Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a stimulation process used to extract natural gas (and in some cases oil) from deep reserves 5,000-8,000 feet below the ground surface. This process allows energy companies to access previously unavailable energy sources in California and other states.
The fracking process involves pumping water, chemicals, and sand (proppant) slurry at high pressure into a well, which fractures the surrounding rock formation and props open passages, allowing natural gas to more freely flow from rock fractures to the production well. The chemicals used in this process include but are not limited to benzene, gelling agents, crosslinkers, friction reducers, corrosion inhibitors, scale inhibitors, biocides and, in some cases, diesel fuel.
Once the well is developed, the carrying fluid can then flow back to the ground surface along with the gas. However, in most cases, only 20-40% of the carrying fluid flows back to the surface and the rest remains deep in the ground. Initially, the technology used 20,000 to 80,000 gallons of water per well, but today’s advanced fracturing techniques can use up to 8 million gallons of water and 75,000 to 320,000 pounds of sand (proppant) per well.
Despite a history that can be traced back to the 1940s, hydraulic fracturing had not been utilized on a massive scale until 2003, when energy companies began actively expanding natural gas exploration with an emphasis in shale formations in Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wyoming, Utah, and Maryland.
The expansion was aided by a landmark study conducted by the EPA in 2004 which found that hydraulic fracturing posed no threat to underground drinking water supplies. Shortly afterward, hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the Bush administration in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
As the utilization of hydraulic fracturing grows, so does the level of controversy over the practice within the media and neighboring communities. Chief concerns include the high consumption of water resources, the generation of large volumes of wastewater, the irreversible injection of chemicals deep underground and their potential impact on drinking water and surface water resources.
In 2010 the Awareness of Chemicals Act, a bill to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act, was presented to legislators to repeal the 2005 exemption for hydraulic fracturing. In addition, the EPA asked the companies that perform hydraulic fracturing to turn over data related to their procedures and information on the chemical composition of the fracking fluid and its effects on human health and the environment.
Furthermore, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development began conducting a scientific study to investigate the possible relationships between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, with the intent to identify potential risks associated with hydraulic fracturing in order to continue protecting national resources and neighboring communities. The final study results are expected to be released in 2012.
Although fracturing has long been used by California oil operators in drilling operations, to date, hydraulic fracturing has not received the same level of media and regulatory attention that it has in New York and Pennsylvania. Despite this, new state regulations are being drafted to further investigate this issue.
On June 1st, 2011, the California Assembly passed Assembly Bill 591, which would impose a number of new public disclosure requirements on operators conducting hydraulic fracturing operations in California. On June 14th, the bill passed the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee but was referred back to the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality. As of now, a date for further review of the bill has not yet been determined.
Hydraulic fracturing has become a key element of natural gas development worldwide, and countries such as Canada, India, England, and China are actively pursuing implementation of this technology to tap into this new source of energy. Nationally, hydraulic fracturing has brought jobs and revenue to remote rural areas and increased revenues in several states. However, like any advanced technology, it has also raised questions about its long-term impact on the environment. We expect research and debate to continue well into the future and we will follow up with new and upcoming regulations.