What are these words you speak?
ltmayers
What are these words you speak?

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, and other drilling practices have unlocked previously inaccessible reserves of oil and gas across the United States and the world. However, some of the debate over fracking is distorting public understanding of these practices and interfering with good decision-making about this recent boom in unconventional oil and gas production.

We often hear statements like this from industry and pro-drilling politicians:

America has drilled and fracked more than 1 million wells over the past 60 years, and in all that time there has never been a proven case of groundwater contamination caused by fracking.

This statement, in some form or another, is repeated from the kitchen tables of ordinary citizens to the halls of Congress, as landmen use it to try to secure mineral rights from private landowners and legislators advocate for more drilling on millions of acres of public land. Even environmentalists, scientists, and regulators, when pressed, reluctantly confirm this statement is technically correct. Upon closer examination, however, this claim is a half-truth that muddles the debate on whether natural gas can be a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future, or a dead end.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these claims:

America has drilled and fracked around 1.3 million wells over the past 60 years …

First, has fracking really been around for over 60 years? That depends on what you mean by fracking.

In 1947, Stanolind Oil (now Halliburton) completed their first conventional hydraulic fracturing operation using 1,000 gallons of water, chemicals, and sand to frack a shallow Kansas well. Instead of dropping explosives down the well like the early Pennsylvania oilmen, drillers used a spare WWII aircraft engine as a pump to pressurize the fracking fluid and apply hydraulic force to the methane-bearing limestone. According to a patent filed in 1953, the first fracks used pressures as low as 700 pounds per square inch (psi). This accounts for much of fracking’s history, with small operations that were barely noticeable once they were completed.

In 1997, Mitchell Energy completed their first high-volume, slickwater hydraulic fracture operations using an average of 800,000 gallons of fracking fluid and 200,000 tons of sand on horizontally drilled wells in the Barnett Shale of Texas. This 16-year-old practice much more accurately represents the procedure that has recently unlocked natural gas from formations like the Marcellus Shale and oil from the Bakken Shale. We refer to this type of fracking as “modern fracking.”

While the U.S. Air Force's SR-71 Blackbird (above) relies on the same basic laws of aerodynamics as the Wright Flyer, the parallels end there. Just as this Mach 3-capable spyplane is unrecognizable from the Ohio bicycle-makers' gasoline-powered glider, modern fracking is exponentially bigger, more complex, and more powerful than early hydrofracking could every have hoped to become.
USAF via Wikimedia Commons
This SR-71 Blackbird uses basic laws of aerodynamics to stay in the air, like the original Wright Flyer, but the parallels end there.

Unlike their humble origins, modern fracking operations use millions of gallons of fluids pumped into bedrock at pressures as high as 15,000 psi to break open shale and tight sandstone formations. This is over 20 times the pressure and 800 times the volume of the first fracking operations. Modern fracking has as much in common with early fracking as an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane has in common with the Wright Flyer. Yet advocates of modern fracking cite those decades of old-fashioned fracking as proof that modern fracking is also safe.

 … and in all that time, there has never been a proven case of groundwater contamination …

Unconventional drilling and modern fracking was one of SkyTruth’s first projects, because satellite images and aerial photography revealed a spiderweb of roads, wellpads, pipelines, and other infrastructure transforming massive tracts of western public lands. But as the practice spread from relatively uninhabited wilderness to the more populated eastern U.S., media coverage of modern fracking and fracking-related accidents began to increase. Journalists and academics began to investigate claims that modern fracking had caused health problems and water contamination. Then a documentary filmmaker from Pennsylvania ignited one of the biggest environmental movements in several generations: by lighting water on fire — again.

The truth about proven cases of contamination remains elusive for a number of reasons. For one, the Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly backed away from completing research on claims of polluted groundwater in Pennsylvania and Texas, and stopped short of finalizing a report that blamed modern fracking for groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. Also limiting our knowledge about contamination cases is the growing number of contamination claims settled out of court with strict non-disclosure agreements. One settlement with a Pennsylvania family went so far as to prevent a family, including their children aged 7 and 10, from ever publicly speaking about the issue of fracking.

What we do know is that a growing list of individuals are coming forward with reports of illness and contaminated drinking water in the immediate vicinity of wells that that have been fracked. Is drilling and modern fracking the cause? In many cases we just don’t know because pre-drilling water quality and public health studies don’t exist, and the information is simply not available to the public.

 … caused by fracking.

On these three words hinges a delicate and disingenuous argument about the safety of modern fracking. Watch congressional hearings on this subject and you will hear this qualifying statement tacked on to nearly every remark about the safety of drilling and modern fracking — but what does it mean?

Proponents of drilling use the term “fracking” in a very narrow (and technically accurate) way — referring exclusively to the well stimulation process known as hydraulic fracturing. Period. Based on this definition, only contamination caused by subterranean fractures that occurred during the process of hydraulic fracturing counts as contamination “caused by fracking.”

By this criteria …

Meanwhile, the public generally uses the term “fracking” as shorthand to cover all of the activities related to drilling and completing a well. Since more than 90 percent of the drilling being done today would not be happening if it weren’t for hydraulic fracturing, this is understandable. Unfortunately there are many documented incidents where contamination of the air, land, and water can and has occurred because of oil and gas drilling. And the homeowner who can light their tap water on fire, or discovers they’ve been drinking cancer-causing benzene, probably doesn’t give a damn if the contamination was caused by a poor cement job that blew out, or by the hydraulic fracturing operation itself. That’s a word game only politicians and engineers care about.

The track record of modern fracking is shrouded in incomplete information, a misleading history, and distorted by semantic arguments that narrowly define what counts as contamination from fracking. While cases of contamination caused by fracking remain obscured by lack of information and tricky linguistics, we know that a growing number of citizens are reporting harm and environmental contamination in unconventional oil and gas fields, and especially from wells that have been fracked.