Fracking In California Under Spotlight As Some Local Municipalities Issue Bans

The 2014 US Midterm Elections significantly altered the balance of power in the US Congress. As a result, energy policy from now on ranks high on the upcoming Republican majority’s legislative agenda. Indeed, Republican leadership is wasting no time with both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate prepared to take up and vote on the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in a matter of days, according to a report by Reuters.

This, however, has not been the only energy-related result from Election Night 2014.Voters in some communities in California, Ohio, and perhaps most surprisingly in Texas, chose to enact bans on fracking. Clearly, Texas has to be considered the standout here because it leads the nation in growth in oil and natural gas production jobs – this measure includes “extraction, drilling, and support jobs categories [while excluding] the many jobs at oil and natural gas corporate headquarters based in Texas” – as EIA data for the period 2003 through 2013 show.

roman fracking1 Source: EIA

Denton, a city in North Texas on the edge of the Barnett Shale, became the state’s first toban hydraulicfracturing, or fracking, within its city limits. Barry Stevens writing for cites the adopted proposition: “Shall an ordinance be enacted prohibiting, within the corporate limits of the city of Denton, Texas, hydraulic fracturing, a well stimulation process involving the use of water, sand and/or chemical additives pumped under high pressure to fracture subsurface non-porous rock formations such as shale to improve the flow of natural gas, oil, or other hydrocarbons into the well, with subsequent high rate, extended flowback to expel fracture fluids and solids.”

The following map shows fracking bans and moratoria across the lower 48 states.

roman fracking2 Source: Resources for the Future via The Atlantic Council / The Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Obviously, this will keep courts busy due to legal challenges by the oil and gas industry such as the Texas Oil and Gas Association as well as the State of Texas – here represented by the Texas Land Commissioner. This case raises interesting legal questions regarding property as well mineral rights and, above all, whose ultimate prerogative it is to regulate oil and gas production. In Texas, the Railroad Commission (RRC) chaired by Christi Craddick is responsible for such regulation. Specifically, the RRC implements the Hydraulic Fracturing Disclosure Rule (Statewide Rule 29, Texas Administrative Code, Title 16, Part 1, §3.29), which is “one of the nation’s most comprehensive rules for disclosure of chemical ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing fluids,” according to the RRC website. With respect to all the legal implications, Jim Malewitz of The Texas Tribune writes very instructively:

“Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power is not absolute. The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over all oil and gas wells in the state, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities, including Denton, the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests. A key question is where fracking falls on that spectrum.”

Aside from all those legal questions, the local population’s fear of hydraulic fracturing/fracking potentially ‘affecting’ and/or contaminating the water supply needs to be examined further in light of the grassroots advocacy group Frack Free Denton’s (FFD) claim that “fracking a single well contaminates 4-8 million gallons of precious freshwater forever.”

Barry Stevens refutes this claim – in particular, zeroing in on the word ‘forever’ – by rightly pointing out that “[u]p to 50 percent of the contaminated frac water flows back to the surface within the first 30 days after hydraulic fracturing. This flowback water can be economically treated for reuse in another frac job or recycled into the environment to meet fresh water standards. The remaining 50 percent of the water either stays downhole or slowly returns to the surface with formation water during the life of a well. Here again, this produced water can be treated for reuse or recycling.” For more information on ‘produced water’ read Breaking Energy’s “Common Misconceptions about Produced Water in Oil and Gas Production”.

Meanwhile, the RRC stresses on its website that “hydraulic fracturing has been an environmentally safe process for more than 60 years in Texas,” which is reflected in its track record. As for – at least in the case of Texas – the concern of groundwater contamination, the RRC points to its strict well construction requirements, rigorous regulatory oversight, and – not to be underestimated – variations in geology among US states. A relatively recent study seems to back this up as it finds that water supply contamination (‘fouled water’) is most likely the result of leaky drilling wells rather than the result of using hydraulic fracturing to release the oil/gas from a target geologic formation.

In this context, the RRC explains further:

“Hydraulic fracturing in Texas typically occurs a mile or more below aquifers, with many thousands of feet of isolating rock in between fresh water zones and the hydrocarbon-bearing zones that are hydraulically fractured. For example, freshwater zones vary throughout the Barnett Shale region, which can range from the surface to a depth of 2,000 feet. Before you get to the Barnett Shale formation, there is another 4,000 to 6,000 feet of isolating rock protecting the fresh water zones. The tight shale hydraulic fracturing that is occurring in the Barnett Shale is more than a mile deep at depths of between 6,000 and 7,500 feet. [Conversely, in] the Eagle Ford Shale, the Carrizo Aquifer is found from the surface to a 6,000 foot depth, while 3,000 to 8,000 feet of isolating layers of rock is found between the aquifer and the zone that is undergoing tight shale hydraulic fracturing at depths of between 8,000 and 15,000 feet.”

So, if nothing else this underscores the logic behind conducting case-by-case reviews during the drilling permit application process.

Lastly, as for the water used to hydraulically fracture wells, it is crucial to understand that the amount of water needed is highly variable and depends both on the geologic formation and whether the well in question is a vertical or a horizontal well. In this respect, the RRC suggests that in “the Barnett Shale, hydraulic fracturing of a vertical well completion can use 1.2 million gallons (28,000 barrels) of water, while the fracturing of a horizontal well completion can use 3.5 million gallons (over 83,000 barrels) of water. In the Eagle Ford Shale, industry has reported an average use of approximately 11 acre-feet of water used to complete each well.” Also note that there are constant improvements in drilling efficiency, accuracy in the drilling process with eventually positive implications for overall lower water use throughout the oil/gas production process.

Moreover, “the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing is relatively small when compared to other water uses such as agriculture, manufacturing and municipal water supply,” the RRC asserts further. This is a very salient point that becomes even more meaningful when the comparison of water use of hydraulic fracturing in unconventional oil and gas plays is broadened to include conventional oil production in the US. Another recent study does exactly that.

B. R. Scanlon, R. C. Reedy, and J.-P. Nicot find in their highly informative study published in Environmental Science & Technology (9/2014) and entitled “Comparison of Water Use for Hydraulic Fracturing for Unconventional Oil and Gas versus Conventional Oil” – examining the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays – that “about twice as much water is used per unit of energy (water-to-oil ratio…) in the oil zone (WOR: 1.4) as in the gas zone (water-to-oil-equivalent-ratio, WOER: 0.6) [with] large differences in water use for oil between the two plays, with mean Bakken water use/well (2.0 × 106 gal/well) about half that in the Eagle Ford, and a third per energy unit.” The authors not only attribute these “variations mostly to geological differences” but also suggest to expect a further decrease in water-to-oil ratios for those unconventional plays “based on estimated ultimate oil recovery of wells”. Most importantly, they emphasize that “these unconventional water-to-oil ratios (0.2−1.4) are within the lower range of those for U.S. conventional oil production (WOR: 0.1−5) [concluding that] the U.S. is using more water because HF [hydraulic fracturing] has expanded oil production, not because HF is using more water per unit of oil production.

In this context, check out the following graphic:

Comparison of Water Use for Hydraulic Fracturing

roman fracking3

Source: B. R. Scanlon,R. C. Reedy, and J.-P. Nicot, Environmental Science & Technology (48; 9/2014), American Chemical Society Publications; Read the entire study here.

In sum, the hydraulic fracturing process itself is not to blame for increased water use and the increased potential of water supply contamination. Rather, it is the rapid expansion of oil/gas production across the US as a whole that accounts for increased water consumption and ancillary oil and gas development processes that appear to be the most likely water contamination pathways. Moreover, comprehending the differences in geologic formations is crucial for keeping our water supply safe, while continually honing industry best practices and regulations that help ensure responsible exploitation of the country’s abundant of natural resources.