Fracking earthquakes and fracking underground water supplies

In terms of emissions and particulates produced by actual burning natural gas is the least polluting of all fossil fuels by a good distance. However, when it comes to environmental protection we must consider the effects of everything that is done to extract the fossil fuel and use it, not just the last step in the energy chain. If we use oil taken from Canadian oil tar sands then the overall effect of its pollution is very high – probably higher than coal mined from open cast pits. When we look at using natural gas extracted from shale rock we must, before we decide on its environmental effect, look at the first steps in the production of the gas, not just the last step, when it burns in our condensing boiler.

There are two environmental problems with extracting shale gas. The first is the risk of disturbing the sub soil and causing earth quakes, and the second is the possibility of poisoning underground water supplies. Some say that these are not risks at all and we worry needlessly about these matters. My view is that you look both ways before you cross a road, and listen.

Because of these fears the government has commissioned a study to look at the effects of gas extraction by underground fracking, where a chemical mixture and water and sand and explosives are injected underground into gas bearing shale to fracture the shale and release the methane trapped in the shale, which is then piped out into the gas grid network.

The study shows that fracking did cause two small earthquakes in the Blackpool area, but concludes that the earthquakes that fracking will create are going to be too small – less than 3 on the Richter Scale – to bother us too much.

As a result of the study the government is developing procedures which will minimise the risk of earthquakes and many of the procedures are already being followed. There seems, however, to be no recommendations or procedure to reduce the risk of drinking water contamination by methane.

I do not think that there are any regulations which control the amount of methane in drinking water. In the USA some methane has leaked into drinking water as a result of fracking and occasionally people can set their drinking water laden with methane on fire. http://earlywarn.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/methane-in-well-water-from-gas-fraccing.html

It seems that no one is too concerned about ground water contamination; as often happens when people take the earth’s natural resources, we chase the money first and then worry about fixing the damage we have done. An ounce of prevention is worth ten tons of cure, and I would like to see better focused research and regulations preventing underground water contamination before we start fracking the shale under this green and pleasant land.  

8 Responses

  1. What type of energy supply would you like us to have?

  2. A supply of energy that does not contaminate our drinking water. Not too much to ask?

    • Dear Anonymous

      You haven’t answered the question. Its easy to demand perfection but that’s unrealistic. My question asked for a type of energy supply.

      Unfortunately every form of energy production has drawbacks. Electricity alone is insufficient unless we halve our country’s energy use. But what about the poisonous chemicals used in China to make our eco lamps, batteries, electronics, cars and pv panels? What about the blight on beautiful landscape of windmills?

      Trying to eliminate all risk/downside from energy production is impossible unless you want to return society to the middle ages? if so then we need drastic population reduction so we can feed ourselves.

      There has been a lot of publicity about the possible contamination of water but the incidents have been hyped. Methane can occur naturally in underground water supplies but is vented off at the local pumping station before being piped to homes. Only local underground water supplies are at risk and as most of the methane is under the sea there is little chance of contamination, even to the Blackpool area. The rest of the country will be unaffected as will reservoirs and rivers.

      In any case methane is not toxic or carcinogenic unlike the waste created by Chinese factories making ‘our’ eco products.

      In my view we need to look at this issue with a proper sense of proportion.

    • Of course we need to have cool heads when we assess the consequences of a new way of doing things. Every form of energy production has drawbacks, in terms of resources used and pollution and global warming gases. The problem that concerns me s the way we rush into things without proper consideration of long term consequences. If we exploit shale gas we must have ways of ensuring that the side effects do not cause earthquakes and settlement of building and water supply contamination before we start, not just make it up as we go along by responding to problems as they arise.

  3. I understand that one problem that exists in US, but not in UK, is that in the rush to develop shale oil, Congress did not insist on the ususal environmental assessment and precautions that are required for drilling oil and other gas.

    With regard to the problems they had, you will ifnd that the fraccing is carried out very deep, way below the water reservoirs. Any problems that may be attribuable to the shale gas development is likely to be linked to the well bore and maybe the cementing job, i.e. sloppy design, not to the shale gas concept. Anyway, there is some doubt as to whether the contamination that occurred was from the fraccing, or from another unrelated natural source.

    It has been acknowledged that fraccing has caused some seismic events. The new UK regulations now set out a much tighter trigger point that will require a cessation of drilling/fraccing, followed by consulation between government and contractor prior to continuing. My own experience of DECC is that they are very careful and consult with outside bodies before allowing development.

    • You make good points. My point is simply let us get the rules sorted before we start, not after we have caused problems. Incidentally my experience of DECC is that are incompetent, and have certainly created many problems for the solar thermal industry, driving much of it into bankruptcy by poor decision making.

  4. Thanks DIno,

    here’s a blog from today’s telegraph

    “I’ve been fraccing for over 30 years (there is no K in frac – that was put there by the ‘lunatic fringe’ to make the word sound rude – it is not a violent process that blasts open the rock, it is an ordered application of pressure that causes a small crack to form, usually around 50 feet high, extending out say 300 ft from the wellbore and about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide

    It is not made with a cocktail of hundreds of poisonous chemicals, there are a a handful of products used – a guar gum, a stabilizer, and a soap, plus perhaps some powdered sand, though this is rarely used in shale fracs. All the chemicals have to be of very high purity to avoid contamination, and are usually food grade products, indeed many are in the ice-cream or cosmetics you buy at the local supermarket. All the ingredients are fully disclosed to those on the wellsite, and the safety data sheets are no trade secret – the frac company would be happy to share these with you – they are often on their websites, so available to all to see.

    There is no crushed rock added – that would be disasterous, perhaps you are talking about sand – that needs to be very clean (again to avoid causing damage to the fracture and rock), very round (i.e. no sharp corners) and very spherical (ball like) in order to do its job properly of keeping the crack open – for that reason it is called proppant. (I currently work for a company that produces artificial, high strength proppant) These products are all certified for North Sea use, and fully CEFAS complient – e.g. they do not damage sea life, fish, molluscs, algae etc.

    The likely cause of the “very unusual” earth tremors – you would hardly call 2.4 an earthquake – a bus passing by your house would make the bed shake more ! was not the fracturing process itself, but the fact that there was a natural fault nearby (where there are hills and mountains like the Pennines there has to have been rock faults and stresses) and the fluids caused the rock to relax a little. Of the many millions of fracs carried out in shales, only a handfull have ever caused such minor tremors – this is in contrast to the microseismic events that with highly sensitive geophones, we can listen to the rock cracking as we pump the frac treatment – these are in the order of 0.001 on the Richter scale, similar to dropping a pin on a hard floor.

    Lastly, the oil and gas in the North Sea does not flow out just by scratching the surface of a soft sponge – there are many frac treatments carried out every year to do exactly the same extraction that we do in shales, though there are different parameters to consider in a limestone or sandstone rock as opposed to shales, each rock and actually each different zone is subject to some very complex fracture simulations with powerful computers (the scene is very different from the first jobs I did, calculated using a handheld calculator, or with graphs taken from a book of ‘experiences’ and rules of thumb.

    Gas is much cleaner than coal, and thus will serve to reduce emissions, but I’d still like to see a non-hydrocarbon energy source developed, that doesn’t pollute the landscape and airwaves like wind turbines. Creation of Hydrogen (with all its associated problems) may be one way to go – burning it in power stations or cars would only produce water and power. It may be inefficient (for now), but who says the process needs to be efficient, it just needs to work. We will soon master the improvements to get it efficient !

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