ProPublica has a new article, “Underused Drilling Practices Could Avoid Pollution,” discussing possible best management practices and less use of hazardous (and unnecessary, as discussed here) materials for hydraulic fracturing.

This article reflects a certain amount of gas industry PR, but it has useful information, as well.  We’ve seen PR in the recent past, such claims of closed-loop water  systems, which as we’ve shown is impossible, in part because much of what gets injected into the subsurface does not come out.

We are told in the article that

the energy industry has developed innovative ways to make it easier to exploit the nation’s reserves without polluting air and drinking water.

Energy companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals, enclose wastewater so it can’t contaminate streams and groundwater, and sharply curb emissions from everything from truck traffic to leaky gas well valves. Some of their techniques also make good business sense because they boost productivity and ultimately save the industry money — $10,000 per well in some cases.

Statements such as “fewer toxic chemicals” should be viewed with skepticism, because upon scrutiny they convey no real sense of safety. Also, as I’ve pointed out, one should be skeptical about such figures as saving $10,000 per well, when it can cost upwards of $2.5 million for a horizontal well.

(I don’t fault Pro Publica for sounding overly enthusiastic here–they  don’t have technical people writing such articles, and it takes a lot of time for those of us with technical backgrounds to parse this stuff, and even more time to write it up.  Articles have to be written once enough words can be set down, or journalists don’t get paid. I don’t get paid yet, but I’m hopeful, and I am compelled to write and try to keep the record straight.)

Some companies are reported to be using alternative chemicals, but they are not revealing what compounds are in use. This approach is a non-starter, and smells of too many attorneys roiling the waters. Regarding chemicals, the article goes on to say

The “single biggest move” the industry has made to reduce the toxicity of its fluids, according to David Dunlap, chief operating officer for BJ Services, is phasing out diesel fuel, a solvent that contains the potent carcinogen benzene.

Taking credit for this “big move” is another dubious proposition.  The Energy Policy Act of 2005 basically rules out use of diesel fuel (see excerpt here), because many consitutents of diesel are just beyond the pale (such as the BTEX compounds),  are well-known groundwater contaminants, and were in fact causing contamination problems when used for drilling.   That diesel fuel was ever used at all for fracking shows that this  industry has very little knowledge of environmental science and engineering, and that fact should give pause.  (They are not likely to put people with this knowledge in charge of their operations, which is really what is necessary.)

Unfortunately, we don’t see a full-bore, full-court press to commit to researching drilling with only benign compounds, which as I’ve discussed ought to be quite possible.

There’s some good information in the article, including mention of the fact that far less toxic chemicals  are required for fracking in some ocean environments, as I’ve discussed in more detail here. Further, there’s some honest discussion from gas company people who say that usually the only reason they implement certain practices which can at least help some is because they have to. Yet, they oppose regulation, as is usual.

One bottom line issue is that most people have an inherent sense of what is reasonable, and it just is not reasonable to be injecting hazardous chemicals into the subsurface. Especially when it has never been proven to be economically necessary to do so in order to get gas out. Improving things on the edges, such as better water efficiency, putting in pipelines to avoid trucking, and the like, are just that:  on the edges.


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