The Science of Fracking

By Chris Mooney | December 2, 2010 8:06 am

no-frack-smallI recently noted that the state of New York has imposed a moratorium–likely a costly one–on the procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to remove shale oil embedded deep beneath the planet’s surface. The chief concern seems to be that this technique can contribute to the contamination of groundwater supplies.

Having not looked into the matter much, the complaint seems reasonable; but knowing how issues like this one play out, I’m sure there’s a high level of uncertainty about precisely what the effects of fracking are. And indeed, it’s a matter of study at the EPA right now.

Meanwhile, right wingers are hurling the phrase “junk science” to attack the fracking moratorium (see this comments thread). But of course, being cautious in the face of uncertainty is hardly junk science. Unless “junk science” is code for “reasonableness,” which is often the impression I’m left with.

In any case, I’m interested in comments–is fracking going to be the next great environmental science controversy? Certainly there is a lot at stake, with shale oil expected to comprise a growing percentage of domestic gas supplies.

And also….does the name come from Battlestar?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Environment
MORE ABOUT: fracking

Comments (30)

  1. David Waldock

    I think a linguistic collision is unfortunate, since not many people are going to want a ban on fracking 😉

  2. Brian Utterback

    The name definitely does not come from Battlestar Galactica. I just found a reference to fracking dating prior to the original Battlestar Galactica, let alone the reboot.

  3. Walker

    This is a big fight where I live. In the poor areas of Central NY, you see signs for “responsible gas drilling” and “pass gas” (in reference to legislation to enable fracking). These people want the money.

    However, cross into Tompkins County, where Cornell is, and you see no-fracking signs everywhere.

  4. JJ

    I live in NY and this debate has been ongoing for quite some time. Studies have been redundantly produced on the proposed site near Rochester, yet the state legislature keeps dragging their feet and pushing for more studies… Fracking is done in many other regions of the US, with few negative consequences overall. The majority of fracking concerns are above ground because leaking fluids can seep below ground into the water table. However, 99% of fracking fluid is composed of water and sand. In fact, there’s likely more dangerous chemicals under your sink than there are in fracking fluid (and research is always being conducted on using the safest chemicals available – no drilling company wants to intentionally sicken people and face negative PR and legal/financial repercussions) .

    The actual drilling occurs well below the water table (several hundreds or thousands of feet) , therefore the risk of fluids seeping up through bedrock is virtually nil. The EPA approved fracking back in 2004 and have since gone back and re-evaluated the practice with no significant new concerns. As long drillers are careful in ensuring no leaks occur above the surface or along the drilling pipe, it’s a safe practice. Most current fracking operations go on without a hitch, even though it’s a fairly new practice.

    It’s also worth noting that currently the US is sitting upon 3 Saudi Arabia’s worth of oil in natural gas – the most abundant source of natural gas in the world thus far. It’s potentially the way of the future in energy independence and a cleaner, greener source of fuel.

  5. TomInAK

    “I’m interested in comments–is fracking going to be the next great environmental science controversy”

    It seems a fair bet, given that the controversy could be used to stymie the development of affordable, domestically-produced energy.

  6. kirk

    The fracking of the Marcellus shale is for “shale bed methane”. Natural gas not oil. The fracking is already under way in Dallas/Fort Worth in the Barnett shale. These are unbelievably huge natural gas deposits. Pump jacks are coming soon to a shale bed near you. You can choose coal instead but that is not doing it right.

  7. Ryan

    This is what fracking does:

    If you like natural gas in your water, go for it!!

  8. Bore casements need better specification and regulation re Macondo in the Gulf of Mexico. Fracking is naive for not volunteering exhausted shale beds for deep CO2 sequestration. Enviro-whiners would then have their heads shoved so far up their distal sphincters that they could look out their own mouths.

    Rotate the symbol by 45 degrees. The bar is viewing a right-handed man drawing a sword.

  9. vel

    it’ll be the next controversy and the next thing for NIMBYs to complain about, all the while they are using hydrocarbons in their vehicles, homes and businesses and sending someone else’s kid off to war to get them more.

    If we insist on using hydrocarbons, I’d rather this than taking the tops off mountains and still contanimating the water.

  10. egbooth

    JJ says:

    “However, 99% of fracking fluid is composed of water and sand. In fact, there’s likely more dangerous chemicals under your sink than there are in fracking fluid (and research is always being conducted on using the safest chemicals available – no drilling company wants to intentionally sicken people and face negative PR and legal/financial repercussions) .”

    Hmm…sounds familiar? This logic sounds vaguely familiar. Oh, yeah! CO2 is less than 1% of the atmosphere so it also must not be a problem.

    But seriously, a 1% benzene or diesel fuel solution is not something I would like in my groundwater supply.

    And the other point that this is happening deep underground and “the risk of fluids seeping up through bedrock is virtually nil”. Are you kidding me? Did we NOT just learn a lesson in the Gulf this past year that playing with contaminated fluids hundreds of feet below ground carries a risk greater than “nil”? Sealing up the casing of a deep borehole is not easy.

    Yes, I’m sure that a responsible energy company could be diligent and largely prevent a groundwater quality issue but when was the last time you heard from a responsible energy company?

    And still, to my knowledge, the hydraulic fracturing chemicals are still dubbed “proprietary” and do not require disclosure to regulators. Talk about a Tragedy of the Commons issue.

  11. Nullius in Verba


    I’ve heard they’ve been adding Fluoride to the drinking water…


  12. Matt B.

    Here in Colorado, fracking is also an issue, since people in one area were able to set fire to their tap water. My former representative Diana DeGette has taken up the issue in Congress. (“Former” in the sense that I moved out of her district; she’s still there.)

  13. JJ

    @#11 By your logic, if we incur a plane crash, we might as well ban flying….

    Everything incurs risks and accidents happen, it’s all par for the course. Overall, the practice is safe when done correctly and responsibly. People are blowing the issue out of proportion like the spill in the Gulf – only the third major spill in US history over the last 50 years (and currently no significant long term consequences have been reported – sea food supply has been clean). Same goes for those against nuclear power – only 2 major incidents since the 50s with no deaths or significant associated ailments. Nobody wants a catastrophe on their hands and that’s why the process has been subject to numerous studies and analysis. Energy companies are not the “evil” entities you seem to have in mind.

    I also favor having the regulation loophole closed for full disclosure of chemicals. However, most energy companies are responsible, otherwise you’d be hearing of pollution and such every day since these modern activities have been conducted daily for decades.

  14. Alice Popejoy

    I don’t know much about fracking…despite going to Hamilton College in upstate NY, where the glens are paved with shale and the drinking water is slightly terrifying. But I want to address your point about the growing use of the term “junk science”. I think this is our next big issue…especially on the political front.

    The new Congress is going to focus largely on de-bunking scientific findings and replacing them with paid testimonies that validate the agendas of special interests. For example, the global warming subcommittee has already been dis-banded, and a frightening many of the incoming class of Congressional members claim that global warming is “junk science”.

    The fact that people running this country are so clueless as to what is good vs. bad science scares me a lot more than natural gas in my tap water.

  15. Sean McCorkle

    As long as its your well at risk and not mine, fine.

    The other potential tragedy looming is that the shale underlies one of the largest, nicest and in some parts wildest environments in the northeast and it also has some of the darkest skies in that region. Its an easy-to-reach relief valve for many of us urban/suburbanites whose nerves are continuously shattered by gas-powered leafblowers, mufflerless harleys every day and streetlights that never, ever go off. To think of that being torn up and lit up like a christmas tree, like the western slopes of the Colorado Rockies have become, makes my blood boil.

    @#10 – I believe you’ve hit perhaps the most salient point about gas-using NIMBYs. I would add: the Marcellus Shale is only this: the next *fix* for the fossil-hydrocarbon-addicts. Its time to break the habit and adopt a sustainable lifestyle.

  16. Bobito

    @15 “Its time to break the habit and adopt a sustainable lifestyle”

    Aren’t we doing that?

    But in the mean time, we still need fossil fuels. Can you come up with any rational plan that would have us reducing our need for fossil fuels, within say the next 50 years, to the point that we won’t have to mine/drill/frack for it?

    If we invented an anti-matter reactor next week, we’ll still be many many years away from being able to rely upon it solely. The power grid, majority of our transpiration infrastructure, how people heat their home, etc, etc, etc… will take many years to get up to speed with our new sustainable lifestyle.

    Shall we all just sit in our non-climate controlled homes until we don’t need fossil fuels anymore?

  17. Bobito

    Also, what happens when the chemicals required to create batteries for our cars are found in your back yard…

  18. Next great environmental controversies? I am not sure. In Quebec, it is presently the next one, because it just began this summer and because our laws are different than in the U.S.: here in Quebec, the owner of the land does not receive anything for the disturbances (unless the well is directly in your backyard of course). In the U.S., this politics is useful for the industry, since a lot of people take the money and shut up.

    The unknowns of “fracking” are of two types:

    1) the nature and the concentration of the chemicals put in the water used to fracture the rocks. Yes, those chemicals are only 1% of the water, but since these are MILLIONS OF GALLONS of water who are injected underground with EACH FRACTURATION OPERATION, 1% can become a lot.

    This chemical recipe is kept secret by the industries. Who knows, maybe one day we will know what it is, and realize it is not really dangerous at those concentrations. But for the moment, nobody can say that with certainty.

    2) The leaks. Many stories of leaks in Pennsylvania, Ohio, NY and elsewhere, seems to be the result of cement in the well, poorly done by the company. With the huge number of wells around your country, there will be statistically other cases of contamination, because there are always people doing poor jobs. Unless government take stricter measures, which seems unlikely at this moment.

  19. JJ

    Pascal, I agree on your second point there. That’s the same reason for the spill in the Gulf. Overall, drilling for oil and gas, including fracking, are very safe activities. I believe the disclosure loophole will eventually be closed and fracking will lose this overblown stigma. As for the first, there hasn’t been any complaints, to my knowledge, of fracking fluid leaking into wells. The few known problems associated with leaking fluid occurred above ground as a result of poor plumbing and site maintenance – gross neglect on the company’s part.

  20. Analise Singha

    I am not sure how the word got to be ‘fracking’. The proper engineering word in its entirety is ‘fracturing’ the shortened version is ‘fracing’. I write environmental reports for a living and have never seen the word spelt as ‘fracking’. Is this a media derived word?

  21. Sean McCorkle

    @#17 “Its time to break the habit and adopt a sustainable lifestyle”
    Aren’t we doing that?

    Hardly. Highways and roads across the country continue to clog up more and more and more. And whats touted as fuel “efficient” these days seems to be 40mpg. Jeez, my Honda CRX HF got 53 mpg in 1990! 20 years ago! Thats not even putting a band-aid on a wound. We need to get away from fossil fuels entirely. Cold turkey. Detox. Thats the way to fight this addiction.

    @#18 I’m no fan of batteries either, for that reason among others (too heavy for example- however, there could be technological developments down the road that fix those problems). There are other possible routes: biofuels or H2 (which I prefer – that takes carbon out of the picture entirely, can be used as a fuel and also as a storage and delivery system – making in analogous to natural gas in those regards.)

  22. @JJ: Yes, there have been complaints (for example, benzene found by citizens in their water). But the problem is that it’s nearly impossible to prove that benzene, or whatever else, come from the fracturation operation, since we don’t know what is put in the water for the fracturation operation. Remember, companies keep that secret, and the recipe can change from place to place (because each recipe can be adapted to the local geology).

    So, with that in mind, companies can easily say: benzene was there before, it’s from the citizen, not us. The only way we could know, is if measurement of the drinking water were taken before and after the fracturation operation. But neither your laws, neither ours in Quebec, make that mandatory. In the U.S. in fact, it is exactly the result of changes in your Safe Water Act in 2005, which exempted the hydraulic fracturation. Guess who asked for that exemption? 🙂

  23. fracman

    I’ve been involved in hydraulic fracturing in the oilfield for 15 years. I’ve designed, supervised, and analyzed over 150 treatments ranging from tight gas in South Texas to many different types of sand control jobs in the Gulf of Mexico and overseas. The public misunderstanding of this issue seems to be very large judging by the comments on this blog. A few comments:

    1. It is not spelled with a ‘k’. Hydraulic Fracturing is often shortened to “Frac’ing”. Many times we just leave out the apostrophe and write it “fracing”. If you use a ‘k’ it is an indicator you aren’t in the oilfield.

    2. The idea that there are some unknown chemicals in these fluids is ludicrous, and I don’t care what the oilfield service companies say. Yes, they have patents on some of their stuff, but they defend it with litigation. Any service company could replicate any fluid another has. The patents revolve around innovative concentrations or combinations of these chemicals and package them around a marketing idea. The truth is that you and I could start a pumping company tomorrow and buy all of the chemicals we need for a fracturing fluid from a third party chemical supply company. The oilfield is a bump on the ass of the actual markets for chemical supply companies. We even have to use food grade guar since the guar market is targeted to the food industry.

    That being said, I don’t think anyone will deny that you don’t want frac fluid pumped into your water supply table. The OIL COMPANIES don’t want to fracture the water reservoirs because it is a huge waste of moeny and DOESN’T GET ANY OIL OR GAS OUT OF THE GROUND.

    3. And here is the rub: both the regulatory and oil company engineers are doing EVERYTHING THEY CAN to avoid contaminating the water table. If I designed a well and completion that ended up fracturing the water table I’d make a water well. Guess what that would get me? Fired.

    4. So what are the engineers doing to keep from fracturing the water reservoir:
    * Drilling the wells through the water table, then isolating them with cement jobs.
    * Perforating the oil/gas zones which are thousands of feet below the drinking water reservoirs.
    * Using approved drilling muds when drilling through the water table.

    Let’s make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what a well actually looks like. It is not a single hole in the ground, but several holes ‘stairstepped’ down. So the first hole might be, say, 18″ wide. Once you finish drilling it you run 16″ casing (steel pipe) and pump cement up around the outside of it between the casing and formation. You then drill through the bottom of this casing with a smaller hole, let’s say 13-5/8″ and then run 11-5/8″ casing into it. You keep doing this stairstep until you get where you’re going. (These sizes are just for example. I’ve never been a drilling engineer in these shale wells so the actual sizes are different). Most of these casings are going all the way back to surface.

    The hole and casing design (sizes and depths) are well engineered to do two things: get to the target formation and isolate every water and hydrocarbon zone exposed during drilling from each other. Once the well is drilled, the target oil/gas zone is exposed by using explosive charges to perforate holes in the casing and cement located at the proper depth. The frac job then is pumped into these holes and into the formation.

    The idea that the frac job can tunnel up through thousands of feet of cement and likely penetrate at least one or more solid steel strings of pipe borders on ludicrous. The energy involved in pumping these treatments will result in fractured rock at the perforated interval and nothing more.

    Proper engineered well design, government oversight, and judicious diagnostics to ensure well integrity and zonal isolation are all that is needed to ensure that the gas wells do not pollute the water table. You can be sure the oil company engineers and government regulators understand this. Now if just the public did.

  24. The fact is, “fracman”, that it’s not because you are a good engineer that each of your colleagues are. And it’s not because a good drilling job must be done a certain way that everybody will do it this way. With thousands of wells drilled in a short period of time, and more to come, with all sorts of contractants to do the jobs, with sometimes no inspectors in the area and the knowledge that there is almost no regulations… Well, the human being is what it is.

  25. So, looks like once again I’ve arrived at the party late. But I’m glad fracman made those knowledgeable points. (Hmm, it appears my regular moniker is making a pun of the topic. blah)

    I have a gas well on my property that was installed less than six months ago. I live in Arkansas where it’s just become economically feasible to drill in the last few years because of advances in fracing. There is much fear in my community about well-water contamination.

    I watched as the men frac-ed the well. Really loud work. A man would press a button every so often that would drop 10 gallons of diesel fuel directly down the hole to lubricate the parts. “How do you make sure it goes where you want it to go?” I asked. Turns out that regulations require them to drill the first 500 feet using only air — no fluids of any kind. Then they put the casings in place and cement around them. Water wells are usually only 100 feet deep, and since I’ve never heard of a water well being more than 350′ deep, that number seemed reasonable to me. But still, fluids move.

    Gas wells, on the other hand, are measured in thousands of feet deep. Fracing generally occurs at a depth of 10,000 – 16,000 feet. Theory would dictate that any fluid sent or released down there would stay well away from surface fluids.

    I spoke with the man in charge of the oil regulations department within my state about a month ago. He said (and I tend to believe him) that they test every water well that gets a complaint about suspicious flavor or odor, and not once have any of them tested positive for any drilling fluids. Now, before I say that that sounds conclusive to me, let me say “Yet, they still test.”

    After completion of my gas well (which is pumping pretty solid at 12,500ft.), my water well tastes just as good as ever with no decrease in pressure. So, I have no complaints there. Of course, my story is simply anecdotal. Just adding to the collective knowledge-base.

    Now, if you want to discuss the recent scientifically-verified link between disposal wells and earthquakes…

  26. fracman

    Pascal, a couple of points;

    “it’s not because a drilling job must be done a certain way that everybody will do it this way.” I suppose not. But no one has shown me any evidence that the wells were drilled to a poor design. And no has ever said that that the engineers should get away with poor designs.

    “With thousands of wells drilled in a short period of time, and more to come, with all sorts of contractants to do the jobs, with sometimes no inspectors in the area and the knowledge that there is almost no regulations…” — I’m assuming you’re just making a general assessment of what is going on. No inspectors in the area? What does that mean? New York state doesn’t have any drilling regulatory agency? Give me a break. “there are almost no regulations”? Says who?

    Oilfield drilling is a highly regulated activity, and anyone who states otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about.

    More to the point of the blog- the case of science is on the side of the frac’ers. Properly designed wells have NO chance of contaminating the water reservoir. Let’s spell it out:

    Engineering and science: good wells that deliver a socially valuable product and do not contaminate drinking water.

    Ignorance about the science: groundless fears and hysteria that feed off preconceived notions about greedy oil companies and government regulators.

    My advice: demand oversight and proper review of design, good. But leave it to the engineers who are employed by the government and have expertise in this area to determine what constitutes a safe design. That’s what they’re for.

  27. Nullius in Verba

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how one post can decry those unscientific idiots who don’t implicitly trust the scientific experts, and the very next post can (without any discernible knowledge of the specialised subject area) question whether we ought to trust the scientific experts.

    The point about partisan bias is that you can’t see it when you’re doing it.

    It’s common enough, on both sides of the political aisle, as we have said here before. But it’s amusing to see such good examples of it here in such close juxtaposition!

  28. More to the point of the blog- the case of science is on the side of the frac’ers. Properly designed wells have NO chance of contaminating the water reservoir.

    Yes, that’s almost what they were saying also in the Gulf of Mexico. 🙂

    And the fact is we know even less about the consequences of those operations back there, about the quantity of water who come back (estimates vary from 10 to 40%), about the best way to get rid of this used water, about the chemical recipe, and I could continue.

    Hydraulic fracturation is a relatively new technology. Every relatively new technology has its flaws or its unknowns. Pointing them, as I am doing, is not saying that engineers are morons. Simply that there are things we don’t know and that a little bit of humility could be useful for the future. After all, this shale gas is in those rocks since at least 50 million years. It can certainly wait a few more.

  29. Pete

    OK – so first off, using GasLand as my source, there are two different types of Frac’ing – the old way went deeper and got less. After Cheney got the “do what you want and tell no one” legislation signed, they started going shallower with more lethal crap in their mixtures. Apparently we HAVE had multiple breaches already due to the newer practice, and the effect is aquifers we can never use again. Ever.

    I am not some raving environmentalist, but it would seem that a nationwide moratorium on Frac’ing in warranted, and I am very concerned that the Republicans coming in will just dismantle the EPA’s ongoing study of Frac’ing’s effects on the environment.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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