracking using those factors alone. No other evidence is needed.

          Knowing the ingredients of the fracking fluid is not necessary at all to make a decisive case against fracking in nearly all cases (Marcellus shale an exception, in my professional opinion), and those plays that can successfully address these two issues will address fracking/well development effluent pollution with the same general processes.
          Thing is, desalination is too expensive to make any of these projects economically viable to bring the effluent to drinking water standards. So making that the standard effectively kills the fracking industry.

          Reply
            1. jsn

              Right! Redleg may well be right we don’t need to know what’s in the fracking fluid to know the waste water needs to be treated.

              But we certainly don’t know how or how much the waste water needs to be treated without knowing what chemicals are being used.

              For all we know the chemicals being used don’t even show up in the normal tests for drinking water purity: we have no idea what they are.

              Reply
          1. Edward

            If your strategy will get fracking banned that is fine with me. I was simply making the point that without knowing the details of the fracking process we cannot be sure of its impact. I did not make a claim in my comment about the best political strategy to use against fracking.

            I do think that part of the controversy about fracking has to do with the government-permitted lack of transparency. This is important not just for the fracking issue but for the more general question of how the government permits industrial activity. In theory the government is supposed to ensure that public health is protected against industrial activity; a new technology needs to demonstrate its safety before it is allowed. However, the Obama administration did the opposite; it prevented the public from evaluating the danger of fracking.

            I feel like this whole sorry affair has turned the country into Flint, Michigan. The Obama administration has no good excuse for what it did.

            Reply
            1. blennylips

              we can not be sure of its an impact

              fixed it fer ya.

              Humans somehow think that if they can measure it, they can control it.

              Reply
  7. PlutoniumKun

    I’m a little curious about the study as reading between the lines it seems they knew what they were looking for, but are quite coy about what chemicals may be involved. I’ve been looking at fracking for years, this is the first time I’ve seen the issue of oestrogen disrupters highlighted to this extent. Of course, there are many common chemicals out there which can do this, so I’m not surprised to find some are in fracking fluid or in formation fluid.

    As for the issue of finance, the world is full of industries which are giant black holes – NC readers know all about Tesla, Uber, etc. Fracking is very similar – a lot of people are making lots of money out of it, and at one end there are some very big suckers, basically hoping they get lucky (i.e. energy prices spike back again to $100+ a barrel). The exploration companies make huge money, the production companies tick over, its the distant investors who lose out. Ultimately, its all down to hope value and too much loose money sloshing around the system. Lets not forget too that the Saudi’s tried very hard to destroy the frack industry – they failed, but they certainly did it a lot of damage by forcing the price of oil down for so long.

    My one fear is that someone somewhere decides that the only way to bail out those investors is to force oil up again, and the only sure way to do that is start a war in the Gulf.

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      Muy uninformed guess is that you check for endocrine disruptors for two main reasons:
      1) the endocrine system is very sensitive. Hormones work at low concentrations while exerting complex and important physiological responses (easily detectable through genetic markers).
      2) You can expect endocrine disruption when water samples are rich in a variety of organic compounds. And you can expect that fracking will dissolve those organic compounds –helped with salts and high pressures– from oil and gas reservoirs (remember the organic nature of oil and oil liquids). You could also expect a different array of endocrine disruptors depending on differences in oil compositions in different basins.

      I think that it can be argued that during the normal water cycle, solubilization of organic and inorganic materials (and radioactive) present underground is quite different compared with the process of fracking in which water contains additives (some by themselves toxic), it is pressurized provoking fractures, and is injected in basins with high contents of organic materials (fossilized but organic).

      I would also argue that endocrine disruption analyses are just “early” markers of damage but miss other important effects that do not require high concentrations of toxic agents but occur through long term exposure and accumulation of toxic but not very abundant substances.

      Lambert, thank you very much for this informative and provoking post!!!

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thats a well informed guess. You are quite right that the issue of chemical changes that occur during the process significantly complicates predictions.

        Incidentally, the paper mentions that many of the samples come from one part of Wyoming which is well known for an early paper indicating serious water contamination issues – but the study indicated a closer correlation with settlement ponds than the fracking wells. The settlement ponds are yet another complicating factor in predicting contamination.

        Reply
    2. redleg

      Release of endocrine disruptors, hormones, etc.by oil/has production is a small fraction of what gets released by every municipal wastewater treatment system and individual septic system. Released in the treated water. There is not an efficient process (in terms of cost or engineering) to remove these chemicals from sewage. Most of these chemicals are from scents and perfumes that are completely unnecessary and are easily removed in the manufacturing stage of consumer products.

      Blaming this on fracking is a red herring or perhaps the author doesn’t understand the problem from other sources.

      Reply
      1. Anon

        ‘Release of endocrine disruptors, hormones, etc.by oil/has production is a small fraction of what gets released by every municipal wastewater treatment system and individual septic system.’

        The difference between “frackers” and municipal wastewater treatment is that municipalities seriously work to cleanse the water that they return to the environment. It’s mandated by the EPA (although standards could be tightened). The “small fraction” released vis a vis municipal waste is a matter of scale. Gallon per gallon, wastewater is cleaner than fracking effluent, by far.

        Human waste treatment is essential to a densely populated world, fracking effluent is not.

        Reply
        1. Oregoncharles

          However, adding poisonous/endocrine disrupting scents to consumer products is NOT essential. Out on a trail, you can smell people coming from a long distance – not their sweat, their laundry products. We’ve avoided scented products, other than some natural, floral ones, for a long time simply because they’re unpleasant; interesting that they’re also environmentally destructive.

          Unscented versions are usually available.

          Reply
        2. redleg

          There are no EPA standards for endocrine disruptor, hormone, or medication/drug chemicals in wastewater effluent. None.
          Adding to that is existing treatment systems do not remove these chemicals. There are multiple studies out there that investigate gender disproportions in and fertility of fish and amphibians downstream of municipal wastewater treatment plants. This is the result of scents and hormone drugs/birth control use.
          Use of scents/pheromones in consumer products should be banned altogether, as this the cheapest and by far most effective way to mitigate environmental damage caused by these things.

          Reply
          1. jsn

            Right, and there should be standards for endocrine disruptors, hormones, medications and drug chemicals in waste water: as you go on to point out we are currently poisoning the environment with them.

            Reply
      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        It is true that I didn’t address “whataboutism” issues with respect to other sources of endocrine disruptors in groundwater due to fracking. This particular issue interested me because many years ago, when a poster at my old blog did a series on the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania, consensus was (as in the EPA diagram) that groundwater would not be affected at all. This, unsurprisingly, turned out to be false.

        Perhaps in later posts I’ll address the issue of fracking’s groundwater contamination in these arid areas; my guess would be that perfumes do not rate very high.

        Reply
        1. redleg

          ..from fracking. I would omit endocrine disruptors from the fracking conversation because oil/gas is not the primary source of this kind of pollution, and therefore enables the haliburtons & slumbergers of the world to muddy the waters. Don’t give them any straws to grasp at.

          Reply
        2. PlutoniumKun

          The assumption that risks to aquifers was quite minor from fracking was, on the face of it, quite reasonable. A typical aquifer may be tens or hundreds of metres below ground level. A typical frack level is 5,000 metres or more at depth. An aquifer would be considered far more at risk of anything happening at the surface than happening a couple of miles below it.

          However, life (and geology) frequently turns out to be more complicated that this. Having said that, the evidence I’ve seen is that groundwater contamination is more likely to be occurring from surface level operations (such as settlement ponds), or possibly poor well casing than the actual injection of frack fluid. But contaminated water is contaminated water, whatever the source.

          Reply
  8. Ignacio

    So why on earth fracking has exploded even when there is not margin for profit?

    The answer is cash-flow + Fed-provided liquidity.

    Reply
  9. Edward

    If Al Qaeda had put these chemicals in our water supply you would never hear the end of it but when businessmen do it all is well. Honestly, Al Qaeda has the wrong approach. They should have masqueraded as businessmen and bribed politicians in Washington to adopt harmful policies.

    Reply
    1. kiers

      +1; IF a developing country or even 2nd world country tried to sell mud crap oil to the US there would be unlimited racial humiliation and mocking played out by both liberals and conservatives in the US, but Alberta does it and the Koch brother elite line up to refine it with pleasure! Tell me about it…….

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Isn’t the Orinoco Tar Sands tar of Venezuela the same sort of mud crap oil you are writing about being accepted from Canada but rejected from elsewhere? If a regime friendly to the DC FedRegime were to install itself in Venezuela, would the US oil industry object to buying Orinoco tar?

        Reply
    2. johnnygl

      ” They should have masqueraded as businessmen and bribed politicians in Washington to adopt harmful policies. ” — i believe they are called saudi princes.

      Reply
  10. kiers

    Interesting: I ran the numbers:
    EACH WELL in the Permian (high water use basin) uses the water equivalent of water that 300 city slickers consume per year

    Reply
    1. redleg

      And results in roughly the same volume in saline effluent, which is harder to treat than typical sewage.
      Including the back end of the equation make the problem worse.

      Reply
  11. Wukchumni

    The Romans salted the topsoil of Carthage in vengeful anger, while we assaulted its’ bowels in wishful profit in the very short term, while rendering it useless long term.

    What kind of animals are we that despoil this good earth for future generations?

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Modern Industrial Civilization animals. And specifically the ones who make and enforce these decisions to use these technologies.

      Reply
  12. akaPaul LaFargue

    Another aspect of fracking is the issue of sand. A new book on that “resource” tells the story in part, but the author doesn’t mention fracking’s use of the “best” sand – like that found in western WI. Mining the sand there is a major extractive industry w/all the consequences we have come to expect.

    Here’s a review of the book on sand –

    And here, a BBC doc. on the subject:

    Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      I saw a film about sand – probably that documentary – more than a year ago. It’s quite a shock, thinking of SAND as a scarce, disappearing resource.

      Reply
    2. redleg

      The sand is the least offensive part of fracking. The same sand can be (& is) used to make glass to replace plastics derived from petroleum.

      Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          The volumes involved are actually quite staggering. Plus, its usually different sand – quartz sand rather than the usual silicon sand you get in a gravel pit – which means much more transport issues (i.e. you rarely get a happy coincidence of quartz sand deposits and gas shale deposits). Its not a minor environmental aspect at all.

          Reply
      1. Rod

        Pacolet-Edisto-Tyger-Yadkin
        All rivers in NC/SC I’ve paddled within the past two years with new or expanded multiple sand dredging operations set up.
        A disquieting observation in States w weak environmental oversight( not laws)

        Reply
  13. Carey

    Thanks very much for this very informative post- I think; it’s so damn depressing.
    A country with such vast resources, squandered, and the citizenry immiserated.

    I’ll leave this link again:

    Reply
  14. telee

    Anthony Ingraffea gives a short talk entitled ” Shale Gas: The Technological Gamble That Should Not Have Been Taken,” in which he poses that the fracking boom has placed the world’s population in grave risk for the supposed benefit of a few. At a crucial time gas gas extraction has suppressed the growing use of renewable energy which has lead to the elongation of the fossil fuel era. The result is exacerbation of climate change.

    In this lecture Dr. Ingraffea shows that data from industry sources estimate that 30% or more of all gas/oil wells are leaking because of faulty cement/casing. So these wells are continuesly leaking significant amounts of methane, a potent green housee gas into the atmosphere in addition to ground water contamination. This is in contradiction to industry public statements repeated by main stream news sources.

    We are way behind the eight ball when it comes to climate change.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      The assumption that natural gas could be a relatively benign ‘transition’ fuel to a renewable/nuclear economy might well turn out to be one of the worst mistakes made in human development history. And maybe the last.

      Reply
  15. Farmer

    The continuous flow of unprofitable investment into the fracking industry for well over a decade is perhaps the most under-investigated issue of our time.
    I do appreciate the many speculations as to what is behind this phenomenon from those commenting on this thread.
    I sure do wish that some investigative team of reporters would dig a little deeper into the weeds though, and not just stop at speculation.
    I’m sure that the results would be very revealing.

    Reply
      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        The local suppliers and contractors are making money; permitting takes place at that level… The executives are making money, perhaps that’s enough; IIRC, the airline industry over its entire lifetime, is net negative. Perhaps national security concerns grease the skids for everything else. Plus there’s a great deal of stupid money sloshing about.

        Reply
        1. Farmer

          I guess that my question is whether or not the investors are making any money.
          I have been assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that they are not.

          I know that plenty of companies that lose money annually can still make their investors money (such as Tesla,). But in that case, Tesla is investing tons into R&D for new product lines, tons of money into infrastructure with a long potential payback into rapidly evolving and disruptive markets (EV’s and Energy Storage). So there seems to be a modicum of rationale available to an investor for the fact that Tesla is unprofitable now. Some investors seem to be willing to take the risk for a potentially lucrative future.

          For fracking companies, on the other hand, they drill a well which costs so much, which will only produce so much gas or oil, which will likely sell for so much. Gas and oil prices may go up or down, but it’s not a potentially disruptive market. And the frackers have not spent the last 10+ years developing infrastructure on the level of a company such as Tesla – infrastructure that might ease an investor’s worries over the consistently bad balance sheets. The infrastructure they have been building simply turns into depleted wells.

          So if the fracking companies have been making their investors money, that’s one thing. But if their investors have been losing money consistently for so many years, that begs another question.

          Reply
        2. johnnygl

          Please don’t forget the fees for the underwriters placing those syndicated leveraged loans…and the CLO’s that buy them.

          It starts to get very sub-primey….which is only natural, since the same financial ecosystem is still there, more or less intact.

          Reply
    1. drumlin woochuckles

      Such a team of investigative reporters would have to be paid to do that work. They wouldn’t be able to afford to do it for free in this No Money = You Die society.

      Reply
  16. Anon

    Has anyone done any studies on worker health? My brother spent two years working in the Bakke and 6 months later was dead from a brain tumor. About half of the men I know personally who worked in the Bakken either have cancer or are already dead. Granted, it could just be a strange coincidence (or related to the fact that they were all farmers who handled ag chemicals for decades), but articles like this make me wonder…..

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      To my knowledge, there have been no systematic studies, but lots of minor ‘single topic’ ones. A family member of mine is also a cancer sufferer after a lifetime spent on off-shore rigs, but its unlikely there is a particular connection in his case. I think there has been a general assumption that oil and gas workers are at some hazard, but not particularly more than, for example, general construction workers. In my experience its not just the industry that doesn’t want to look too closely at this issue, its the workers and their unions who also tend to brush off issues. There is a very macho attitude in the industry, nobody wants to ask too many questions.

      Having said that, there are particular issues with identifying cancers in industries like oil and gas, as the workers tend to have quite unique lifestyles (lots of travel, living in compounds eating steak and egg three times a day), etc., which can confound population level studies. Worker groups like this often have elevated cancer levels which aren’t always due to the chemicals they are exposed to at work.

      Reply
  17. Scott1

    Civilization is dependent on excess energy. Energy resources that are in multiple forms are not as desirable as the standardized way of oil and gas put in tanks of various sizes and types.
    Solar is the best competitor. Sun shines everywhere. Energy storage in the form of batteries lusts for the perfect which has become the enemy of the good.
    99 percent of car batteries are recycled.
    It does seem that the defeat of Carter & the Reagan destruction of Solar on the White House meant the defeat of man and civilization on every front as three billon more people burning things up means things get hotter.
    What was predicted for 9 billion is happening at 7 billion and what was predicted for 9 billion is what was predicted for 13 billion is how it looks to me.
    Methane was never figured in as dramatically as it has turned out to be.
    Holding onto fossil fuel systems for another 50 years when the transition from them to solar systems and whatever damned batteries would do has led to energy crisis for Western Civilization.
    Biofuels useful for aircraft fuels because you need those BTUs, compete with land for food.
    One party rule leads to famine. Fossil fuels now mean poisoned water. Poisoned water, more population, poisoned food.
    If the food will even grow.
    Jared Diamond in “Collapse” in reference to Haiti as compared to the DR, “To destroy your nation cut down all the trees and destroy the water.”
    “Head South young man, head South.” Look at Uruguay.

    Reply

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