Section 4, Part One: Chemical questions

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At 444 pages, the North Carolina Oil and Gas Study is an extensive document. During the month of April, Laura White will be tackling this entire document, conducting interviews with experts and breaking it down section by section so you can be as informed as possible.

The Record’s goal here is not to tell you what to think about fracking, but to arm you with the information you need to make an informed decision.

Check in a few times a week, and watch for #NCFrackFocus on Twitter for daily updates as we work our way through what you need to know. Have a specific question you want us to address? Email or Tweet @lewhite.

Section four begins to address some of the most controversial aspects of hydraulic fracturing — the potential environmental and health impacts. It’s no coincidence that this is also one of the longest sections in the entire document, starting at page 91 and ending 98 pages later on 189.

This section dives into fracking fluid contaminants, potential groundwater impacts, waste, surface and stormwater complications, air quality impacts, potential influences on wildlife, potential increases in seismic activity, and disposal of industry wastes.

Many of these topics have been briefly addressed in other sections, but this is where they really break down the possible detrimental side effects of things that have only been grazed over before.

Since this section is so long, I’m going to mostly discuss the question of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and what those mean for the environment. But if there’s something that really catches your eye, or something that you’d like to know more about, make sure you take a peek at the full section in the study. It’s well worth your time. Or drop me a line and I will do my best to explain it.

One of the possible side effects of fracking in North Carolina that remains in the forefront for environmental and community groups alike is the potential for air and water contamination. And rightly so, seeing the complications it has caused in any number of other states where fracking is practiced.

So, fracturing is a process in which a slurry of water and other components is injected into wells drilled into the earth in order to further fracture already present fissures in shale beds. This fracturing then releases the natural gas that is trapped in that source rock. But what exactly are these other components, and how do they affect our air, water and ecosystems?

There are a variety of fracturing fluids that can be used, but the two most common practices are slickwater fracturing and nitrogen foam fracturing. Nitrogen foam fracturing uses nitrogen gas and less water than slickwater, and is typically used less, and more often than not for tight gas formations rather than shale or deep natural gas formations. Therefore DENR assumed, for the purposes of their report, that slickwater fracturing would be the method used in NC. So that’s what I’ll focus on as well.

Slickwater fracturing is known as such because it reduces friction, thus reducing the amount of pressure needed to pump the fluid. While it is primarily water, about 98 to 99.5 percent, chemical additives make up the rest of that percentage.

There are dozens to hundreds of chemicals that could potentially be used, but only a few that are used regularly, according to FracFocus, a voluntary chemical disclosure registry that functions as a joint project of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

The list of these additives can be found in this table, along with their use in the process.

Between three and 12 of these additives are used in typical fracture treatments, and in a “small” percentage. Keep in mind that, regardless of the percent of a chemical used, we’re still talking about millions of gallons of water here, which means this “small” percentage is proportionate.

This chart, also from FracFocus, is a possible representation of the breakdown of fracking fluid.

This particular mixture was used in the Fayetteville Shale well in Arkansas — a state where there have been several reported incidents of suspected water contamination due to fracking.

Check out this page from the Natural Resources Defense Council site for more information about those contaminations, as well as other instances in other states.

And while there are regulations regarding the chemicals in this fracking fluid under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, it appears there are also all sorts of exceptions that are industry-specific. At the federal level, for example, hydraulic fracturing is completely exempt from the underground injection control program requirements outlined in the SDWA. Imagine that.

And according to the DENR report, the Committee on Energy and Commerce found that “between 2005 and 2009, the companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or trade secret.”

So we don’t even know what all is going into the ground in the first place.

That’s it for today. Stay tuned Wednesday to learn about the role diesel fuel could play in the fracking process.

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