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.


  1. People need water more than they need gas...

    Exempting the fracking process from environmental laws is criminal. We have seen the results of mountaintop removal in the race for dirty coal in the Appalachians. The race for dirty gas is far worse, with, as you point out, little ability for regulation and nation wide effects.

    I urge everyone to see the movie "Gasland" and to add this issue to their "urgent" list. We are fouling our own nest.

  2. Georip: I agree with you on some points but not others.

    I too, think the environmental exemptions are outlandish. This can be fixed with a little political backbone.

    I think "Gasland" has a number of verification problems involving the exaggeration of statements, results and impacts. I just read an in depth analysis of the movie - claim by claim (the link to which I no longer have) - which could not verify a half dozen or so of the most damning claims. Having said this, the movie is most of the time accurate enough to demonstrate the potential problems.

    Finally, I still contend that the practice is safe in certain areas and geologic circumstances, and when done by competent drillers. I'd hope that all the much needed regulation will recognize this and be applied when and where necessary. I'd also prefer to see state regulations rather than federal ones. I may get some feedback over this, but I'm a strong states-rights person and make few excuses for it.

    No doubt fracking is a higher than average risk operation, but that doesn't necessarily mean it should be outlawed forever and everywhere.

    Thanks for your comments. This practice probably does warrant placement on a lot of "urgent" lists. WAB

  3. Follow-up:

    Just read a NYT article ( that suggests a major water quality threat is from "produced water" that increases, along with the target gas, with the fracking process. Much of this water is sent to water treatment plants that are not equipped to handle some of the contaminants - like radium - and thus get discharged into our rivers and surrounding environments.

    Seems there are other reports surfacing, too, from the EPA and confidential reports by the companies themselves that are suggesting other serious problems as well. Read the NYT article for an accounting of these.

    In light of these findings, I'm starting to lean a bit more in the direction of Georip. While additional regulations could theoretically handle the production water treatment and discharge issues, it is not likely to do so effectively enough. The industry is way out in front of the environmental safeguards in these efforts, and that has never bode well in the past. We should all be watching out for this practice a bit more.

  4. Hello, I am from New York, doing a persuasive speech on banning hydraulic fracturing in upstate New York because of the risks posed to the water reservoir. I argue for banning exactly because industry already seems to have found a way out of the restrictions, as the dynamics of capitalism require that it does.

    Question, in the picture you have, is the blue stuff under the shale formation water?

  5. Konstantin: The picture provided is generic and shows differences in formations underground - both above and below the fracking zone. Groundwater (or any other geologic formations) can occur either above or below any shale formation that may be penetrated for oil or gas recovery. The geology of every area is very different and I suspect is the reason why areas have varying problem potentials and natural safeguards. Thanks for your interest in this issue and commenting on my article.

  6. Hello Wayne~
    Thank you for posting this information. I live in rural Jefferson County (in Kansas) and want to know if there are any fracking wells in my area. Do you have that info or know where I can find that info?
    Also do you know a reputable place to have our water tested?

    Thanks again,
    Brenda in Jefferson County

  7. Brenda:
    According to the Kansas Geological Survey ( Jefferson County has had between 40 and 60 oil and gas wells in production since 1995 - all in the very eastern portion of the county. This is not very much activity relative to other producing areas in the state. Since a high percentage of producing wells in KS have been completed by hydrologic fracking techniques, I'd say the chances are good that some of these wells have been fracked, but I know of no place where this definitive information resides. There is a website where production companies can voluntarily disclose their fracking operations, but the entire state of KS lists only 2 wells - both in southwest KS. This site is: KIOGA (Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association) likely has plenty of information, but they are pro-fracking so I don't know what might be available or not. They have a video on the process on their webpage ( I would say that the Kansas Geological Survey would be the best source of info in Kansas, but I don't know what their position is. My guess is that they would be supportive of the practice as safe in Kansas. I know they have been working on a very exhaustive study of underground co2 sequestration in Kansas (in the very formations that oil and gas are being removed from) and they do discuss the fracking operations in detail. This page is: I hope this is helpful. Wayne.

  8. Brenda:
    I'd contact the Kansas Department of Health and Environment about water quality sampling. KDHE maintains a listing of certified water quality testing labs in the state. They would also be able to recommend to you a testing protocol tailored to your needs - I am assuming that in addition to a general water quality test (drinking water suitability) you would be interested in water quality parameters most related to (or potentially affected by) oil and gas operations? The KDHE Bureau of Water website is: Good luck.

  9. Konstantin: Marcellus shale, or Utica Shale in NY is 5-10 thousand feet below the surface, here in Pennsylvania, our water table is 1000-1950 feet depending on the geographical locations, in NY the water table is 1000-1800 feet, hydraulic fracturing takes place far below the water table, and the explosions, aka fracing, extend approximately 500 feet away from the main well hole. Technology today allows the fracing operators to know within meters how far out the frac wings will go. If you would like to learn more, please check out or both sites look at reports that cover the pros and cons of natural gas

  10. Do you think the chemicals injected in to the well are going to stay there? Have you ever heard of osmosis?

    Diffusion of a solvent (usually water molecules) through a semipermeable membrane (shale formations) from an area of low solute concentration to an area of high solute concentration.

    BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico had many safety feature as well, how did that work out?

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