Hydraulic fracturing or fracking: Raising health and safety concerns

By Maureen Aylward

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the most widely used drilling method to extract methane from shale beds, is under pressure because of safety and health concerns. We asked our Zintro experts about the issues surrounding this extraction method and how it impacts human health and the environment.

GeoFuture, an expert in the oil and gas industry, says that hydraulic fracturing is the preferred industry method for hydrocarbon resource extraction and controlled recovery, which is performed during the completion processes of drilled methane (natural gas) wells. “Common fracturing practices at the surface of the wellbore include the introduction of forced high pressure fluid, typically a proprietary mixture, primarily made up of water; proppant, which is sand or synthetic bead; and compressed inert gas, commonly nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and/or air,” GeoFuture explains. “Fracturing is a proven method to effectively increase the potential volumetric production capability and sustainability of a drilled well by influencing the underground source rock to release the methane trapped within. Fracturing is highly regarded as a safe and well planned procedure among the production fleet, but it seems recent activity has stirred up controversy.”

The recent public interest concerning the possibility of health and safety risks as a byproduct of fracturing have drawn the attention of the news media. “Past incidents like the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez in Alaska have contributed to this public interest in fracturing and raises concern for the oil and gas industry to develop and implement stricter standards regarding operations that may pose a viable threat to the surrounding areas of drilling, production, and transportation,” says GeoFuture. “Fracturing has led to reports of contamination near existing oil and gas wells, so there has been a focus on the possibility that it could contribute to groundwater and agricultural contamination. Much of the public outcry and concern is legitimate, yet fault and responsibility claims are unsubstantiated due to a large amount of speculation along with a lack of conclusive evidence to support claims that fracturing is the culprit.”

GeoFuture points out that EPA case studies document a few exposures in Pennsylvania over the last five years, showing that groundwater contamination took place in the immediate vicinity of existing wells dating back decades. “It seems these older wells were of little concern with regard to contamination activity until new drilling activity began nearby,” he says. “Some sources have claimed fracturing the modern wells may have led to underground damage to the antiquated equipment of the older wells merely by the relationship of proximity. However improbable or unlikely as these claims may be, it is still a questionable matter. Ultimately, the hypothetical result of fracturing lends itself to review of an older well’s integrity and infrastructure by inflicting over-pressure and shock.”

GeoFuture says the current debate represents an excellent requirement for due diligence based fundamentally on the possibility that some form of health, safety, and/or environment may be at risk. “I feel strongly that the benefits are tremendous and vast as consumption necessity demands, but the relationship between the consumer and the provider must always maintain that of a symbiotic state,” he says. “For that mutually beneficial balance to continue, proactive measures must be taken by both sides to further investigate possible negative impacts relevant to fracturing. If discrepancies are discovered, operators must immediately address the requirement for a solution.”

Enrico Saperdi, an oil and gas industry professional, says that there are various issues about hydraulic fracturing for shale gas exploration and production. He says that the industry needs to address the same issues that are present when drilling a conventional gas well and tackle specific questions related to:

  • Types of chemicals used for fracturing (Are they safe, toxic?),
  • Possible contamination of shallow groundwater, and
  • Release of methane into the air (If the quantity is high, it can contribute to the greenhouse effect).

“The potential concerns are currently addressed by various studies, such as the one by the EPA in US,” says Saperdi. “I believe that the technology and knowledge to operate with an acceptable impact on environment already exists, but risks need to be identified and managed case by case from the beginning of any project.”

By Maureen Aylward