Hydrofracking: Environmental Boom or Environmental Nightmare?

By: Ted Walter, Staff Member 

The recent emergence of hydrofracking has made natural gas a prime player in the energy field.  And various groups support hydrofracking for different reasons.  Environmentalists claim natural gas is better for the environment because it burns more efficiently than coal or oil.[1]  Politicians love it because hydrofracking is a source of new jobs.[2]  But, just like anything else, hydrofracking raises some cause for concern. 

One concern is with the water used for extracting the natural gas from the rock below.  This water can be classified in three different categories: fracking fluid, flowback water, and produced water.[3]  Fracking fluid is the water that goes down to start the well, flowback water is the water that comes back in the very beginning, and produced water is the water that comes back over the life of the well.[4]  Additionally, “[w]ith hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur thousands of feet underground.”[5]  Furthermore, “[o]ther carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.”[6]  Essentially, the water that goes down to start the well in the beginning is contaminated, and the water that comes back up is more contaminated than in the beginning.

The issue becomes what to do with the water that comes back to the surface.  A simple solution, and an option sometimes chosen, is to take the water to a wastewater treatment plant.  But this may not be the best solution because “design of wastewater treatment plants is usually based on the need to reduce organic and suspended solid loads to limit pollution of the environment.”[7]  Furthermore, “[t]reatment to remove wastewater constituents that may be toxic or harmful to crops, aquatic plants (macrophytes) and fish is technically possible but is not normally economically feasible.”[8]  As a result, “most of the facilities cannot remove enough of the radioactive material to meet federal drinking-water standards before discharging the waste water into rivers, sometimes just miles upstream from drinking-water intake plants.”[9]  As far as flowback water from hydrofracking in Kentucky, you shouldn’t worry. Apparently, “[t]he shales in Kentucky have much more clay, and that discourages hydrofracking in the state because water makes clay formations swell, inhibiting the release of natural gas.  Instead, Kentucky drillers frack with liquid nitrogen.”[10]  

So, what does this mean for Kentuckians?  One, just because water isn’t used for hydrofracking in Kentucky, doesn’t mean that contaminated water from hydrofracking that occurred elsewhere can’t end up here.  Two, liquid nitrogen may not present water quality issues, but that doesn’t mean liquid nitrogen won’t present other types of environmental issues later on.

[1] Ian Urbina, Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers, THE NEW YORK TIMES, (Feb. 26, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html?pagewanted=all.
[2] Id.
[3] Bill Chameides, Natural Gas, Hydrofracking and Safety: The Three Faces of Fracking Water, THEGREENGROK, (Sept. 20, 2011) http://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/thegreengrok/frackingwater/.
[4] Id.
[5] Urbina, supra note 1.
[6] Id.
[7] M.B. Pescod, Wastewater treatment and use in agriculture – FAO irrigation and drainage paper 47, (1992) http://www.fao.org/docrep/T0551E/t0551e05.htm.
[8] Id.
[9] Urbina, supra note 1.
[10] Kristin Tracz, Hydraulic fracturing rare in Ky., but Appalachian Forum poses questions about regulations and pollution of gas drilling, APPALACHIAN TRANSITION, (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.appalachiantransition.net/content/hydraulic-fracturing-rare-ky-appalachian-forum-poses-questions-about-regulation-and-pollutio.