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Flak Over Frack

There is probably no more contentious issue at the crossroads of politics and technology than hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process, where oil and gas drillers chew up rock deep in the earth, is responsible for the major oil boom that produced so much oil it collapsed into the current bust – with very low oil prices. It also creates a lot of environmental damage and, as a relatively new technology, is remarkably unregulated.

New rules were introduced for fracking on federal land on Friday by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Eagerly awaiting them were the drilling industry and environmentalists, both of which had a big stake in the regulations. If you are a long time follower of these procedures, or simply a cynic, it might come as no surprise that both sides are unhappy.

A frack well tower in Pennsylvania.  The reach of one of these may radiate out for miles.

A frack well tower in Pennsylvania. The reach of one of these may radiate out for miles.

The new regulations cover only wells sunk on federal land. This is still a big deal because the cover the majority of new holes in the ground, given that most private land was tapped long ago. It is unclear if they will become a standard for the whole industry as a result, but they could if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gets into it.

What has been handed down for regulation is a very simply standard based primarily on disclosure. Each well has to list what has been put into the ground in the process of fracking. There are really no new limits placed on what can be used or how the fracking is done.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell introduced the new rules. “Current federal well-drilling regulations are more than 30 years old and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations,” Secretary Jewell said. “This updated and strengthened rule provides a framework of safeguards and disclosure protocols that will allow for the continued responsible development of our federal oil and gas resources. As we continue to offer millions of acres of public lands for conventional and renewable energy production, it is absolutely critical the public have confidence that transparent and effective safety and environmental protections are in place.”

The Fracking Process.

The Fracking Process.

The Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association immediately sued to block these new rules. They claim that it will add $97k to the cost of each well, even through the BLM puts the tab at $5.5k. The difference is vast.

According to the suit, “BLM’s final rule is both substantively meritless and the product of a procedurally deficient rulemaking process.” It details how the BLM’s proposal does not attempt to govern any aspect of the hydraulic fracturing process. It also claims that the rules do include new regulations imposing administrative impediments that the plaintiffs claim will complicate and frustrate oil and gas production on federal lands.

Environmental groups were hoping for a lot more. “We owe it to our future generations to protect the land that was put aside for the public good,” said Congressman Mark Pocan. (D-WI) “Regulating fracking still risks accidental spills, water contamination, methane leaks, earthquakes and habitat destruction. The only way to mediate these risks is to not allow fracking in the first place.”

The "flaming tap" caused by natural gas in ground water.

The “flaming tap” caused by natural gas in ground water.

Why is fracking so bad? It has three major problems. The first is that a slurry of materials designed to lubricate the cutting in very acidic conditions is injected into the ground. The second problem is that disturbing the rock often puts oil deposits in contact with ground water and sometimes even getting natural gas into the water – resulting in the famous “flaming taps” in some places. Lastly, the water comes out of the ground, often in greater volume than the oil, is heavily contaminated and must be processed. The new rules really do not address any of these concerns.

Existing state laws do cover the release of water and the quality of ground water, but vary dramatically. Environmental groups, when not calling for a complete end to fracking, would like to at least see tough standards applied nationally.

Once they stop drilling new wells, the price can only go up.

Once they stop drilling new wells, the price can only go up.

If the new rules are so weak, why is the industry so opposed to them? In the course of the lawsuit they will have to document why they think the cost of compliance is so much higher than the BLM does, so that remains open at this time. I personally believe there is more to it. As a new technology, fracking has an air of “trade secrets” in the content of the fracturing fluid used by each operator. A disclosure based standard, like the one introduced, requires them to tell the world just what they are using, which may reveal things they don’t want the world to know.

That’s not because they are evil and uncaring, it’s because they think they have a technological edge over the competition.

Can fracking be done safely and cleanly? Major improvements have been made in regulation that have put an end to the “flaming tap” problem and held drillers accountable for that damage. The waste water can be cleaned up before being released. While the new rules don’t regulate the chemicals used to in the fracking process, they are a step towards understanding what is used a bit better overall.

It's always been about the black stuff.

It’s always been about the black stuff.

All of this will make fracking more expensive, for sure. Just how expensive will be discovered through a lawsuit. But given that federal land that may not be an issue.

Wells drilled on federal land come after a bidding process, where drillers pay the government for the right to operate. If the cost goes up, the value of the well goes down, and logically the bids should drop as well. It should come out in the laundry – outside of how hungry small operators with a belief that they have an edge are and how wells staked they are with the cash necessary to make it happen.

The new regulations, which pleased no one, are far from a big change in fracking. But as this plays out we may yet learn a lot more about how fracking is done and how it can be regulated. As always, good regulation starts with a disclosure standard first. The BLM may be catching flak over their frack, but this is a good start. It’s a process, not an event.

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19 thoughts on “Flak Over Frack

  1. Good blog. A complete ban on fracking is ridiculous but I’m sure we can make it a lot cleaner. Getting the regulation to be reasonable and effective will be the hard part. Did any industry people get involved in the rules?

  2. Well done.
    You know what they say: if no one’s happy it must be fair.
    Smirk aside, I too am fracked over this.
    I love fracking foreign oil prices but I’m fracked-up about ground water reserves.
    Keep drilling on this issue.

  3. Yes, it’s a process, not an event and certainly as far as fracking is concerned it’s an eventful process despite the advantages of abundant oil available at low oil prices, as it leads to accidental spills, water contamination, methane leaks, earthquakes and habitat destruction.

    It is just mind-boggling to note that up to 600 chemicals are used in fracking fluid, including known carcinogens and toxins, besides the use of approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals per fracturing.

    During the process of shale gas extraction, it is said that methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out from the system and contaminate nearby groundwater, so much so, the Methane concentrations are said to be 17x higher in drinking water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells! Such contaminated well water is used for drinking water in nearby cities and towns leading to cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.

    Only 30-50% of the fracturing fluid is recovered, the rest of the toxic fluid is left in the ground and is, unfortunately, not biodegradable. The waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing hamful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone.

    In the end, hydraulic fracking produces approximately 300,000 barrels of natural gas a day, but at the price of numerous enironmental, safety, and health hazards. So, any sane person would think it’s not worth it and therefore, ending fracking is a major step toward solving all resultant social ills.

    Therefore, the only way of regulating this fracking issue, as rightly advocated by Congressman Mark Pocan: “… is to not allow fracking in the first place” – good riddance!

    • As it stands today, I think I have to agree that fracking is too dangerous to allow. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to do this safely. I would like to see pressure on the industry to find a way to clean it up and set a much higher standard than we have now.

      • That would be a welcome move, but will the industry bosses agree for the setting up of such higher standards given their hatred of anything coming in the way of their operating freedom and hefty profits, rather too doubtful, and meanwhile, the situation moves from bad to worse! 😦

  4. The consumption of water is also an issue. NASA has studied California, and claims that there is less than one year’s worth of water left in our storage facilities. Yet Fracking continues to consume tens of thousands of gallons a freshwater every day.
    And don’t overlook the disposal of the waste water. In Calif, well over 100 disposal wells are dumping their wastes into aquifers.
    Fracking needs to go away. We don’t need the oil, it is consuming valuable drinking water, and the resulting damage to the earth, from “flaming faucets” to hundreds of earthquakes where none ever occurred before cannot be tolerated.

    • A very good point. Water is rarely re-used for reasons I don’t understand – it seems to be very valuable to the process, yet it is wasted? The huge boom introduced a lot of practices that are totally outlandish overall, and as we take a pause we can look at what’s been done and start regulating this a lot better.

  5. If this applies only to federal land and it has no requirements that they clean the mess doesn’t that mean that we are poisoning the land? Or are there other requirements that weren’t part of this?

    • No, they are still subject to state and federal laws. The exact requirements vary from state to state, but all require water released to be cleaned up.

    • All oil drilling pollutes. It’s a matter of finding a way that is tolerably clean, which changes from one generation to the next. In terms of general mayhem under the earth, fracking is pretty dirty.

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