What’s In My Frack Fluid?

Let’s consider a typical hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operation at a natural-gas well in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. This particular frack site is right in the middle of Marcellus Shale country and lies along the state’s western border, in a rural community similar to many throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The nearest house is approximately 300 feet away and the nearest neighborhood is 1200 feet away. Within 3000 feet of the site lies a sprawling golf course and a small community of 20 houses. The frack site itself is in the center of a farm field in an agricultural setting, and is operated by Chesapeake Energy Appalachia LLC. 

Location of the frack site; note proximity to farms and houses
 With such close proximity to a small community, the chemicals used in the fracking procedure certainly raise concerns.  So…what exactly is in “fracking fluid” anyway?  FracFocus.org is the website used by the drilling industry to voluntarily publish their frack site information (i.e. location, ingredients in frack fluid) for the public to see, and a quick look at it’s ingredients list should help to answer our question.
 The ingredients list for this specific frack reveals a seemingly innocuous mixture (for a fluid that, y’know, breaks open rock thousands of feet below the ground). The fracking fluid consists mostly of water (89% by weight) and sand (10.38%). These ingredients amount to 25,025 tons of fluid. The remaining 0.52% of the mixture is made up of an additional 133 tons of chemicals that must be trucked onto the site. 


Chart with identifying information on frack site studied (Source: FracFocus.org)
Though most of the individual chemicals are less than one ton, there are larger amounts of certain ingredients. For instance, hydrogen chloride (hydrochloric acid) totals a whopping 41 tons. Other ingredients, such as a ‘carbohydrate polymer’ comprise 33 tons, and a ‘synthetic organic polymer’ makes up 21 tons of the fluid. Other high-amount ingredients include tetramethyl ammonium chloride (13 tons), ‘aliphatic polyol’ (11 tons), potassium hydroxide (5.5 tons) and hydrotreated petroleum distillate (3 tons).


Excerpt from FracFocus data sheet showing amount of hydrogen chloride (hydrochloric acid) used in Chesapeake frack. Amounts in FracFocus are given as total percentage of the frack fluid by weight, not a very meaningful way to present this information to the public.
The problem is the incomplete disclosure of these chemicals. Each ingredient I’ve listed in the above paragraph in quotation marks has a generic name, and is lacking a Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) number that specifies what the chemical really is. Counting the three ingredients I’ve already listed in this article (the aliphatic polyol, the carbohydrate polymer and the synthetic organic polymer) there are a total of six ingredients in this particular mixture that have no CAS number. Totaled, this means almost half of the chemicals listed (by weight) have been purposely unaccounted for. 
That’s right:  65 tons of mystery chemicals trucked down narrow country roads past farms, homes and schools, and injected into the ground:


Comparison of chemicals accounted for and chemicals not identified (red).

Bakken Shale-Oil Drilling and Flaring Lights Up the Night Sky

Our friends at NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center provided us with this very interesting satellite image composite of the upper Midwest, made from nighttime satellite images collected by the U.S. Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.  State outlines are superimposed on the image:

Multiyear composite (1992, 2000, 2010) of nighttime DMSP satellite images of the Midwestern United States. Image courtesy NGDC.

Multiple cloud-free images collected over several years have been combined to make this picture:  1992 is shown in blue, 2000 in green, and 2010 in red.  Places that had lots of light in all three years show up bright white (equal amounts of blue, green and red) — that basically shows established cities and towns that haven’t changed much over that time period.

But whoa, check out that big patch of red in the northwest corner of North Dakota.  That indicates an area of bright lights in 2010 that was dark in 2000 and 1992.  What could this be?

Here’s a hint:  a map showing the extent of the red-hot Bakken Shale oil-drilling boom that got underway a few years ago. Oil is being produced from the Bakken by drilling and hydraulically fracturing (yes, that’s “fracking”) long horizontal wells, the same approach that is driving new drilling for oil and natural gas in the Haynesville, Fayetteville, Barnett, Marcellus, Utica, Niobrara and other hydrocarbon-rich shale formations around the country:

Wells drilled in the Bakken Shale, northwestern North Dakota – northeastern Montana.

So why is this area all lit up at night?  Well, the rigs and other facilities are highly illuminated because drilling is a 24/7 proposition – time is money so there is no “down time.”

But there is another reason too: operators in this oil field are flaring off large quantities of natural gas.  That’s right, burning it off as a hazardous nuisance.  Meanwhile some folks on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill complain loudly that environmental rules and government policies are limiting industry’s access to more public lands throughout America so they can drill for – you got it – natural gas. Despite the fact that industry is already sitting on thousands of approved drilling permits that remain idle, and millions of acres of leases they aren’t developing.

Yep, this makes my head hurt too.

So sit back and watch this spectacular time-lapse video shot by astronauts on the International Space Station for another view of this lit-up drilling area from space.  Go full screen for maximum enjoyment.  Maybe the stunning aurora borealis and flashes of lightning will make the headache go away…

File this under “Violators WILL be held accountable for their actions”

We applaud the Pennsylvania DEP after reading the report yesterday on Gantdaily.com‘s website which stated that Catalyst Energy, Inc. has been fined $185,000 for water contamination, erosion violations and spills. Oh my!

It should be noted that these violations occurred at Catalyst’s non-Marcellus oil and gas drilling sites in Forest, McKean and Warren Counties in Pennsylvania. In Forest County, there were 14 incidents of water contamination, with water samples showing higher levels of iron, manganese and methane than in samples taken prior to the start of drilling in those areas. Sloppy, sloppy.

Read the article to see what other fun things occurred at Catalyst’s sites, and tell us what you think. Is enough being done? Should there be more controls put in place?

Drilling Alerts: SkyTruth Kicks It Up a Notch for 2012!

A new year brings new possibilities here at SkyTruth! For us, that means an amazing new portal of drilling data and maps for easy access and download.

SkyTruth Drilling Alerts is a compendium of datasets, links and news to give any concerned citizen the tools necessary to become informed about the issues that matter most to them.

We have created a live system of alerts for the public to subscribe to, providing up-to-date notification of drilling events in Pennsylvania and/or West Virginia (other states are on our radar). As soon as we know, you know!

Click to visit the SkyTruth Drilling Alerts site!

The site also showcases our mapping work showing drilling throughout the Marcellus shale region. Maps that highlight levels of drilling activity by county and watershed are provided in printable format as well as in interactive form for more dynamic, searchable viewing. These maps are designed to help concerned citizens get organized to perform regular tests of water quality in streams, creeks and rivers where drilling activity is highest and impacts to water quality are most likely to be occurring. As new shale-gas drilling spreads throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and on to Ohio and New York, such proactive knowledge is crucial to understanding if and how resource extraction will affect our nation’s valuable waterways.

This site also provides visitors with recent SkyTruth news and updates as well as links to and explanations of our most useful data sources.

We want this to be an informative and user-driven resource, so please do not hesitate to share your comments and suggestions for improvement as you explore! We are also calling for any and all assistance with identifying and maintaining datasets you think would be useful to include on the Alerts maps. Contact us! 

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter where we will be announcing additions and improvements to this site as we strive to keep our Earth and global community as clean and healthy as possible!

Gas Drilling Heating Up West Virginia

Although most of the recent natural gas drilling coverage has centered around the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania, West Virginia has never been out of the loop when it comes to energy resource extraction.

Oil, natural gas and coal bed methane industries have quietly grown alongside the long-entrenched coal business in the state, but as production ramps up across the nation, West Virginia’s natural gas drilling is drawing increased attention.

(maps and more after the jump)

SkyTruth downloaded and analyzed data from West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection to create the maps below. Each show the extent and concentration of permits issued across the state between 2005 to 2011.  Note that a “permit” does not necessarily indicate that the well has been drilled, or fracking has taken place, but in the hot Marcellus Shale play we think it’s likely that action follows the permit approval more often than not, and quickly.

All oil and gas well drilling permits issued by watershed from 2005 to 2011


All hydraulic fracturing (fracking) permits issued by watershed from 2005 to 2011
So, what effects will the rising gas  industry have on the state, especially in highly permitted areas like the Middle West Fork River watershed?  Unlike coal, natural gas drilling, especially that employing hydraulic fracturing methods, is relatively unexplored regulatory and environmental territory.

Although the industry may be decreasing unemployment in some localities, some citizens are worried that in the haste to drill proper environmental regulations have not been implemented to account for the risks and impacts associated with the new technologies of horizontal drilling and fracking.

Here in West Virginia concerned citizens have pushed the legislature to review the issue and the Senate Judiciary Committee just this week forwarded along a controversial set of rules dictating Marcellus regulation, but to what end? With strong industry players touting economic benefits and pushing against costly regulations, it will be interesting to see where West Virginia falls in the battle between profit and oversight.