Disclose hydraulic fracturing fluids

Emily Grubert


The Texas House is currently considering a bill to disclose fluids used for natural gas production in hydraulically fractured wells. H.B. 3328, proposed by Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, would take effect on Sept. 1. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, has joined the bill as a coauthor, along with several other representatives.

For those unfamiliar with hydraulic fracturing, some natural gas is hard to unearth because the rock it is in has very little space for the gas (porosity) and very few pathways between spaces that allow the gas to move (permeability). A huge technological advancement occurred when the industry figured out how to create artificial pathways by pumping high pressure water mixed with chemicals into the rock until tiny cracks form, repeating the process along a horizontal pathway in the rock. This practice is called multistage horizontal hydraulic fracturing, and it has dramatically increased the United States’ available natural gas supply. However, fracturing fluid providers have been secretive about which chemicals they mix with water before pumping it underground. It is widely believed that more environmentally friendly chemicals are both available and viable but are not yet in wide use.

Hydraulic fracturing fluid disclosure has been a contentious issue in the U.S., largely because of the potential risk that these fluids might come in contact with usable groundwater. Fluids no longer contain components like diesel, but with disclosure not required, it is difficult for citizens to judge exactly how dangerous the fluids might be. The Texas proposal to publicly disclose fracture fluid composition is a good step. We cannot assess risks without knowing what the risky components are.

I’ve written reasonably extensively on natural gas hydraulic fracturing as part of my research, and my in opinion, while the practice is not sufficiently dangerous to stop, it is also nowhere near sufficiently benign to justify keeping the fracture fluid chemicals secret. For now, any claims of safety are difficult to support, as there is little public information as to exactly what goes into hydraulic fracturing water. It’s difficult to write about hydraulic fracturing without bias since many of the more informative reports are industry reports. While I feel that industry reports should be included in research — after all, it is the industry that houses the most expertise about these activities — it would be much more academically comfortable to not rely primarily on these sources. Independent verification is vital.

Hydraulic fracturing poses some risk to groundwater, as does any activity that involves puncturing an aquifer. Most importantly, fluid spills at the surface can have serious impacts on local water. Accident rates are extremely low, but the impact of a single accident can be severe. This is especially true if important aquifers that supply large numbers of people are exposed. While the risk of contamination from a single well might be tiny, some aquifers host hundreds or thousands of wells, increasing the risk that one of them could fail. Still, the benefits of replacing coal with natural gas outweigh the risk of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing, in part because coal mining and combustion have serious implications for water as well.

Knowing what is in hydraulic fracturing fluids will be a major benefit to researchers trying to assess the full environmental and social consequences of different types of energy use. If hydraulic fracturing is low risk, having public evidence to verify will only strengthen the claim that natural gas use is beneficial. If it is not low risk as it is currently practiced, public outcry could move the industry towards more environmentally acceptable fluids. As it stands, people assume the worse, so public opposition to hydraulic fracturing is building both here and abroad. Given that hydraulic fracturing, partnered with horizontal drilling, have enabled the cheap extraction of vast amounts of a fossil fuel cleaner than the one we currently burn (coal), many expected that the technology would be welcomed as an energy savior. Instead, because the industry has clumsily handled the chemicals issue, people have begun to view natural gas with considerable suspicion. Public chemical disclosure should be required as soon as possible so that environmental problems can be better anticipated and addressed before they escalate.

The flavor of hydraulic fracturing that has become a major part of the United States’ energy supply chain started in Texas, and many other states look to Texas for guidance on how to regulate. Texas needs a chemicals disclosure law.

<em>Grubert is an environmental and water resources engineering graduate student.<em/>