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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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  • Study in texas.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by santax (1541065) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:14PM (#39068925)
    So, who payed for it? Are there any ties with the oil-industry? Via-via-ties do count. I ask this because every other investigation I have seen all have the same thing in common: Putting about 3000 different chemicals (mostly very toxic) into the ground is a mayor threat to drinkingwater and should never ever be repeated again. Except in Texas apparently. Only that is reason enough to just not continue this. The cost don't weight up to the benefits. (Not even on an economical scale)
    • 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: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by santax (1541065)
        Hmmm, ok, maybe you should download or rent the docu Gasland. Without a lot of words it shows us what all those other studies except this 1 (in texas, done under supervision by a guy who has on his cv: and my experience in private firms......) have to say. Until proven (!) in practice... like it should be... I will stay with my current and correct opinion. This method is not only dangerous, it's a scorched earth tactic. As all the wells that are currently in existence have proven. So now it's up those guys
        • by PopeRatzo (965947)

          Hmmm, ok, maybe you should download or rent the docu Gasland.

          OMG! Gasland was made by a liberal! It's accurate of course, but the fact that it was made by a liberal means it should be ignored completely.

          Seriously, Gasland was one of the best documentaries I watched last year. Whenever I hear a politician or a shill on TV talking about how great fracking is, I think about that movie.

          It's really funny how the energy industry is spending hundreds of times what Gasland cost to make to try to discredit it. P

          • by Gideon Wells (1412675) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:57PM (#39069385)

            I live in PA, but haven't watched it yet. We have local fracking wells up near our reservoir. W've had companies run their wells at high enough pressure to break the containment shells and keep running for three months till busted. Not one of those reservor wells, though. Oh, and truckers busted driving away from the site with the release valve on the tanks "accidentally" leaking.

            I don't need to see Gasland. I can read the news. I see how the industry here is in full come in, drill and move on locust mode. The drilling could be safe if done with geology in mind and within standards. I just have no faith this will be done 100% of the time. Not that what I say or believe matters.

            I can also look up our history. Pennsylvania was deforested in the lumber booms about a century ago, and only has its current forests thanks to FDR, the New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps. A large part of our economy is dependent on forest tourism. A third of all of our water is already contaminated from acid mine drainage from the coal booms.

            Even if it were 100% no matter what, I'd still be leery based off of my state's track record.

            • by rtb61 (674572) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @11:43PM (#39070221) Homepage

              Fracking can never be done safe, at least not with today's technology. You are drilling russian roulette mode, sometimes it's safe but mostly it's not.

              Companies are simply making guesstimates of what will happen when they pressurise formation and, where the fractures will go and how it will affect ground water at various depths.

              Here's how it works for people looking for water. They drill down a bore into likely areas, and when water flows, they test the suitability of water derived from that formation, they keep drilling till they find a suitable formation to draw water from or the reach the depth level of the equipment or they run out of money or they give up and try at another location.

              Eventually they mostly find a safe suitable source. Now along comes the fracking company, they purposefully introduce largely random (the lack the ability to 'accurately define where the fractures will occur) stress fractures in the rock, the purpose to specifically allow the mixing of fluid and gas materials to mix at various levels, basically turn rock formations into massive soda fountains. Will it affect nearby wells, they don't know and they don't give a fuck.

              The law was written so that they could run off with the profits and tell those whose water they contaminate to piss off and laugh at their misery. The frackers rinse and repeat as long as governments allow them to do so. They know they are playing russian roulette with other peoples lives, seriously actual russian roulette people will get sick and die, there is absolutely no denying it. They paid their lobbyists to influence Darth Cheney to write laws to protect frackers from the frackers murderously greedy activities.

              The reality is there is no technology currently available to forecast what will actually happen when you try to turn rock formations into massive soda fountains, none at all, it is a straight up guess. Pretty much a safe bet for the fracker they will likely get a big profit as for everyone else around that location, let's be honest, as far as the frackers are concerned luck of the draw 'Fuck Em'.

            • by adeft (1805910)
              I grew up in Lycoming County and read about that truck leaking from the valve. Not sure how true it is, but the number of gallons leaked was reportedly less than 10, but I heard the real number was swept under the rug. :( It's really scary to have friends and family still living in that area. When I go to visit, I don't even recognize it anymore. Where there was once beauty and simplicity, it's now all about industry. I went to breakfast a few weeks ago outside of Muncy, and a restaurant that previously s
            • by Andy Dodd (701)

              I believe that fracking can be done in a responsible and safe manner - AT LEAST from a technical standpoint.

              However, from a regulatory, financial, and corporate culture standpoint - NONE of the companies that are using hydrofracturing have any reasonable safety track record. Cost-cutting and accidents run rampant throughout the industry. At this point, there is nothing short of a complete corporate overhaul that will make me trust any drilling company.

              I'd rather have a nuclear plant a mile away than any h

        • by Mashiki (184564) <mashiki&gmail,com> on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:53PM (#39069355) Homepage

          Would that be the same docu-drama which conveniently committed the fact that 'burning tap water' had been an on-going issue for nearly a century?

        • by EdIII (1114411) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @10:54PM (#39069855)

          How can you be correct when you don't even know how fraccing works? How is the method inherently a scorched earth tactic?

          Remember, what I am saying, is that low permeability strata (meaning water does not flow through it) is cracked apart and those chemicals are introduced as a medium to leave proppant behind. The fluids themselves are largely reclaimed. Not left down below.

          Most often, especially in Texas, those wells are so deep that it is not possible for the water table to interact with those formations that are being fracced. That's why you are not correct and just have no idea what you are talking about.

          Ask a geologist some time if it is possible for a water table to interact with a low permeability formation that is 10,000 feet below it. He will say it is not possible. Guess why? It it was possible, that would mean the water table was that deep to begin with.

          The very definitions of the terms being used mean you are incorrect and have no understanding of the process.

          None, none, of what I am saying is condoning shallow fraccing in other areas of the country where it could interact with a water table.

          It's not the fraccing, it is the people doing it.

      • by phrostie (121428)

        +1 for being educated on the subject.

        it's rare here on /.

      • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:36PM (#39069191) Homepage Journal

        It *sounds* bad to be putting 3000 different chemicals into the ground...

        Yep, it does.

        Having been on-site and spoken with engineers...

        Who all owed their livings to the energy industry.

        If water tables are being affected it is because the engineers are idiots and not doing it right.

        Well, then the solution is simple: keep all the engineers away.

        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.

        So here's my idea: Let's only do fracking in theory. In practice, let's be more serious about looking for alternatives.

        • by EdIII (1114411) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @10:47PM (#39069807)

          So.. on-site all of these engineers were engaged in a massive conspiracy to lie to me about how fraccing works?

          The solution is to do fraccing only where appropriate. This means proper surveys and considering how it might impact the environment. Which is exactly what the study says. It was improper in the areas that have had water tables affected. In some cases, it should have never been done in the first place, and I am the first to agree with that.

          I have no reason to believe they are lying to me, and certainly not years and years before this became a big deal. Most people just have no idea how it actually works. 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.

          It is not possible for large scale effects in such a situation. At most, if the well casing is damaged near the surface you might have some leakage into the water table. However, that will happen with or without fraccing. You can detect and repair that, which is in the best interests of the operators, regardless of environmental concerns.

          There are no alternatives to fraccing whatsoever. The whole idea is to crack the formations apart, pump in proppant (sand like material), and remove the fluids to increase permeability. You cannot increase permeability any other way, which is what allows you to get the hydrocarbons out the ground fast enough to make it economically viable to produce.

          You would be better off finding alternatives to fossil fuels. However, the only reasonable alternative at the moment for large scale power production is nuclear, but we can't have that either.

          I just find it a little ridiculous to be railing against the technology, when it is impossible for the technology to cause the problems, when properly used.

          It's not the technology. It's the people. Fraccing does not damage water tables every single time in every single case, which is what people love to say.

          • by marnues (906739)

            It's not the technology. It's the people. Fraccing does not damage water tables every single time in every single case, which is what people love to say.

            You had such a reasonable argument until here. You can ignore the crazy enviro-types. I belong to several organizations filled with them. They have their story and they're sticking to it. Just go ahead and leave them out of the entire equation. Those of us who are skeptical of fracking need to know how it can be done responsibly and why it isn't. Hopefully this can end in oil for everyone AND bad engineers in jail.

            • by EdIII (1114411)

              Those of us who are skeptical of fracking need to know how it can be done responsibly and why it isn't.

              I know the answers to both questions. Being done responsibly is easy. Just involve competent people and have the moral resolve to not frac the formation if there is more than a 1% chance it could affect the water table. The rest is quality control.

              Why it isn't is very simple. Greed and quality control.

              Hopefully this can end in oil for everyone AND bad engineers in jail.

              That will be more effective than anything else by far. Send the fraccing engineers to jail along with the executives of the fraccing company if it is proved that any reasonable study would have shown it w

          • 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 @12:59AM (#39070775)

              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.

              No. There is no path with proper well casing.

              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.

              Extremely small earth quakes. It is misleading to give it that term because it implies to most lay people that you could feel it long distances away. You can't. Unlike the vast majority of posters I have been less than 100 feet away from the well bore in a trailer when a large frac was performed. I did not fall down, and other than a light amount of vibration, it was just a big bang. Also keep in mind, that any release of energy that high would require some impressive engineering on the well bore and drilling rig.

              I would like to see studies that show a direct correlation between fraccing and increased geological activity. "Correlation does not imply causation". While I don't wish to seem like I am resistant to the truth, the science behind fraccing does not, at a glance, support sustained increases in geological activity.

              Citation please.

              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

              They can't cause any large scale or meaningful changes in layers sitting on top of the work area. I am assuming that you mean that a frac conducted at 15k feet deep can change layers between a thousand feet and the surface. That would not happen.

              In order for it to be true, the energies required would be impressive to say the least. The frac would not be limited to the production zone, but would result in fractures at the surface. Such energies would result in an earth quake comparable to a nuclear blast. You would feel that in major cities hundreds of miles away.

              You simply cannot affect changes through that many thousands of feet of rock without the requisite increase in energy levels. It's not like they are bringing out portable nuclear power on site. It's diesel man.

              Additionally, and so many people here overlook this, for every fracture that is created you need to pump proppant into it. This means you can tell how well your frac performed, in part, by looking at how much proppant was pumped into it. To have large scale effects at the water table, thousands of feet above your target, would require many many times the amount of proppant you estimated was required. You would know.

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

              Impossible might have been over doing it. However "marginal" is over doing it as well. Highly unlikely would be a better way to say it. You have better chances of winning the lottery.

              • by eldorel (828471)
                Hmm. Perhaps you are right, but there is something going on above and beyond the math.

                Allow me to match your anecdote.
                I have also been near one of these wells during a frakking operation, I have family members who are close enough to one to watch while they are pumping.

                There are cracks in the foundation of the house that only formed after the well went live, and the tremors that i've personally felt were considerably more active than "Just a big bang".

                For the record, I live in Southern Louisiana.
              • 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.

          • by Andy Dodd (701)

            Well, they clearly did not tell you the whole truth. I mean, apply some critical thinking skills here - to get these fracturing fluids down to, say, 10k feet, they must somehow PASS THROUGH THE WATER TABLE. Considering that the plumbing required to do this is handling pressures intended to FRACTURE ROCK - If you think there is no chance of this plumbing failing underground and releasing its contents at a depth that wasn't supposed to be affected, you are seriously stupid or deluded. This seems to be the

      • 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.
        • So in theory, BP should have done a great job with Deepwater Horizon, right? After all, they're huge, hired Halliburton, etc. The problem is that they're a profit-seeking enterprise. That made them rush the job, and to do stupid things in the name of increased profits. Let's not kid ourselves. Anyone will do bad stuff to get more money.

      • Does it matter at the end of the day if peoples' water supply is poisoned because water several thousand feet below is leaching to the surface, or whether it's screwy concrete closer to the surface, or it's just incompetent assholes spilling the chemicals on the ground. About the only thing that wouldn't be the company's fault would be naturally occurring natural gas in wells and aquifers, and maybe the sensible thing to do before developing a new natural gas field is to take six month's or a year's worth o

    • by tomhath (637240)

      The Energy Institute said its report was conducted using general university funds, rather than specific grants from energy-industry companies or environmental groups. However, the institute said the Environmental Defense Fund assisted in developing the scope of work and the methodology for the study.

      Apparently the ties are to an environmental group which wasn't at all happy with the conclusion. This group appears to believe scientists who suggest global warming is man made, but doesn't want to believe scientists who say hydraulic fracturing is safe. Hmm...

    • I know you can't be bothered to read the article because you've already made up your mind, but it says:

      The Energy Institute said its report was conducted using general university funds, rather than specific grants from energy-industry companies or environmental groups. However, the institute said the Environmental Defense Fund assisted in developing the scope of work and the methodology for the study. The EDF said it reviewed drafts of the report during the course of the project but did not contribute to it

    • by mug funky (910186)

      RTFA. it was funded entirely by the university (this was a deliberate attempt to avoid politics, it seems), however it received some non financial support from an environmental group. they stressed that that group had no editorial control.

      the air you breathe has thousands of chemicals in it. the word "chemical" doesn't necessarily mean "bad".

      look at the list of compounds in common foods and be horrified.

      that said, like nuclear power, i support the concept, but i have little faith that it'll ever be done

  • Blame the Cement (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:16PM (#39068955)

    I only work as an MWD Engineer in the industry, so take my comment with a grain of salt. As far as I can tell the problem is likely due to improper cementing in 99.99% of cases. They almost always rush it, and drill ASAP afterwards, if not sooner. I wouldn't doubt they are fracking their cement job, leaving a nice path to the surface water table.

  • by sjames (1099) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:22PM (#39069031) Homepage

    There is nothing intrinsically unsafe about it in most cases, but if you frack a stranger without a condom, you can get cooties.

    • You should also make sure the rock is at least 18 years old before shooting liquids in it, or there could be other legal repercussions besides.

  • by forkfail (228161) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @10:13PM (#39069545)

    ... funded by Big Oil [utexas.edu] comes out with what is basically pro-fracking study that basically says, "We're doing it in a dangerous manner; it's the process, not what we're doing, even though everyone is doing it wrong."

    And peer review? Nope. But it was reviewed by the pro-corporation sham of an environmental watch-group, the Environmental Defense Fund [wikipedia.org]:

    In addition to university faculty, the Environmental Defense Fund was actively involved in developing the scope of work and methodology for this study, and reviewed final work products.

    (source [utexas.edu])

    Not buyin' it.

    • by poity (465672)

      Even the wikipedia page paints a portrait of them that's more or less neutral and less biased than what you seem to want us to believe (i.e. a "sham" group). In any case, unless you can point to specific flaws in their methodology, this appears to be a legitimate contribution to the debate.

  • ... I can tell you that's spot on. I mean it seems great, everyone feels good - no great - but then there's the heat, moisture (either sticky or slimy) and runoff ... sometimes exhaustion from all the activity and close proximity, but you go on - drill baby drill, right?. Then... oh, wait - "fracking"? Never mind.
  • im a sysadmin with no social life, so i cant remember the last time i fracked.
    although i keep condoms just in the event.
  • I see plenty of the Energy Industry, a drilling company, Big Oil, and even an Investment Professional on the Advisory Board [utexas.edu]

    I couldn't quickly find where the bulk of the department's funding comes from. But I bet it's no surprise.

    They sure seem to be good friends to fracking. [utexas.edu]

  • In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

    - Albert Einstein -
  • by Rix (54095) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @11:53PM (#39070315)

    If it isn't implemented safely, then it isn't safe.

    Communism works great in theory.

A CONS is an object which cares. -- Bernie Greenberg.

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