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Study Says Fracking is Safe In Theory But Often Not In Practice 297

Posted by samzenpus
from the are-you-sure-you're-using-that-right? dept.
First time accepted submitter chadenright writes "A university study asserts that the problems caused by the gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking,' arise because drilling operations aren't doing it right. The process itself isn't to blame, according to the study, released today by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin."
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Study Says Fracking is Safe In Theory But Often Not In Practice

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  • Re:Frak! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by owenferguson (521762) <{owenferguson} {at} {hotmail.com}> on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:15PM (#39068939)
    In all seriousness, though, "safe in theory but not necessarily in practice" suggests that maybe the theory is wrong...
  • by EdIII (1114411) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:25PM (#39069059)

    I am on a different side of it.

    It *sounds* bad to be putting 3000 different chemicals into the ground until you actually start taking geology into account. Having been on-site and spoken with engineers, I am *EXTREMELY* dubious that when fraccing zones more than 10,000 feet underground that it can affect the water table thousands of feet above it.

    Especially Texas where most of the wells I am aware of are deep wells.

    Plus, fraccing is required when the permeability of your zone is low. That means, by definition, it would not be a water table or any other kind of zone in which those chemicals could be moving around. If it is that permeable already and connected to a water table you would be tasting the natural hydrocarbons already.

    I have always brought this up when these types of articles appear that the very definition of the technology would seem to preclude these types of interactions with water tables.

    This study only seems to confirm what I was already saying. Only wells that are improperly fracced have these kinds of results.

    Now I can certainly see that horizontal shallow drilling accompanied by fraccing could possibly introduce the natural hydrocarbons (that were trapped in various formations) into water tables along with the fraccing fluid.

    The mistake people make is thinking that the ground is the same the whole way down. Far from it. It's more complicated than that. If water tables are being affected it is because the engineers are idiots and not doing it right.

    The study is entirely plausible. It says it works in theory (which it most certainly does) but in practice you can fuck up and contaminate the water tables. Doesn't tell me something I did not already know intuitively.

  • Re:Frak! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ColdWetDog (752185) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:27PM (#39069083) Homepage

    In all seriousness, though, "safe in theory but not necessarily in practice" suggests that maybe the theory is wrong...

    Or, horror of horrors, government isn't stepping up to the plate. This sort of thing is the poster child for why pure Libertarianism don't work. Over at the Oil Drum [theoildrum.com] there are many discussions on fracking - and from the couple of folks actually doing it, they would agree with TFA - it can be done safely, but often isn't.

    Apparently Texas, who has been regulating fracking since the 1950's does a reasonable job of it. Significant fines for dumping wastewater, regulators that know what they're looking for. It shouldn't be rocket science to hire a couple of oil field guys (or some ex - Texas regulators) and come up with a best practices document.

    Hell, the EPA might even be able to do it. But this is what really frosts me about the current state of affairs. Even if industry and government should have similar goals (keeping the screw ups and cheaters out of the game), they can't seem to get together and put up some fairly simple regulatory frameworks.

    Maybe this is what Tainter [wikipedia.org] means by too much complexity causing our eventual downfall. Humans are just too stupid sometimes.

  • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @10:55PM (#39069877) Homepage
    At a recent convention, I attended a presentation by a man involved in fracking regulation (though I now forget his exact role, it was on the government side). He said it wasn't really the big drilling companies that caused the most severe problems with fracking, but rather the small mom-and-pop ones that aren't used to handling environmental concerns. The bigger companies have the benefit of scale, making the cost of compliance lower. They can process their waste water correctly, use higher-quality cement, and hire better nerds to do the job right. Of course that doesn't fit the conspiracy theory, so you won't find such statements in Gasland.
  • by eldorel (828471) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:07AM (#39070419)

    If you did, you would know how absolutely ludicrous it is for a formation 15,000 feet below ground, that is trapping hydrocarbons, in a low permeability strata, to have any affect on a water table 10,000 feet or more above it.

    I would like to simple add a few thoughts to the discussion.

    If the area they are frakking is 10,000 feet "Below" the water table, then they probably have to go through the water table in order to reach it.

    So there is at least one path for contamination.

    Additionally, frakking is the process of breaking geological formations in order to allow for the collection and extraction of liquid petroleum and gasses, AND a direct correlation has been show between frakking and increased geological activity.

    So, they are intentionally breaking the layers of rock separating pockets of gas and oil, and causing small earthquakes.

    Meanwhile you are arguing that "it is impossible for the technology to cause the problems", and that there is no way that during all of the intentional layer breaking they might cause something to change in the layers that are sitting on top of the work area

    I'm not sure that "impossible" is the right term to use. I'd have chosen "marginally unlikely", but that's just me.

  • by EdIII (1114411) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:32AM (#39070967)

    I read that article and it does not have anything to do with the type of fraccing I have encountered.

    That stuff is crazy. The ones I was witness to were anything but shallow, but at 15k feet instead. There was certainly not millions of gallons of fluid. Everything had to be trucked in.

    Initially, all the fluid was reclaimed and trucked off site for disposal. That was not pumped back down into the ground to my knowledge at all. Any fluid remaining was extracted over time to a container on the site. I remember that for a few years a truck had to come by every so often to empty it. What I witnessed had practically no impact on the local environment at all. No ponds, fluids, etc. Just a well bore, casing, and a pipeline to take the natural gas to the refinery. That's it.

    That article describes a completely different fraccing process. Not to mention none of these walls were horizontal, but vertical. Straight down to 15-20k feet deep.

    I will fully admit that what that article talks about seems completely reckless and irresponsible.

  • Re:Frak! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:40AM (#39071043)

    It isn't anything inherent in government that people are trusting; it's that they wouldn't have a conflict of interest. If the restaurant finds out that they poisoned people (we assume it was accidental) then the best thing for them to do is fix the problem silently and say nothing. If you have a society where the restaurant polices itself, those people stay sick and don't know why. If you have a society where the restaurant pays a third party, it is still in the third party's interest that the restaurant stay in business. But if the government gets involved, their livelihood isn't on the line, so they can be expected to expose the poisoning and the patrons seek treatment. You never want to depend on people to choose to act against their own self-interest, which is what most proposed implementations of Libertarianism would require.

  • Re:Frak! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by steveha (103154) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:54AM (#39071119) Homepage

    I thought that was the sort of stuff that libertarians hated -- laws that say what they can't dump into the land, what they can't dump into the water, what they can't dump into the air, etc.

    Most libertarians, when discussing pollution, bring up the Tragedy of the Commons. If nobody owns a resource, everyone feels they can dump stuff on it or into it.

    If someone owns the water rights, and I dump poison into their water, they can sue me for putting poison in their water. If we are living on a river, and he's downstream of me, his river water rights probably give him standing to sue me for dumping junk in the water.

    The other tine of the fork is the option to sue for harm. If I sell tainted water, my customers can sue me for the potential or actual harm suffered.

    But actually, you might have noticed that I never said that I personally believe that the pure libertarian society is perfect and likely to be problem-free. I just was bothered by the conflating of "libertarianism" with "desire for total anarchy".

    I personally have conservative tendencies. If something has never actually been tried, I'm suspicious of it; that's one reason I don't really believe in anarchocapitalism. And I do not believe that the pure libertarian model can really solve everything; for example, I'm not sure that private roads are really as practical as government-owned roads. I do see a role for government in enforcing air quality standards; I am not a pure enough libertarian to think that somebody should own the air, or that people will always voluntarily do the right thing. ("People will shun you if you pollute" or whatever. Eh, ask an anarchocapitalist how that would work; since I don't believe in it, it isn't fair for me to try to explain it.)

    An example I like to bring up: 19th-century technology proved sufficient for hunting some species of whales to extinction. 20th-century technology is sufficient for overfishing some species of fish to extinction. I personally believe government should regulate fishing to prevent this, and I am suspicious of libertarian daydreams that say the free market can solve that problem. (And if we just agree that Bill Gates owns all the oceans or something, he might prevent the overfishing but I'm not sure we would be better off.)

    The government of the USA used to be a whole lot smaller and do a whole lot less. I personally believe that we could drastically slash the size and scope of government and net be better off, but I don't believe we can do away with government completely.

    steveha

  • by inviolet (797804) <slashdot.ideasmatter@org> on Friday February 17, 2012 @03:08AM (#39071469) Journal

    Reminds me of something we say in UI design meetings:

    "If 3% of your users screw up, it's a user problem... but if 30% of your users screw up, it's a UI problem."

    If the fracking process is not tolerant of hasty, underfunded, undertrained, fly-by-night drilling operations, then the process is not suitable for deployment here in the West.

  • Re:Frak! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@gma i l . com> on Friday February 17, 2012 @09:03AM (#39072887) Journal

    Well I can tell you a friend was hired to make models for the wildcatters and what he learned and showed me was quite disturbing. he was handed pretty much all the data on the area so he could make his models of the geology they would be working with and when he laid a copy of the map the local college had of earthquakes and the map he got from the wildcatters he could overlay them and it was a perfect match, one for one with the wells. Also this is an area with tons of bedrock, and the highest quake measure by the local college since they started setting up stations and taking readings right after WWII was in the 1.9 range with one 3 every twenty years or so, after the wildcatters it was tons of 3s and some 4s and the machines are registering tons of hits so this fracking is really causing some slippage down below.

    The final problem which my friend was bit in the ass by and which is REALLY SCARY is that these groups have already set up a way to avoid paying damages if they cause an environmental disaster which means not only do they have ZERO reason to give a fuck about environmental safety but that they are already expecting shit to go bad and are prepped for it. How did they pull this off you ask? Simple they have set up shell corps that own ALL the assets, from the mineral rights and drilling equipment down to the office furniture and then the drilling "company" which is just a front leases the equipment from the shell. As my friend found out when this bunch ran up a couple of bills and people starting trying to sue they simply burn the front company and are back in business the next day with a new front company!

    Mark my words at best we are looking at future superfund sites that We, The People will get stuck with while the money men laugh their asses off while walking away counting the cash and at worst we are gonna have our very own Bhopal when these guys set off a major quake or poison all the water for an entire area for decades to come. Thanks to the far right gutting regulations left and right and dodges like the above there simply is NO incentive for them to give a flying fuck. I'm all for increasing domestic production but I don't want us to become another China, with land poisoned and water that you can light on fire. We HAVE to have the regulations in place to make those that drill responsible for any messes they make WITHOUT EXCEPTIONS or they will simply not give a fuck.

You can not get anything worthwhile done without raising a sweat. -- The First Law Of Thermodynamics

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