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

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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  • 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.

  • Re:Frak! (Score:5, Informative)

    by pavon ( 30274 ) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @09:38PM (#39069217)

    The article stated that one of the main problems was bad cementing jobs, but from what I've gathered from reading and talking is that it is really hard to get a good cement job. There are things you can do to screw it up, but even if you do everything by the book, you can still end up with an imperfect seal. According to the US U.S. Minerals Management Service, cementing problems were associated with 18 of 39 blowouts between 1992 and 2006.

    So, if doing fraking "right" requires you to have perfect cement jobs everytime, then it isn't possible to do fraking right.

  • by Mashiki ( 184564 ) <> 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?

  • Re:And in theory ... (Score:2, Informative)

    by reub2000 ( 705806 ) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @10:02PM (#39069433)

    And in practice has killed fewer people than have died mining coal. Your point?

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

    ... funded by Big Oil [] 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 []:

    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 [])

    Not buyin' it.

  • 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 EdIII ( 1114411 ) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @11:18PM (#39070045)

    That sound great, until you realise that by frac'ing and drilling into the rock, they've changed the permeability of the rock (ie: the point of frac'ing).

    Drilling does not change the permeability of the surrounding rock. Keep in mind there is something called well casing which essentially protects the hole all the way to the surface.

    If you drill a hole in concrete and fill it with water, did it make all of the concrete more permeable? Nope.

    Many of the chemicals are water soluble and/or are lighter than the ground water, why wouldn't the ground water seep down in the now permeable rock and mix with the chemicals?

    The ground water would not seep down because all of the rock formation did not have a uniform increase in permeability. It was like a bunch of cracks in a concrete wall that was further separated from the water table (we will just say a layer of dirt) by another layer of concrete that was unaffected by the frac.

    Imagine this.

    You have a mix of concrete in which you suspended bubbles of Coke. It is 100 feet thick. You then have a layer of normal concrete that is 1000 feet thick. On top of that you have a 100 foot layer of dirt that has a bunch of water in it.

    The water table is only going to extend to the concrete itself, and not all the way to the bottom. That's the way they work, otherwise water could just fall all the way to the core of the Earth.

    You then drill a hole through the whole thing. Before you frac, or do anything else after drilling the hole, you make a nice reinforced straw. That is called casing. All of the dirt does not directly interact with any fluid in the hole. It can't. The casing is there.

    The water table is protected by the casing.

    Now you perforate the casing all the way at the bottom with shaped explosives. This allows the Coke to flow into the hole under pressure and go to the surface. However, since the permeability is so low... you are not getting a lot. The Coke does not interact with the water table due to the casing.

    That's where fraccing comes in. You create thousands of small fractures (hence the name) in the bottom layer with that nasty fluid everyone hates. Pump in proppant (which is like sand) and remove the fluid.

    Now what you have is a bunch of fractures that allow the trapped Coke to travel to the hole faster. That's why it is done.

    The fractures themselves extend out horizontally some distance, and vertically, but they they simply don't make it all the way through that 1000 foot thick layer of concrete to get to the water table above it.

    That is why ground water does not seep into fractured formations thousands of feet below it. A path does not exist.

    So now that you understand that, the only way the water table can be affected is with damaged casing (has nothing to do with fraccing) or a fraccing process that put the water table at risk because it was too close.

    That's why the technology is perfectly fine in theory. Any dickhead that decides to do something like that too close to water table is the real problem.

  • Re:And in theory ... (Score:4, Informative)

    by washort ( 6555 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:43AM (#39070683) Homepage
    Not really. Coal is shockingly bad in terms of deaths per terawatt []. Rooftop solar is certainly the worst among "clean energy" sources.

    In practice, even factoring in Fukushima, nuclear power plants turn out to be the safest thing. (It helps if you don't build it in a tsunami zone and ignore a safety report for 5+ years, of course.)

    New designs being developed now are even safer and more efficient: [] []

  • 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.

  • Re:Frak! (Score:4, Informative)

    by sustik ( 90111 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:34AM (#39070983)

    > 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.

    As I understand, a large part of the problem is that regulatory bodies are often underfunded to the point of dysfunction. It is done intentionally, under the heading of "starving/shrinking the government", arguing that the government would be (is) inefficient anyway. The second related major issue is that nominees heading agencies are often cannot be confirmed due to (even) a single senator holding up the vote.

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"