A man who worked in the hydraulic fracturing industry explains that the most dangerous thing about the process might just be lurking above the surface.
A scarecrow lynched from a West Virginia tree with a “Die, Frackers” sign pinned on it: Now, that’s a sight to see while riding to your first-ever hydraulic fracturing job.
While studying environmental engineering during the Obama years, I opposed fracking. But, after a summer on Appalachia’s Marcellus Shale, I came to understand it. When I returned to class, I could explain it. My tree-hugging roommate’s explanation of the process was that a piston breaks up the rock. There was no mention of the liquid aspect of hydraulics.
I would not call the men I worked with environmentalists.
We sent plenty of dip spit downhole. Diesel was spilled and not reported. The fracking water was sometimes sourced in questionable ways. However, the crew followed the rules—for the most part.
Oil companies are in the business of extracting hydrocarbons from the ground. They are not in the business of losing hydrocarbons to the neighbor’s drinking water. To understand fracture propagation and flaming faucets (when fracking allegedly goes wrong), we must know basic well construction.
To argue for or against hydraulic fracturing, we must understand basic drilling.
Sticking a straw deep into the depths of this earth can be a wild concept. The weight of a mile deep of rock pressurizes both oil and gas into fluids and, if you punch a simple hole, it could blow. Circulated heavyweight mud provides greater pressure than the rock formation. This prevents a blowout and keeps oil and gas in the reservoir. Overlapping sections of steel pipe cemented in place make up an oil well.
The key is that steel pipe, called “casing.” Casing is the reason you never heard about water contamination before fracking. Drilling wells through water aquifers is nothing new. There is only one easy route through stratified layers of rock and that is a pipe. The basis of a fracked well is this traditional oil well. Hydraulic fracturing is a reservoir stimulation technique that allows more production with less drilling.
The drilling rig is long gone when the frac trucks show up. A wireline crew sends shaped, explosive charges down the cased wellbore. Holes are then perforated at the exact target levels a mile down. The pumps send a slurry of water, chemicals and sand down the straw.
Because the pressure is higher than the fracture pressure gradient of the rock, the rock cracks. Sand fills the cracks and establishes permeability. The isolated pockets of oil and gas now can flow. This is hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
The fracking process is well-designed, efficient and simple. Ten thousand pounds per square inch of pumping will not cause fractures to break through shale that is 390 million years old.
Still, the upward migration of hydraulic fracturing fluids is possible. Concerns with mechanical integrity of the cement and steel casing apply to all oil and gas wells. A poor cement job could provide pathways for frac fluids to reach the water aquifers. A poor cement job is why the Deepwater Horizon released five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
My concern with hydraulic fracturing is not the process, but with human error on the surface.
Bulk hydrochloric acid and biocide winds through the fertile hills of Appalachia. “Biocide” is Latin for “the killer of life.” Trucks crash all the time.
The wind once blew a cloud of the biocide glutaraldehyde that dropped me to my knees. A container of it has a warning sign with a dead fish and a dead tree on it. This product is necessary for underground microbial control and well integrity. Biocide reduces the downhole production of dangerous hydrogen sulfide gas. It also reduces corrosion of steel casing.
The truck traffic is nonstop. There have been bad spills. The Department of Transportation grants exceptions to drivers in the energy industry such as 24-hour restarts, logging waiting time as off-duty and alternate split-break options. The exceptions sound complicated to lay folks like me. But I saw drivers work these little loopholes in order to haul nasty chemicals in the middle of the night.
If you had to pick a reason to rally against fracking, choose the overworked truck driver. Otherwise, know you are rehashing traditional anti-drilling arguments. Human error on the surface should be everyone’s main concern: When automation becomes fully realized, fracking should be safer than ever.