Fracking is draining water from US areas suffering major shortages – report

February 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Weld County, Colorado (Reiuters / Rick Wilking)

Some of the most drought-ravaged areas of the US are also heavily targeted for oil and gas development using hydraulic fracturing – a practice that exacerbates water shortages – according to a new report.

Three-quarters of the nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled in the US since 2011 were located in areas of the country facing water scarcity, according to research by the Ceres investor network. Over half of those new wells were in areas experiencing drought conditions.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in those wells required the use of 97 billion gallons of water, Ceres found.

“Hydraulic fracturing is increasing competitive pressures for water in some of the country’s most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the Ceres green investors’ network.

Lubber warned that the fracking boom across the US puts the industry on a “collision course” with other water users.

Fracking is the highly controversial process of injecting water, sand, and various chemicals into layers of rock, in hopes of releasing oil and gas deep underground. Fracking in a single well can take millions of gallons of freshwater. Much of the drilling has occurred in areas mired in multi-year droughts.

Half of the 97 billion gallons of water used since 2011 for fracking have gone to wells in Texas, a state in the midst of a severe, years-long drought. Meanwhile, oil and gas production through fracking is on track to double in the state over the next five years, the Guardian reported.

The report also found that rural communities in the Lone Star State are being hit hard by the fracking bonanza occurring especially in the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas.

“Shale producers are having significant impacts at the county level, especially in smaller rural counties with limited water infrastructure capacity,” the report said. “With water use requirements for shale producers in the Eagle Ford already high and expected to double in the coming 10 years, these rural counties can expect severe water stress challenges in the years ahead.”

Levels of vital aquifers that serve local communities near Eagle Ford have dropped by up to 300 feet in the last few years.

Many small communities in areas of heavy fracking in Texas are in dire need of water, as supplies have run out in some places or will dry up soon in others. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says 29 communities across the state could run out of water in 90 days, and that many reservoirs in west Texas are at around 25 percent capacity.

In December, the San Antonio Express-News found that fracking was using more water than previously thought. The newspaper reported that in 2012, the industry used around 43,770 acre-feet of water in 3,522 Eagle Ford fracking wells – about the same usage of 153,000 San Antonio households.

“The oil and gas boom is requiring more water than we have,” Hugh Fitzsimons, a Dimmit County rancher and a director of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, told the Express-News. “Period.”

A separate study published this week found that the industry does a very poor job recycling fracking water in Texas. Researchers at
the University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology found that 92 percent of water used in 2011 to frack Barnett Shale in north central Texas was “consumed,” and not recycled. Only about five percent of all water used for fracking in that area has been reused or recycled in the “past few years.”

Other states do not fare well in the Ceres report, either. In Colorado, 97 percent of wells were in areas strapped for water, as demand for fracking water in the state is expected to double to six billion gallons – twice the annual use of the city of Boulder – by 2015.

In California, 96 percent of new wells were located in areas where competition for water is high. A drought emergency for the entire state – which has traditionally dealt with water-sharing and access problems – was declared last month.

The report found similar high percentages of wells built in other states – such as New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – where water shortages exist.

“It’s a wake-up call,” said Prof. James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine, according to the Guardian. “We understand as a country that we need more energy but it is time to have a conversation about what impacts there are, and do our best to try to minimize any damage.”

Could fracking ruin Germany’s beer?

May 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Water Quality

The country’s brewers want Berlin to hefe-weizen up and reconsider a proposed fracking law

Water, malt, hops. For centuries, German law prohibited any other substances from going into the nation’s beers (this was before they knew about yeast).

Yet now, the country’s brewers fret that their brews could wind up containing a host of unknown chemicals should the government move ahead with a proposed fracking law.

The Brauer-Bund beer association has asked the government to forestall proposed fracking legislation until it can ensure the practice won’t contaminate groundwater used for brewing. The group is concerned that hydraulic fracturing, which involves blasting water and a slurry of undisclosed chemicals into the ground to obtain natural gas from shale deposits, could pollute the private wells used by many of the nation’s brewers.

“You cannot be sure that the water won’t be polluted by chemicals so we have urged the government to carry out more research before it goes ahead with a fracking law,” a spokesperson for the group told the Telegraph.

With fracking becoming a more popular method of energy extraction worldwide, German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s government has been working on legislation to expand the practice. The country currently allows test drilling in some places, just not near reservoirs of drinking water and other sensitive areas.

However, the brewers worry that the legislation won’t go far enough in protecting their water, which, if sullied, could inadvertently result in the violation of a centuries-old beer purity law, called the Reinheitsgebot.

That law, passed way back in the 15th century, is technically no longer on the books; a European court struck it down in the 1980s. Yet many brewers still consider it a source of pride to adhere to those ancient guidelines, hence the association’s fear that fracking would endanger their “absolutely pure beer.”

Germany, home to some 1,250 breweries and 5,000 different brands of beer, isn’t alone. American breweries have also expressed concern that fracking could taint their ales and lagers.

That’s because, purity laws aside, brewers are water fanatics. Homebrewers will go to incredible lengths to reproduce the mineral content of water supplies from certain brewing regions in attempts to clone world-famous beers. Should mysterious chemicals seep into the mix, it could completely throw off the chemical processes involved in brewing, and thus dramatically alter a beer’s taste and appearance.

And if you thought it was just beer snobs who are up in arms about this, think again. Brauer-Bund represents AB InBev, makers of Budweiser and other drinks of dubious quality. If Budweiser is concerned about how fracking might make its beer taste, imagine how craft brewers must feel?

Fracking could pollute coastal water sources

May 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills, Water Quality

Sophomore Jasmine Ruddy is from Morehead City, one of many coastal communities that could be directly affected by a bill to fast-track hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in North Carolina.

“That makes me really nervous for the health of my family who is still living there and drinks the tap water every day,” said Ruddy, an environmental health sciences major and a member of UNC’s environmental affairs committee of student government.

Fracking retrieves natural gas by pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into shale rock formations.

Proponents of the process say it taps into an otherwise inaccessible energy source that could reduce oil dependency.

But critics of the bill claim fracking uses too much water and could pollute drinking sources, especially in coastal areas suitable for waste deposits.

The bill, which passed the N.C. Senate and is currently in a House committee, would lift a ban on depositing industrial waste in deep wells and permit fracking starting in March 2015.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the state should establish more regulations before fracking begins.

“That’s not to say that I am totally opposed to fracking,” he said. “It’s just to say we should take a go-slow approach.”

McGrady said there are still unanswered questions about how to safely dispose of the chemical waste.

An April 2012 report by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that fracking can be done safely with more research and the proper regulations.

Richard Whisnant, UNC School of Government professor and former environmental lawyer, said many legislators and residents do not understand the complications of regulating a new industry.

“We can’t cut and paste regulations from other states,” he said. “The state ought to take whatever measures it can take to put a good regulatory structure in place.”

He said the process should not be rushed.

“I don’t see that the resource itself is going anywhere,” he said.

But Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, a member of the House environment committee, said fracking should not be attempted in the state.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be able to establish a safe structure for fracking,” she said.

She said if the deep well ban is lifted, the chemical waste from fracking could imperil drinking sources.

“It can be a real problem for public health issues,” she said. “We ended that practice 40 years ago because we knew once you put poison in the aquifers you’re never getting that back.”

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said fracking would create only short-term positions for N.C. residents.

Most long-term jobs would remain with out-of-state companies, she said.

She said depositing waste on the coast could slow tourism.

“There’s a danger of people thinking they’re coming to a place that’s polluted,” she said.

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New Tools for Tracing Fracking Impacts

May 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Comments Off on New Tools for Tracing Fracking Impacts

Sherlock Holmes used a magnifying glass to trace a fingerprint to its source. Andrew Barron favors miniscule rust particles, millions of gallons of water and a magnet.

Researchers in the Rice University chemistry professor’s laboratory have developed nanoparticles that will flow with the fluid used to hydraulically fracture oil and gas wells, slip through rocks and travel wherever the water ends up — in a holding pond at the surface, a tanker on the highway or, in a worst-case scenario, a nearby drinking water well.
The particles, which can bear unique magnetic signatures tailored to each fracking company that uses them, have the potential to clarify the troubled debate over whether and how oil and gas extraction damages water supplies.

“Whether you are Matt Damon or the president of Halliburton, for different reasons you should be interested in this,” Barron said in a lounge off his laboratory on the Houston, Texas campus early this year. “If you’re worried about the environment, then for once you might be able to find out if they’ve really done it and who did it. If you’re Halliburton, maybe this is a way of saying, ‘You’re right, someone contaminated your water. But it wasn’t us. It was that guy.’”

Finding conclusive evidence of contaminated groundwater from oil and gas drilling broadly, and fracking-influenced fluids in particular, is a complicated task. Many of the signals of drilling-related pollution like methane, salts and metals can occur and vary naturally; most regions lack robust studies of baseline water quality that can account for fluctuations over space and time.

Scientists and some industry and environmental organizations are seeking more certain and sensitive ways to pinpoint problems or rule them out. Their efforts include testing manufactured tracers, like Barron’s, that can flag pollution if it occurs, identifying natural indicators that reveal proof of a substance’s origin near the surface or deep underground, and developing practices to better monitor for changes before and after drilling.

Some oil and gas companies are willing to look closer for signs of contamination because a clean record under tight scrutiny will give the public much more confidence that drilling is done safely, said Andrew Place, the interim executive director of the new Center for Sustainable Shale Development and corporate director of energy and environmental policy at EQT Corp.

The standards developed by the center, a partnership between industry, charitable foundations and environmental groups, will require companies seeking certification to monitor surface and groundwater around their well sites regularly to demonstrate that their drilling and fracking operations have not caused an impact, instead of responding only if a homeowner raises a complaint.

“All of us want assurance, and the data to back it up, that these operations can be done without groundwater impacts,” he said. “No one’s served by not knowing the answer to that question.”

Scientists looking for natural tracers find them at the intersection of several key questions: What are hallmark signs of the water that flows back from a gas-bearing rock formation like the Marcellus Shale after it is fractured, or “fracked,” with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals? What is the range of natural variability for elements that occur in a region’s groundwater? And what does it look like when the first type of fluid, called “flowback” or “formation water,” comes in contact with the second?

“It’s hard to tease out the contamination signal from the natural variability,” Syracuse University hydrologist Laura Lautz said. “It’s even harder to do that when you don’t have the baseline water quality data.”

Lautz is part of a team of Syracuse scientists working on Project SWIFT (for “shale-water interaction forensic tools”), an effort to study New York groundwater before Marcellus Shale development begins in the state. They are trying to determine the most potent combination of elements that can distinguish potential contamination from briny shale development waters from pollution caused by shallow saline aquifers, legacy pollution or salted roads. The team has found that studying the quantity and relative concentrations of chloride, bromide and iodide together can be a “very, very powerful” indicator of Marcellus formation water compared to other salt waters, she said.

The problem is that too few people test for them.

Neither bromide nor iodide is included in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s recommended list of basic pre-drill water test parameters and they are not among the constituents analyzed during DEP’s standard test for post-drilling water contamination investigations. They are also rarely included in historical data sets for regional groundwater.

While Project SWIFT is promoting bromide and iodide as useful forensic tools, the researchers are also investigating if combinations of other, more commonly tested parameters like chloride, calcium and strontium can be revealing, Lautz said. “If you include the combination of those variables, can they be as powerful as knowing one really key variable like iodide?” Lautz asked. “I think there is some potential there.”

Other scientists have isolated more esoteric natural fingerprints to add precision to their analysis.

Researchers at Duke University study isotopes in water, dissolved salt and gasses for tell-tale signs of formation water or the provenance of methane bubbling at the surface. They have also found promising signals in ratios of elements to help track the sources of fluid or gas.

The strongest indicators come from using tools in combination, said Avner Vengosh, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke.

“The basic chemistry of the water can tell you a lot,” he said, especially distinctive ratios of chloride, sodium, bromide, barium and sulfate. “We are trying to develop more novel tools that give more perspective.”

Unlike regulators, who generally gauge impacts based on whether substances in drinking water rise above advisory limits set for safety or taste, researchers are looking for subtler indicators.

It is “absolutely” possible to have detectable contamination without any chemical parameters in the water rising above safe drinking water limits, Vengosh said.

“Good monitoring systems actually identify it at that point,” then track any changes, he said. “The way to do monitoring is to be able to identify it in the early stages before it becomes dangerous.”

While some researchers are finding that signs in the water reveal its contamination, others hope to tag the contaminant then engineer a way to trace it.

The process developed by Barron and his colleagues requires running water through a membrane system to concentrate enough of the rust particles to identify them. The collected particles are then sorted in a magnetic separator and analyzed to find the distinctive signature that distinguishes one company’s tracer particle from another.

The process will be tested by an oil and gas company working with the researchers to determine how long after the particles are first injected underground they can still be detected in the water that returns to the surface.

The “limiting factor is time,” he said of both his and other proposed benign tracer technologies. “The longer you are away from the time of injection, the longer it’s going to take you to sample enough water to get the small amount of material that would tell you whether it’s there or not.”

It is not a simple process, he said, but it holds the promise of providing more certain answers among murky clues. It also offers a new way to diagnose problems and fix them.

“The important thing shouldn’t be the blame game,” he said. “It should be finding out the source and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Original Article here:

ReThink Review: Gasland — Is Your Tap Water Flammable?

January 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills

A man holds a lighter up to a running faucet, only to have the water burst into a fireball that comes perilously close to engulfing the man’s torso in flames. This has become the iconic image of Josh Fox’s documentary examining the dangers of natural gas extraction, Gasland, and for good reason — it’s such a stark, dramatic illustration of the damage energy companies are willing to inflict on both the environment and human lives as they attempt to extract natural gas using the controversial method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” See the trailer for Gasland below.

Fracking, which was first developed by Halliburton (who else?) over 50 years ago, involves drilling a deep, L-shaped well (in the case of horizontal fracking) into an area believed to contain natural gas, then pumping in millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals (known as fracking fluid) to crack the earth around the gas deposit, allowing the gas to escape so it can be captured closer to the surface. However, natural gas as well as the toxic chemicals found in fracking fluid can make their way into aquifers used to supply drinking water, effectively poisoning wells and making tap water combustible.

See my ReThink Review of Gasland below, as well as my conversation with Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks (and MSNBC!) about the dangerous chemicals found in fracking fluid, the energy industry’s response to Gasland, and the connections between fracking, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and peak oil.

As I mentioned in my review, the natural gas industry has responded to Gasland by launching a website called Energy In Depth to debunk its claims. But what’s interesting is what is admitted through this website if one actually reads it, like the fact that fracking has never been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act — something which might have happened in 2004 if a study by Bush’s EPA hadn’t concluded that there was no evidence that fracking polluted water supplies, yet conducted no water tests that would have found such evidence. Or if Dick Cheney’s 2005 energy policy had re-classified fracked wells as injection wells.

It also may be true that only 1% of fracking fluid contains the dozens of dangerous chemicals — like arsenic, asbestos, barium, cadmium, chromium, cyanide, lead, mercury, chlorobenzene, dichlorobenzene, dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls, toluene, trichloroethylene, xylene, radium 226-228, uranium, etc. — that can be found on (if you look hard enough, like on page 2-13 through 2-16). But when you consider the fact that each frack uses 3-8 million gallons of fracking fluid, and that wells are commonly fracked dozens of times (and maybe even upwards of 300 times), that 1% adds up to millions of gallons of chemicals, much of which is never recovered for treatment.

In an interview with the New York Times, Fox promised a response to Energy in Depth’s attacks on Gasland, which you can find here. But perhaps the clearest response by the energy industry is their reluctance to respond to what would seem like a simple request by Fox:

I’ve been asking the industry since the movie has been out there, “If you’ve got a town where there’s more than 100 wells, and everything’s going fine, and you don’t have these issues, take me there.”

Gasland is now available on DVD and Netflix. To find out more about Gasland, visit

You can also find out more about the FRAC Act and efforts to prevent fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation that runs under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee by visiting

For more ReThink Reviews, visit

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