Sources Vary on Fracking Fluid Details

Answers on possible dangers also differ

Morgantown Dominion Post
24 July 2011
By David Beard

What’s in frack fluid? Is it dangerous?

Regarding the first question, many people believe it’s a deep, dark secret and have said things to that effect at public meetings.

A number of places have lists of fracking chemicals, including the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Pennsylvania DEP, the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry; Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy & Commerce.

The lists vary in number and quality.

Companies must also have Material Safety Data Sheets listing the fracking chemicals available at their fracking sites.

The answer to the second question is more complex and controversial than the first one. Using the same facts, different sources frame thier answers differently, according to their point of view.
Where are the facts?
Frack fluid is 98 percent to 99.5 percent water, supplemented with sand and various chemicals. That remaining .5 percent to 2 percent is the subject of concern. Some is used in swimming pools, some are edible and some are carcinogens — cancer-causing.

Individual companies, such as Chesapeake, government agencies and cooperative efforts, such as Frac-Focus, are posting their fracking chemicals.

The state DEP offers a link on its oil and gas webpage to “compositional breakdown of fracturing solutions.” It lists three typical solutions employing 11-13 chemicals each, all produced by one company.

Pennsylvania’s DEP lists 85 individual chemicals used in frack fluid, though industry and government sources say only three to 12 may be blended for any one frack job.

Chesapeake charts 12 types of chemicals used in frack jobs, and their purposes. It doesn’t name the chemicals, but referred The Dominion Post to FracFocus.

Range Resources — an oil and gas company that pioneered hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus shale — provides a similar chart. It summarizes fracking this way:

“The water we use in hydraulic fracturing comes from a local water company or is obtained from a nearby water source, such as a stream, pond, lake or river. All aspects of our water usage are reviewed, approved and inspected by state regulators. While this process involves roughly 99.9 percent water and sand, it also requires about four highly diluted and common chemicals. These additives are carefully managed, safely handled and are encountered by most of us in our everyday life.”

The most comprehensive list of chemicals can be found at the Energy & Commerce Committee’s website — through a link to its study, “Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing.” The study lists all 750 chemicals employed and disclosed by 14 leading oil and gas companies from 2005-’09.

FracFocus is a cooperative effort of the nonprofit Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Its website provides links to government agencies and technical information, and to the 50 oil and gas companies that support it and lists 58 commonly used fracking chemicals.

Michael John, president of Northeast Natural Energy, which has four permits in Mon County, said Northeast buys its frack fluids from several manufacturing companies, which disclose their products at FracFocus.

John explained that the secret isn’t the chemicals, but the specific formulation or combination of the chemicals for each job. The geology of the drilling site will dictate the best formula for extracting the gas, and fluid vendors prefer not to disclose their specific blends.

Types of chemicals in frack fluid

The information for this section comes from FracFocus and Chesapeake, supplemented by other sources.

After water, the chief ingredient in most frack fluids is sand. Sand is called a “proppant” because it embeds itself into the shale fractures, propping them open so the gas can leach into the well.

For example — this information comes from the Frac-Focus database — Chesapeake’s Shawn Harlan 3H well in Marshall County used 72.22 percent fresh water and 16.04 percent recycled produced water (returned from a previous frack job). The total volume of frack fluid — water plus additives — used was 5,357,562 gallons, about average for a Chesapeake horizontal Marcellus well.

Then came sand, 10.90 percent.

Acids help dissolve minerals and initiate cracks in rocks. Shawn Harlan employed .09 percent hydrochloric acid — about 4,853 gallons.

Citric acid — from fruit — is an iron control agent that prevents precipitation of metal in the pipe. This well used .003 percent — about 186 gallons.

Shawn Harlan employed seven corrosion inhibitors to preserve the pipes, including ethylene glycol (antifreeze, also used in some foods), 25 gallons, and an undisclosed “proprietary” ingredient, 8 gallons.

Fracking fluid also contains antibacterial agents to inhibit corrosion, friction reducers to “slick” the water and keep it flowing, gelling agents to thicken the water to suspend the sand, breakers to allow for a delayed gel breakdown to help the water flow into the borehole, and crosslinkers to maintain fluid viscosity.

In some frack jobs, boric acid, an eye wash, serves as a crosslinker. Edible guar gum is a geller. Sodium chloride — salt — is a friction reducer and lauryl sulfate, a shampoo ingredient, is an anti-emulsifier, meaning it keeps it from gooping up.

Because of the 2005 socalled “Halliburton rule,” fracking fluids, other than diesel, are exempted from federal Safe Drinking Water Act disclosure (Halliburton manufactures fracking additive solutions). State rules on disclosure vary.

In his executive order calling on the DEP to enact emergency rules for the Marcellus industry, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin included this requirement: Before fracking, a list of anticipated additives; after fracking, a list of the additives actually used.

Where does it go?

Although it varies, a rule of thumb is that for every frack job, about 80 percent of the fluid stays 7,000 feet underground and 20 percent comes back up within a few days as flowback or later, during gas extraction, as produced water.

While no one knows the ultimate fate of the 80 percent, the immediate concern is the 20 percent.

Gas companies have several options for the flowback. It has been the practice to store it in lined pits for eventual disposal at a landfill.

In Pennsylvania, the water was often taken to sewage treatment plants, treated and returned to the rivers — until April, after the state determined this process was raising the levels of bromides in rivers. Bromides combine with chlorine at the plants to put carcinogenic trihalomethanes into the water.

While industry officials affirm that dumping used frack water along roads or into streams is illegal, it does happen. A Greene County, Pa., hauler was arraigned on 98 counts of illegal dumping of frack and drilling waste and other wastes in six Pennsylvania counties, according to news reports. His company faces 77 criminal counts.

And spills happen. For example, a truck hauling frack water in Pennsylvania in late 2010 was forced off the road by an oncoming car, and spilled 5,000 gallons.

Many companies — Chesapeake and Northeast among them — have moved or are moving to closed loop drilling and frack water recycling, where waste materials from drilling and fracking are stored in tanks for proper disposal and no waste is buried on site or dumped into waterways.

Chesapeake calls its recycling practice the Aqua Renew program and explains it this way:

Produced water is collected and stored in on-site holding tanks before being transferred to central filtration locations where it is pumped through filters designed to remove any suspended solids or particles. The filtered water is then either stored in on-site tanks or transported to the next well scheduled for fracking.

The water is tested for salt and other mineral content to determine the rate at which it can be blended with freshwater to ensure proper quality and quantity for reuse.

Other companies may recycle frack fluid on site with mobile units or off site at fixed plants.

Produced water, or recycled water, that is too salty to continue using may be injected into deep underground storage wells.

Is it dangerous?

WVU professor Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute, said returned frack water is mostly loaded with chlorine, sodium and calcium (chlorine and sodium combine to form salt).

Along with the additives, various sources say, frack fluid returning to the surface picks up contaminants from underground — salts, metals, naturally radioactive materials. Fracking additives can contain BTEX compounds — benzene, tolulene, xylene and ethylbenzene. BTEX also exists in the gas reservoirs and fracking can release them.

The Energy & Commerce report makes these observations about frack fluid: “Some of the components ... were common and generally harmless, such as salt and citric acid. Some were unexpected, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls. And some were extremely toxic, such as benzene and lead.”

Among the 750 chemicals, 29 were either carcinogenic, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act or listed as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

In those cases where the fracking additive suppliers refused to disclose their formulas, drilling “companies are injecting fluids that they themselves cannot identify.”

It continues, “Some of these chemicals, if not disposed of properly or allowed to leach into the drinking water supply, could damage the environment or pose a risk to human health.”

Here are some of the report’s examples of the potentially harmful additives:

2-butoxyethanol (2-BE) is a foaming agent. If ingested it can destroy red blood cells, and damage the spleen, liver and bone marrow.

Benzene is a known carcinogen. The remaining three BTEX elements can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys.

Hydrogen fluoride is a potentially fatal air pollutant, if absorbed in “substantial amounts.”