Fractured Communities: The Discussion We Have to Have about Fracking
What is it, why they do it, and what's happening in Australia?
By Jock Serong
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” to its opponents and the less belligerent “fraccing” to its proponents) is the fracturing of rock by injection of pressurised liquid. Hydraulic fracturing uses between 4.5 and 13.2 Ml of water per well. Bigger projects can use up to 19 Ml. Typically, the water is mixed with chemicals to control its viscosity, and the mixture is injected at high pressure into a wellbore to create small fissures (around 1mm wide), along which gases can migrate to the well. As well as the fracking fluid, small grains of “proppant” (usually sand) are introduced to keep the fractures open.
The first experiments in hydraulic fracturing occurred in the late 1940s. A Texan named George Phydias Mitchell is the modern "father of fracking" (He was also a philanthropist and wildcat well digger, and if you’re getting a mental picture here, no, he didn’t wear a ten gallon hat). Mitchell successfully fracked the Barnett Shale in Texas in the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2008, nearly 8000 wells were drilled there.
The expansion of fracking was dramatic. As of 2012, 2.5 million hydraulic fracturing jobs have been performed on oil and gas wells worldwide, more than one million of them in the United States.
Coal seam gas (CSG) frequently arises in discussions about fracking. It’s also known as coal bed methane (CBM), is methane which has been absorbed into a solid coal deposit. Coal seam gas differs from other gas deposits, as the gas exists in a near-liquid state. ‘Free’ gas can also be found in natural faults within the deposit, known as ‘cleats’. Coal seams are considered shallow resources, occurring between 500 – 1500m below the surface. Although CSG is seen by some people as synonymous with fracking, it is often obtained from coal deposits without fracking, whereas other resources such as shale gas always require hydraulic fracturing.
Shale gas is methane trapped within shale rock formations. The gas is absorbed into the organic material in the shale rock. Shale rock is a deeper resource, usually occurring at depths of 1500 – 4000m, and frequently in remoter locations than CSG.
Drilling for either is expensive in Australia, and to date only about 2500 wells have been drilled on our continent for unconventional gas. But the basins offering potential for fracking in Australia are huge. Most fracking to date has occurred in Queensland, but other states are in the frame. In WA alone, the coastal strip comprised of the Carnarvon and Perth Basins stretches from Exmouth in the north to Point D’Entrecasteaux in the south, more than 1500 km of coast that includes iconic features such as Ningaloo Reef, Shark Bay, Red Bluff and Margaret River. In the tropical north, the Kimberley coast forms the western margin of the vast Canning Basin. On the Gippsland coast of eastern Victoria, increasing numbers of exploration licences on farming land abutting the coast have residents forming action groups. In South Australia, the town of Penola, central to wine production in the Coonawarra, is embroiled in protest action over exploratory drilling. The nearby Limestone Coast towns of Robe and Kingston depend on beach tourists and fishing for their income – the whole coast depends on very scarce water reserves.
Why do it?
Proponents, such as Australia Pacific LNG, say we’re running out of coal, and solar and wind aren’t yet up to the task of feeding our energy needs. CSG and shale gas produce about half the CO2 emissions of the grubby brown coal we’re currently burning for electricity, and resource companies say fracking increases the efficiency of gas extraction, meaning that you’re digging fewer unsightly wells in the landscape.
Because fracturing takes place hundreds of meters below any water supply aquifers, and the majority of the fluids which are pumped underground are recovered after the fracking/fraccing is completed, they argue that water supplies are safe. While underground, fracking fluid is said to be further diluted by the water already present in the coal seams, so that when it comes back up to the surface, the chemicals are barely detectable.
APLNG aren’t taking community opposition lying down – there’s too much at stake. So they’ve produced a video campaign featuring former Australian rugby league captain Darren Lockyer, who grew up in Roma, the hotly contested ground zero for Australian CSG fracking. The videos were launched by large ads in the major papers. In one episode, Lockyer sits captivated as an APLNG scientist makes a fracking fluid out of ordinary kitchen chemicals. He doesn’t offer to drink it, but he doesn’t seem to be ruling it out, either. He is a deity in the Queensland firmament and a shrewd choice of ambassador: undecided Queenslanders, who will swing the political pendulum on this issue, will accept his word unquestioningly.
Why Not Do it?
Opponents of hydraulic fracturing cite multiple environmental risks, including contamination of ground water, depletion of fresh water, contamination of the air, noise pollution, the migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, surface contamination from spills and flow-back, and even increases in earthquake activity associated with the degradation of bedrock.
The storage of chemicals and of fracking wastewater at well-sites is a cause for concern. Air quality may be affected by methane leaks from wells and emissions from fossil-fuel powered equipment such as compressors and drill rigs.
But by far, it’s the use of water for hydraulic fracturing that worries communities. Fracking is said to divert water from stream flow, and to diminish water availability to residences and industries, as well as for recreation and aquatic life. In Barnhart, Texas, an aquifer reportedly dried up because of industrial fracking: one landowner had 104 water wells (designed to supply fracking) dug into his land by his fracker tenants.
By August 2011 there were at least thirty-six cases of suspected (though controversial) groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing in the United States. In Australia, the Wilderness Society says contaminated frack fluids can find their way into groundwater three ways: by movement through small existing underground fault systems, by migration along the outside of the gas well casings, or through leaching of surface wastewater ponds into shallow aquifers.
While some of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing have no health effects, others are known carcinogens. Australian proponents appear to be held to higher standards of transparency about those chemicals than their American counterparts – they claim to use only a small range of additives, the exact blend of which is matched to each well’s geological requirements. APLNG say “all the added chemicals we use in fraccing fluids are found in a typical house, in food and cleaning products, and are not harmful in their diluted form.”
American research has found that of 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products, more than 650 contained known or possible human carcinogens. Between 2005 and 2009, 279 such products had at least one component listed as "proprietary" or "trade secret" on material safety data sheets. Fracking fluid is composed of approximately 95% water, 4.5% sand and 0.5% different chemicals, so a well may therefore require 80-140 tons of chemicals.
Hydraulic fracturing can concentrate uranium, radium, radon and thorium in the returned fluids, known as flowback. Estimates of the amount of injected fluid returning to the surface vary. Fluid returning to the surface with the gas ranges from 15-20% to 30–70%, but is often mixed with formation water. But additional fluid may return to the surface via abandoned wells or other pathways. After the flowback is recovered, it requires treatment or disposal. The options are underground injection, municipal or industrial wastewater treatment plants, self-contained systems at well sites, and recycling for future wells.
Groundwater methane contamination is also a concern, affecting water quality and in extreme cases leading to flaming taps or potential explosion. Methane contamination is not always caused by hydraulic fracturing, (drilling for ordinary drinking water wells can also cause methane release), though recent research on the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States did indeed find a link to fracking.
Then there’s radioactivity: in 2011, The New York Times reported radium in wastewater from natural gas wells had got into Pennsylvania rivers. The Times' reporting on the issue came under criticism, but a 2012 study examining sites in Pennsylvania and Virginia by Pennsylvania State University, found that flowback from the wells contained high levels of radium 226. A recent Duke University study sampled water downstream from a Pennsylvania wastewater treatment facility over two years, and found the creek sediment contained levels of radium that were 200 times the background levels. Again, American regulatory standards differ to ours. But such studies do illustrate the dangers of poor scrutiny.
The Wilderness Society worries about something else: that wild places and farming land alike are at risk of being turned into “full-blown industrial wastelands” by exploratory drilling and eventual well construction. The truck movements and infrastructure involved are extensive.
They say the possible long and short term health effects include air and water contamination and radiation exposure. Such exposures, they say, could lead to infertility, birth defects and cancer. Other opponents say exposure to the fluids and flowback can affect the skin, eyes, blood, nervous system, immune system, kidneys system, and cardiovascular system.
But there has been remarkably little public health research into fracking’s effects: although advocacy groups (and resource groups) have published their own studies in Australia, large-scale population studies have not been conducted.
For forty years, until the mid-2000s, hydraulic fracturing in Australia was confined to conventional oil and gas wells in the Cooper Basin in southwestern Queensland. The vast majority of coal seam gas wells in Australia have not been hydraulically fractured, as the drillers have been operating in coal seams with good natural permeability. But the quest to develop fracked resources is gaining momentum.
With half an eye on the American experience, regulation here has been more strict: the NSW Government has a Code of Practice for Coal Seam Gas Fracture Stimulation, and has banned BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) as fluid additives. But the Wilderness Society maintains that benzene, toluene and xylene are naturally present in coal seams and shale, and are released when fracking of any hydrocarbon-bearing formation occurs. They say simply banning the use of these chemicals in fracking does nothing to control their release into the environment.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman revoked the Wild Rivers protection over the streams that feed Lake Eyre late last year, opening the way for fracking in the Channel Country by Santos. The Great Barrier Reef seems safe from drilling, but only by reason of its World Heritage Status.
The Victorian state government imposed a moratorium on new fracking approvals in 2012. Late last year, the Premier announced the ban would remain in place until July 2015. This was despite a taskforce headed by former federal MP Peter Reith recommending an industry in onshore gas exploration should be developed.
The rancorous debate over fracking is not going to go away, and the activist alliances in this fight are not the usual ones. Farmers and conservationists, surfers and urban residents now find themselves side by side on the pickets for protest groups such as Lock the Gate.
In its recent report, Lux Research predicted that the development of large-scale fracking would arrive in Australia sooner than in China or Argentina, even though those two countries both have bigger shale reserves. And while Australia supplied 7 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas in 2000, that figure is expected to reach 25 percent by 2018, according to the research firm Wood Mackenzie.
So the purists would say we should be developing renewables such as wind, wave and solar energy. Pragmatists would say the viable use of those resources is a generation away at least, and in the meantime we should be streamlining our extraction of fossil fuels through techniques like fracking. Contrarians would even say we should renew the world’s great gamble with nuclear. One thing is clear: we must have a responsible debate about hydraulic fracturing, because standing still is not an option.
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