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Fracking: The Oil and Gas Industry’s 1% Definition — And Some of the 99% of the Problems Left Out

by William C. Rau
Professor Emeritus of Industrial Sociology, Illinois State University

The controversy about fracking starts with its definition. The industry defines fracking as the process of injecting a fluid or gas under pressure to fracture hydrocarbon saturated rock so that oil, natural gas liquids, or methane can be extracted. Many narrow the definition further to the brief underground phase when high pressure injection of fluid factures rock. This definition excludes more than 99% of a well’s life cycle: road, pipeline and well-pad construction; drilling; surface frack-pad activities, including spills, air pollution and accidents; producing wells that leak, have blowouts and fires; disposal of caustic, toxic, sometimes radioactive waste; and earthquakes tied to injection of waste in deep wells. In sum, over 99% of the industry’s problems are ignored by restricting “fracking” to far less than 1% of a fracked well’s life cycle.

The oil and gas industry often misrepresents both the narrow 1% slice and its related activities. For example, it can claim that fracking:

1. occurs at depths of ≥8,000 feet; pollution of aquifers is impossible because many layers of rock lie between the fracking and the H2O.

2. Uses a frack fluid mix of 90% water, 9.5% silica sand & only 0.5% harmless chemicals, such as table salt, guar gum (in ice cream), potassium carbonate (in detergent), isopropanol (in deodorant).

3. Relies on safe disposal of toxic waste by injecting it down deep wells.

4. Does not cause earthquakes.

5. Is tightly regulated to insure safety.

Each of these assertions falls apart under cross examination:

First, shale can be close to the surface. Illinois has the shallowest shale in the US with much of it less than 2,500 feet below the surface.(1) The deepest area is only 4,500 feet underground. At these depths, pollution of water wells with methane can occur. For example, Osborn et al.(2) found hazardous levels of methane in water wells that were located nearby frack pads with drilling depths of about 4,000 feet. Each of the dots in the figure below by Osborn is a water well. Dangerous levels of methane were found in the grey zone or higher, i.e. more than 10 milligrams of methane per liter of H2O. Isotope analysis showed that the gas came from deep in the shale field by way of frack pads located less than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) from water wells.

Figure 3

The Illinois 500-foot setback of frack pads from water wells is less than 1/6th the minimally safe distance. When Illinois shale gas is extracted, asphyxiation and home fires or explosions may occur from methane-contaminated water wells and basements. Here are three reports among a partial list of 5,000 people harmed by fracking & it’s related activities (3):

David L. Andre (Case 350)
Location: Caddo Parish, LA; Gas Facility: Exco well
Exposure: Water
Symptoms: Had to evacuate home and was advised by public health officials that the water was a severe health and safety hazard — not even be used for washing clothes or bathing. Government officials warned residents against smoking or having any kind of open fire near water systems that obtain water from the
Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.

Dick Bilodeau, Deb Thomas & 24 other families (Cases 665-689)
Location: Clark, WY; Gas Facility: Windsor Energy gas wells
Exposure: 5 to 7 million cubic feet of gas discharged into air during the 58-hour blowout; benzene, acetone, carbon disulfide and others
Symptoms: 25 homes evacuated, Fort Union bedrock aquifer polluted; blowout resulted in a 10 million cubic foot plume of groundwater contamination, or >100 Olympic- size swimming pools.

Steve Combs (4) (Case 5071)
Location: White County, IL; Oil Facility: Injection disposal well
Exposure: Water – Barium, sodium, zinc
Symptoms: Combs cannot use his well H2O; must purchase water.

And we have not covered surface spills, leaks, and blowouts which, in 2012, amounted to more than 16 million gallons of oil, frack fluid and brine. That is larger than the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez spill.(5)

Second, slickwater frack fluid. It’s 90% H2O all right –3 to 8 million gallons permanently removed from the hydrological cycle and future human reuse. The 0.5% chemicals? That’s 15,000 to 40,000 gallons of often toxic, hazardous pollutants, and sometimes carcinogenic chemicals, prohibited under the Safe Water Drinking Act (6) — until the Halliburton Loophole largely exempted the oil & gas industry from federal regulation. Huge quantities of water, steel pipe, and sand are used once, then buried forever underground.

In a 5 million gallon frack, 757 barrels of chemicals (~32,000 gallons @ 42 gallons per barrel) would be needed, almost half of which (373 barrels) would consist of mystery, “trade secret” chemicals. These 757 barrels exceed the space found in typical two-story suburban home.

The focus only on the underground phase of fracking diverts attention from what happens above where fracking creates a dangerous, intense industrial zone. A great clangor surrounds frack pads 24/7 for months at a time. Bulldozers level trees, build roads, lay pipe, and shape well sites. Then the din of drilling starts with big trucks moving chemicals, pipe, and frack sand. The loudest racket begins when the frack pumps throttle up with silica dust and volatile organic compounds filling the air. This is why PR videos on fracking use animation.(7) The reality is just too deafening, stinking, dangerous, and befouled to spin into something benign.(8)

As befits a scene from Dante’s hell, not one worker safety provision graces Illinois’ Fracking Act. Yet, frack pads, with a fatality rate at least 8 times higher than all industry, are one of the deadlier US work settings.(9)

Third, oil field brine disposal is fraught with problems. Brine that is removed from the oil is caustic, laden with toxic minerals, such as barium and arsenic, and can be radioactive. The US Geological Survey found radium in Illinois brine to average over 1,000 picoCuries per Liter, 10 or 200 times above the EPA maximum contamination level for drinking H2O. Radium in brine can also coat pipe and equipment at levels well over 100,000 picoCuries per gram of scale. Not safe scrap metal to end up in school playgrounds, which has happened in the South.(11)

In Illinois brine must be pumped down a Class II injection well, but neither the law nor the rules on fracking call for paper manifests or electronic monitors to ensure safe disposal of this caustic, toxic junk — even though illegal dumping has been a problem in other states. (12)

Pumping brine down Class II wells is not always safe. A recent ProPublica (13) analysis found:

— Radium leaking from injection wells into aquifers.
— Injection wells can leak for years before being detected because EPA requires inspections only once every 5 years.
— Class II well 1/4 mile setbacks should be increased to two miles from aquifers or abandoned wells.
— Injection-well earthquakes & movement of toxic waste into aquifers can be caused by well operators who use too much pressure to pump too much fluid– a profitable, often unpoliced infraction.

Unlike Ohio, with its pressure fall-off testing, continuous seismic and well mechanical integrity monitoring, and shut offs on injection pumps set to maximum allowable injection pressure,(14) Illinois adheres to skimpy EPA requirements. Moreover, the EPA may be looking the other way. Illinois may not know who owns many of the state’s Class II wells. And a number of wells apparently lack mechanical integrity tests over the last decade, a violation of EPA’s 5-year test rule.

When injected into depleted oil fields, brine re-pressurizes fields (15) where half-century or older oil wells hopefully still have intact plugs. If any of the +160,000 abandoned wells leak, brine can move up & into aquifers. If radium moves with the brine, the polluted water will be undrinkable for thousands of years.(16) Radium 226 has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Fourth, scientists agree that injection of brine can cause serious earthquakes, such as the M5.7 earthquake in Prague, OK which damaged 14 homes, injured two people, and buckled a highway. Injection well earthquakes, such as Prague’s, are due to the “well-understood process of weakening a preexisting fault by elevating the fluid pressure” which lubricates fault rock thus causing it to slip and generate an earthquake.(17) As fracking has increased rapidly, so too have earthquakes near injection wells. Fracked wells produce 50 to 100 times more waste than vertical oil and gas wells; and brine injection is the leading cause for the 7-fold increase in mid-U.S. quakes, namely from 21 per year from 1970 thru 2000 to between 134 and 188 in 2011.(18)

Fifth, ineffectual regulatory rituals cloak de-facto deregulation of the oil and gas industry. A report by EnergyWire News found zero fines for 3,600 violations in New Mexico and enforcement actions on only 2% of 55,000 infractions in Texas.(19) After a six-state review, Lisa Sumi at Earthworks could not find one state willing or able to protect its citizens from the harm unleashed by fracking.(20) Here is what Earthworks found:

— Only 1/2 to 1/10 of wells were actually inspected.
— Violations, when found, were often not formally recorded.
— Formally recorded violations resulted in few penalties.
— When assessed, penalties were little more than nuisance fines.

We have no confidence that Illinois will do better and a lot of evidence that it will do worse. We have a loophole-ridden law, trivial draft rules to enforce the law, and a regulatory agency showing clear signs that it intends to protect oil and gas companies and not Illinois citizens.(21)

For the reasons given above, along with others not developed here, it should be clear that fracking is inherently unsafe. Rigorous regulation could reduce the danger, but not even one state has attempted to do so. Moreover, climate change, to which fracked gas & oil will contribute greatly, the unfavorable long-term job prospects and economic costs of extractive industries, particularly for the communities where they are located, and the current availability of cost competitive renewable energy sources, still would make fracking a decidedly bad choice.

For more information, consult the references below, and read Mr. Rau’s editorial for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

1 U.S. Department of Energy. 2009. Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer.
2 Osborne, S.G. et al. 2011 (5-17). Methane Contamination of Drinking Water … and Hydraulic Fracturing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
3 Lisak, Jenny. 2014 (2/17). List of the Harmed.
4 Here’s a report on Steve’s well:
5 Soraghan, Mike. 2013 (7/8). Oil spills: US well sites in 2012 discharged more than Valdez;
6 U.S. Congressional Research Service. 2009. Unconventional Gas Shales;
7 Marathon Oil. 2012 (4/26). Animation of Hydraulic Fracturing;
8 See videos at:

9 Schneider, Andrew and Marilyn Geewax. 2013 (12/27). On-The-Job Deaths Spiking As Oil Drilling Quickly Expands. National Public Radio.
10 US Geological Survey. 1999. Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) in Produced Water and Oil-Field Equipment…. USGS Fact Sheet FS-142-99.
11 Speaks, Martha 2010. Radiation at Blaine Elementary School;
12 Kaufman, Scott. 2013 (Aug 30). Ohio man pleads guilty to dumping fracking waste into Mahoning River.
Atkin, Emily. 2014 (Jan 3). Exxon to Face Criminal Charges for 50,000+ Gallon Fracking Wastewater Spill. ThinkProgress;
13 Lustgarten, Abrahm. 2012. Injection Wells: The Poison Beneath Us. ProPublica;
14 Tomastik, Tom. N.D. Ohio’s New Class II Regulations. ODNR.,%20Tom.pdf
15 IL EPA. 1978 (Nov). Illinois Oil Field Brine Disposal Assessment;
16 Brown, Valerie. 2014. Radionuclides in Fracking Wastewater. Environmental Health Perspectives.
17 Ellsworth,William.2013 (7/12). Injection-Induced Earthquakes. Science
18 Ritzel, Brent. 2013. Fracking Industrialization & Induced Earthquakes.
van der Elst, Nicholas, et al. 2013 (7/12). Enhanced remote earthquake triggering at fluid-injection sites in the Midwest. Science;
19 Soraghan, Mike. 2013 (11/14). IN N.M., 3,600 violations, 1 court case, 0 fines.
____. 2013 (7/15). Oil & Gas Spills: Many mishaps, but few fines.
20 Lisa, Sumi 2012 (Sep. 25). Breaking All the Rules: The Crisis in Oil & Gas Regulatory Enforcement. Earthworks: Washington, DC See also note 3 above.
21 Rau, William. 2014 (2/25). Illinois’ fracking rules have the makings of a failure. St. Louis Post Dispatch;


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