Trying to articulate water issues, provide discussion fodder, seek other ideas, broaden and educate a bit, and, and... well, solve the world's water problems.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Hydraulic Fracturing in Kansas
The process of hydraulic fracturing an oil or gas zone to enhance production has become a hot topic of late in many areas of the US that produce oil and gas. The Marcellus Shale regions of Pennsylvania and the gas producing areas of Wyoming and Colorado have been at the forefront of this controversial issue – over claims that 1) the process is affecting or can affect potable groundwater supplies, and 2) the use of freshwater in this process is a waste. It was a surprise to learn that an estimated 75% to 90% of the Kansas oil and gas production wells have undergone this process. In fact it was mentioned that the process here in Kansas has been used since the mid 1940’s and the very first well fracked in the US was done in state.
Hydraulic fracturing is a process of pumping sand and water (and a tad bit of other proprietary chemicals – mostly ethylene glycol based) into a tight production zone under pressure. The fracking materials fracture the producing horizon allowing the sand to enter and then prop open the fractured veins – thus increasing production. The proportion of chemicals used to the sand and water is small – usually on the order of 1% or less.
Like everything else, this process done correctly and in the right situations and places, is not likely to be an environmental problem. However, done incorrectly or in the wrong places or situations, it can be. Add to it the fact that the specific chemicals used, albeit small amounts, are proprietary (unknown to anyone but the company doing the work) and you can see why state regulatory agencies are snookered – there’s no way to associate or directly connect contaminated water to the fracking process. Another legal issue is that the oil and gas wells have been excluded from federal environmental laws like EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). On the bright side, all this activity in Kansas requires a water right - either permanent or term, and the state is not allowed to approve any water right for fresh water when other, lesser quality waters are available to be used. Presumably this would find very small (if any) amounts of fresh water being used for fracking, or any other oil & gas purpose, in Kansas. (see update below)
It’s clear there is a significant economic benefit of using this process – and to eliminating it. Kansas claims oil and gas is a $4.5 billion dollar industry that would be not near as lucrative if the additional production from fracking processes were eliminated. From my readings, it's clear that the economic prowess of these operations weigh heavily on every state when it starts considering additional regulation. Of course, many are opposed to it on environmental arguments as well.
The sides are lining up in many states, but not here in Kansas it seems. To date there has been no significant or organized opposition to this process that I'm aware of. This is likely because either it is working well here, or, everyone in the state has been asleep at the switch. Not being aware of any insults in Kansas at this time, and knowing that not everyone is clueless, I have to conclude that our geologic conditions and fracking activities have been compatible. We have 1 oil and gas water right in this GMD that was approved from the brackish Dakota Aquifer many years ago for a secondary recovery water flood project. From my limited experience, it seems that the water quality aspects of the issue are working here as well.
Update - October 12, 2011: As it turns out, no freshwater can be approved for use in Kansas when lesser quality waters are technologically and economically feasible. As a result, freshwater is in fact being used in Kansas at this time for oil and gas industry uses.