Earth Matters: Marcellus Shale drilling a jumbled mix for environment
Both good news and bad news seems to be coming from the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling industry.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently announced a $1.8 million dollar fine against Halliburton Energy Services for the illegal storage, transportation and processing of hydrochloric acid. The chemical had been part of hydraulic fracturing done in Indiana County.
Interestingly, this is the same Halliburton from which the nickname “Halliburton Loophole” originated when the fracking industry was exempted from Safe Drinking Water Act regulations in 2005.
The federal Energy Policy Act, among other things, defined chemicals used in the fracking process as “tools” rather than potential pollutants. Water and sand make up the largest portion of the fracking liquid, but several other groups of chemicals are used in smaller amounts to help fracture the rocks and encourage the gas to flow more easily.
The next three most used chemical groups are gelling agents (to thicken the water), acids (to dissolve rocks), corrosion inhibitors (to extend the life of the pipes) and friction reducers. Some (like the thickener guar gum) are relatively harmless, but others (like the petroleum distillate used as a solvent and the hydrochloric acid used to dissolve minerals) are quite toxic. (For a listing of fracking chemicals visit: fracfocus. org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used)
The industry has made three claims to dispel concerns over the toxic stew used to hydraulically fracture rocks and release natural gas. The chemicals are only 1 percent of the total fluid going into the ground. Much of the water is being recycled, and the injections are done far below aquifers used for drinking water.
Critics contend that 1 percent is actually a high number for toxic water pollutants – 1 percent translates into 10,000 parts per million, which is considered to be a high number for many toxins found in water or air.
Opponents also protest that, while the Marcellus is usually extremely deep, the wells must go through drinking water aquifers to get to the deep rocks. Though Pennsylvania requires casing of gas wells below the depths from which we draw our water supplies, contamination has remained a concern.
While Pennsylvania is not taxing the industry as highly as detractors would like, it would appear that our home state is doing a more rigorous job of regulating the industry than many other states. Some companies have fairly good compliance records, others have been very bad. In addition to the Halliburton fine, Chesapeake Appalachia has been fined $1.4 million over 400 violations at their 752 wells. (For a full listing of violations, visit: stateimpact.npr.org/
But there is good news. Pollution standards for fracking water in Pennsylvania have encouraged more recycling of fracking water than we see in many other places.
Not all recycling connected to the gas drilling industry has enjoyed similar success. The 80,000 tons of plastic liner used for pad liners, containment and water impoundments at drill sites has, to this point, been landfilled. In response to this, plastic recycler Ultra-Poly developed a cost effective recycling process for the recovery of the material, but the industry has not embraced the practice.
Clearly, old, established habits and practices seem to die hard.
John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenvironment.org) writes on environmental issues every other Saturday.