SPEARFISH — If oil and gas development came to northwestern South Dakota, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” would come as well. And there's some debate in the public sector on the environmental and human health impacts surrounding this process.
Fracking and horizontal drilling technologies are almost completely responsible for the recent oil boom in North Dakota. The petroleum hydrocarbons in the Williston Basin are largely trapped in porous shale rock formations. The most effective way to access these trapped hydrocarbons is through a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
First a well is drilled straight down to a certain depth — usually some two miles beneath the earth's surface. That well is then encased in cement all the way down to prevent both hydraulic fracturing chemicals and petroleum from finding its way into aquifers or groundwater formations at various depths on the drilling path. Once that concrete has dried and has been tested at extremely high pressures to make sure it will hold up to the high pressure injection of a mixture of water, sand and miscellaneous chemicals that takes place in the fracking process, another drill is sent down into the well, which drills down farther, beyond the cement casing, until it reaches the shale formations that are rich with trapped petroleum. This is where horizontal drilling comes in. Little by little that drill turns from vertical to horizontal, often drilling out two miles horizontally into the formation from the initial curve point. This is when hydraulic fracturing takes place. Some 10 million gallons of water, sand and miscellaneous hydraulic fracturing chemicals are pumped down into the well at immense pressure. This pressure builds up in the shale rock formations until it creates fissures in the rock, and through those fissures flows the oil and natural gas that have been trapped in the rock for millions of years. That's how it's been done in North Dakota and that's more than likely how it would be done in northwestern South Dakota.
So what are the environmental and human health concerns behind this practice? There are a myriad. And officially, as far the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned, the jury is still out on the process. They're currently working on a study that they expect to release sometime in 2015. The concerns largely have to do with the contamination of groundwater/drinking water by fracking chemicals and natural gasses like methane, and to some extent the creation of manmade earthquakes via another part of the fracking process.
Australia has been so concerned by hydraulic fracturing and its related processes that it suspended the practice entirely nationwide from January to April of this year. Last year in the U.K., studies by the British Geological Survey concluded that two earthquakes were linked to nearby fracking operations. Ohio regulators recently determined that a rash of minor earthquakes in the state last year were very likely caused by the high pressure injection of hydraulic fracturing waste water into deep disposal wells. A recent study by the Colorado School of Public Heatlh concluded that those living within a half mile of hydraulic fracturing operations faced higher risks of cancer.
This is some scary stuff. But how scared should we be? Thankfully a panel of several official speakers at the Black Hills Bakken Oil Conference addressed these issues and more at the close of the second and final day of the conference, held last week in Spearfish. South Dakota State Geologist Derric Iles took on these environmental questions first.
“To be brutally factual, every time you frac a well you're causing an earthquake. It's the micro-cracks that you're developing under the ground; you can measure them with sensitive seismic instrumentation,” Iles said. “We're concerned with the inducement of earthquakes that may cause physical damage on the surface, you know, the collapse of building, disruption of utilities or those sorts of things. I am not aware, in the U.S. anyhow, where the hydraulic fracturing process — not underground injection of waste, that's a separate issue — but the hydraulic fracturing process that has caused an earthquake of the kind that humans usually get upset about.”
Iles stated that the confusion sets in when attempting to differentiate fracking itself and the high-pressure, deep underground injection of wastewater.
“You've got a pipe in the ground, you're pumping something into it, it must be fracking. There is underground injection of waste,” Iles said. “One of the examples that comes to my mind is a long time ago in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal where they were, over a long period of time, under extremely high pressure, injecting waste under ground — which is a permitted, legal way to dispose of whatever it is you have. But what they had the unfortunate event to happen is that they activated an old fault. Essentially they greased the skids by the continual application of high pressure with the injection of fluid along an old fault line that they didn't know was there. When they stopped the injection, bingo, the earthquake stopped.
“There is a difference between long-term, high-pressure injection of underground waste and the instantaneous, relatively speaking, hydraulic fracturing of a well,” Iles continued. “So, that's the earthquake side.”
Iles then addressed the chemical/groundwater contamination side of the question, stating that in North Dakota, for example, they're fracking roughly two miles below the earth's surface.
“That is far, far, far, below any drinking water source that we may access as humans,” he said. “The oil industry can do wonderful things, but it cannot cause fractures two miles high through the earth's surface to get to useable aquifers.
“So the fear that we all read that says, 'oh my God, hydraulic fracturing is causing contamination of shallow ground water,' I personally am not aware of any case for hydraulic fracturing, the process of the hydraulic fracturing at depth has caused the contamination of shallow ground water,” Iles continued. “Now, do humans do stupid things? You bet. Do we spill things on the land surface? Do we have accidents at land surface that caused the contamination of shallow ground water? Absolutely. Those are the things that happen. I don't think there's any documented case were the hydraulic fracturing at depth has caused shallow ground water contamination.”
Buzz Skretteberg, a retired geologist for Superior and Exxon oil companies and Spearfish native with decades of experience in the oil industry, added to Iles' statement and said that there has been contamination from hydraulic fracturing in surface waters, but only if the fracturing was done very close to the level of those surface waters. He added that he too was unfamiliar with any cases of water contamination from fracking at depth.
“The last thing we want to do is ruin the drinking water sources that we have around the Black Hills, or in northwestern South Dakota, wherever it might be,” Iles added. “I can assure that I personally am passionate not only about the potential for economic development in South Dakota, but I am equally passionate about protecting those resources for future generations and, I'm just not going to look the other way.”
Lance Astrella, attorney at Denver's Astrella Law, P.C., has had decades of legal experience with the oil and gas industry and spends most of his time advising and representing individual land and mineral owners. He also weighed in on these environmental issues.
Astrella stated that he agreed with everything that had been said about deep level fracking being safe as long as the companies responsible for the fracking are working within the guidelines of best management practices that work to minimize or eliminate altogether any unsavory side effects.
“The handling of flow-back fluid, storm water runoff, and seepage, if they're not handled correctly, can cause water contamination,” Astrella said. “And then there is the migration up the back of the pipe of old wells. And there have been instances where there has been contamination through that. Of course, you can do what they call mechanical integrity tests on the old vertical wells to be sure that cement job stood strong before you do your horizontal frac. So it's one of those best management practices that ought to be followed to be sure there's not a pathway up into the aquifer.
“Going back to earthquakes,” he continued. “Those earthquakes had to do with injection of class 2 disposal wells, disposal wells that take wastewater and fluids. It could be frac fluids that are being disposed of because they're not recycling and large volumes of waste product have to be disposed of. Secondly, you have a lot of water that's being injected that has nothing to do with fracs, it's produced water. In a lot of fields there's more water produced than oil and gas, and you have to inject those, that's why. And there's a pretty good body evidence that it causes earthquakes. It happened in Oklahoma, it happened in Dallas, it happened in Arkansas, it happened more recently in Ohio. Again, best management practices. If it's produced water it should be cleaned up and processed. And that's the interface that regulators have to look at, to protect the water, to preserve the water while accommodating oil and gas development.”
The general consensus of those on the panel was that horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and they're related processes can be relatively harmless, at the extraction level, if best management practices are utilized each and every time. But with state and national level regulations on the process still in relative infancy, those best management practices may not always be practiced. Astrella pushed that requiring those best management practices, at this stage, is mostly the responsibility of individual land and mineral owners as well as local communities.
And while the Obama administration recently released a new set of regulations that requires oil and gas companies drilling on public and Native American lands to publicly disclose the chemicals used in fracking operations, as well as set standards for the proper construction and of wells and wastewater disposal operations, these regulations do not put a check on operations on private lands, where most of the shale oil drilling and exploration is taking place.
Astrella is right, individual land and mineral owners as well as local communities must be in the know about best management practices if they want to ensure safe, responsible drilling. We'll examine Astrella's suggestions of land and mineral owners and local communities in the next installment of our Black Hills Bakken oil series next week.