Fracking: A Chemical Breakdown

Drilling rigs like this one have popped up around Ohio and other parts of the country since the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."(Photo: Flickr)
Drilling rigs like this one have popped up around Ohio and other parts of the country since the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."(Photo: Flickr)

In the natural gas production process of fracking, companies use millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals.

Among the questions surrounding the process is exactly what chemicals are used and what degree of threat they pose to the environment.

For help figuring out exactly what’s in all that liquid used to hydraulically fracture shale rock and release natural gas, we turned to a chemical engineer. Martin Abraham is dean of the College of Science, Technology, Enginnering and Mathematics at Youngstown State University. He says even though most companies don’t reveal every ingredient in their fracking fluid, we do know – generally – what chemicals are involved.

One way to look up those chemicals is to log on to fracfocus.org, a Web site funded by the oil and gas industry where some companies voluntarily register the chemicals they use. We did it with Abraham.

If you go to a list like you see here on fracfocus.org, you see a whole lot of chemicals listed, but in any particular well on any particular fracture job, they’re only going to use a small subset of these.

Abraham says companies use the chemicals for a specific purpose. There’s one that helps the fluid glide smoothly through as much as a mile’s worth of underground pipe, another chemical to keep that steel pipe from corroding, another to keep bacteria from clogging up the well, and something else called a breaker to break the rock.

“One of the first items listed is a breaker—it’s sodium chloride. Sodium chloride is simple table salt.

“Another on the list that you’ll also see is a breaker-its magnesium oxide. Some of you have heard of milk of magnesia, well magnesia is magnesium oxide, and in fact used as an acid reducer for stomach acid and so on.”

Other chemicals found in every-day life, as well as fracking fluid, include things like citric acid found in lemons and guar gum, the stuff that thickens ice cream.

But lots of things on the list aren’t so benign, like ethylene glycol, also found in anti-freeze, hydrochloric acid which is found in fertilizers, or chemicals that are even potentially cancer causing like benzene.

Youngstown State’s Martin Abraham says before you freak out, keep in mind that toxic chemicals are used in all types of processes to generate energy.

If the fracturing process occurs properly, you are as likely to be exposed to the chemicals associated with the fracturing process as you would be likely to be exposed to any of the environmental hazards associated with mining of coal, with processing of petroleum, with the production of steel.

But there are several cases where things haven’t gone properly.

Accidents and spills of fracking fluid have polluted water supplies in Pennsylvania and other places around the country.

That’s why many environmentalists and drilling opponents say states need strong rules that require companies to disclose all of the chemicals they use. And some say the new regulations Ohio passed this summer don’t go far enough.

Thom Cmar is an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.

Ohio’s provisions, they look good on paper, but in practice, they suffer from some serious loopholes that allow industry to hide information from the public about drilling and fracking.

Here are some facts. Ohio law allows companies to avoid listing all the ingredients in their fracking fluid if they consider it a trade secret…where revealing it might cause them to lose a competitive advantage.

In fact, so-called proprietary rights are common in most industries, as the Ohio Oil and Gas Industry Association is quick to point out.

Tom Stewart is the OOGIA’s executive vice president.

Nearly every industry under uniform federal, or state, and or state trade secret laws have the ability to protect proprietary information for competitive reasons, not just my industry, but nearly every industry. Apple has trade protection rights, you name it.

Back at Youngstown State, engineering professor Martin Abraham offers his perspective in weighing the risks of fracking fluid.

“I know there are risks. But I also know that there is a significant economic benefit and a significant overall issue with generating energy, and I know that there are risks associated with all of the energy sources. And I generally believe that the risks here are certainly no worse, and probably a lot less, than the risks associated with coal for example,” Abraham says.

The fight for more stringent disclosure rules about fracking fluid continues – requirements vary widely among the states but only a few require detailed public disclosure. No matter where that ends up, the bigger challenge for regulators and the industry remains – make sure the chemicals are used safely and that the wells carrying fracking fluid never leak.

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