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Meet the frackers


January 11th, 2011

Hydraulic fracturing is big business in Oklahoma. What are the pros and cons of the ‘fracking’ process?

Depending on whom you talk to, hydraulic fracturing, an oil-field technology first used 60 years ago in Stephens County, could either deliver the United States from the political volatility and high prices of imported foreign oil and liquid natural gas, or is a short route to environmental disaster.

Simply stated, when used by oil and gas companies, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) creates cracks in gas- and oil-bearing rock by injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the deeply buried rock formations, which releases the fossil fuels.

Bob Anthony, a member of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission since 1989, said Oklahoma’s long experience with fracking in oil exploration has convinced him the procedure is safe, and horizontal fracking is a “game changer” in the development of domestic oil and gas supplies.

“The record in Oklahoma speaks for itself,” Anthony said. “If our agency, which has had responsibilities for oil and gas for 100 years, and has regulated and had oversight of hydraulic fracturing for 60 years, and we’ve done it about 100,000 times without a single instance of groundwater contamination, then I think, without hesitation, we can say that it is a safe technology.”

While traditional wells are drilled straight down to reach oil and gas deposits, engineers have devised a means in recent years to drill down and turn a well bore’s path so it extends out horizontally, thus allowing the well to reach oil- and gas-bearing rock that may have been previously unattainable.

WHAT THE FRACK?

While many Oklahoma officials are quite comfortable with the methods, procedures and outcomes when fracking is used to harvest gas and oil from a variety of rock formations, the same can’t be said for officials in other states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, which both have sizable unexplored deposits of natural gas and oil.

After environmentalists alleged fracking poses a danger to the state’s drinking water, the New York Legislature in November passed a bill that called for a temporary moratorium on the process, so the state could investigate environmental and safety issues. In December, New York Gov. David Paterson vetoed the bill, and instead issued an executive order, which more narrowly defined the type of fracking to be halted, while still calling for the state Department of Environmental Conservation investigation.

In response to both critics and the curious, Chesapeake Energy has posted a variety of videos online (see sidebar, page 22) that illustrate and explain the fracking process. Opponents of fracking have countered with videos that demonstrate allegedly sloppy oil industry practices that imperil the environment. A Devon Energy Corp. representative directed regulatory process questions to Anthony and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, the state’s largest oil and gas advocacy group.

Mike Terry, president of the OIPA, said detractors of expanded drilling combined with horizontal fracking are insufficiently informed about an oil-field technology that is new to them.

“The critics of fracking are uneducated,” Terry said. “Back east, this is all new. They see the big trucks and they hear about the big volumes and it scares them. I understand that, but it’s because it’s new. As an industry, we haven’t done a good enough job of educating them about the processes.

“Oil and gas is part of our culture here.

Oklahomans understand that it’s a critical business, and it’s been around for a long time. There’s a certain amount of credibility that goes along with it, if you do it right.”

Terry also noted that in 2008, the gross production tax, which is a variable tax levied on oil and gas produced in Oklahoma, contributed approximately $1 billion to state coffers.

FRACKING DETRACTORS

But at least one industry professional questions the practice of hydrofracking. In a 27-minute online video address (see sidebar, page 22), oil and gas industry veteran James Northrup alleged that fracking is like “a pipe bomb, but the explosive power of it to break that rock up is equivalent to a really large bomb.”

Jim Gipson, media relations director for Chesapeake, responded in an e-mail that Northrup’s characterization of fracking is flawed.

“There are no explosive charges used in the (fracking) process,” Gipson wrote. “The industry is currently producing a point-by-point rebuttal to (Northrup’s) assertions, but they are generally based on an inaccurate, misinformed understanding of engineering, science and industry best management practices.”

Terry said the high expense of drilling and operating wells is a compelling reason for the industry to guard against accidents that could affect their business.

“If you’re going to go out and drill a 9,000-foot well, and then go another 5,000 feet horizontally, you’re going to spend $5 million,” he said. “You’re not going to be letting your pits overflow. That’s a big project, and it costs a tremendous amount of money and capital.”

In published accounts by both industry sources and opponents of fracking, both make it plain that hydraulic fracturing occurs thousands of feet below aquifers, but Northrup claims the hydrofracking borehole could interfere with vertical faulting.

“When you frack the fault, what would happen is you would … open that fault line up … and that fracking fluid would go right up through that fault,” Northrup said. “It would go up into an aquifer; it … ostensibly could all the way to the surface.”

According to Gipson, concerns raised about the toxicity of fracking are exaggerated because the chemicals added to the fluid comprise a minute part of its total volume and, when diluted, are no more dangerous than chemicals diluted in a swimming pool.

“Additives comprise about onehalf of 1 percent of the total volume of sand and water used in the process,” Gipson wrote. “In concentrated form … some of the chemicals certainly are toxic, but no more so than concentrated biocide that you would dilute in your swimming pool or hot tub to eliminate bacteria.”

The criticism once voiced by opponents that fracking is a lastresort attempt to glean energy from shale deposits is no longer valid, Anthony said.

“They might have said that 10 years ago, but 20 years ago, geologists would have had no idea that you could extract methane or natural gas from hard shales,” he said.

“So frankly, with the horizontal drilling through the shale formation, with water and hydraulic fracturing under pressure to cause the fractures to allow the gas to be produced, here was something that was available previously, but we didn’t have the technology to get it out.”

FRACKING IN OKLAHOMA

According to Anthony, leftover fracking fluid is transported to one of Oklahoma’s many injection or disposal wells.

“In Oklahoma, we are fortunate to have hundreds of thousands of wells that have been drilled since statehood, some of which can now be used for injection wells or disposal wells, and that is where a great deal of our disposal of flow-back water is,” he said. “However, with economics in mind, we also have some recycling and reuse and treatment of flow-back water as well.”

Harlan Hentges, an Edmondbased property rights lawyer and executive director for the Center for Energy Matters (see sidebar, page 22), said there may be little cause for concern about direct groundwater contamination from fracking wells, but other related oil and gas industry practices allowed by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission could cause contamination of aquifers.

“The (state) Corporation Commission permits a million barrels a year of water, produced water and frack water to be dumped into a big pit of fly ash in Bokoshe,” Hentges said. “It’s an old strip mine, and it’s got underground mines underneath it, and the (Environmental Protection Agency) has found that the water is running off the side.”

Hentges, who noted he has clients in the oil and gas industry and has family members who have oil and gas production on their farmland, said his skepticism about oil drilling and fracking — and its environmental effects — results from personal experience.

“All you’ve got to do is drive down a dirt road in Oklahoma, and you will meet six people who have dealt with the oil and gas industry and backed away, because they’ve polluted their land and because they’ve created an eyesore that they won’t clean up — because they’ve had a spill that they never paid for,” he said.

Jerry Logan, who owns a 320-acre farm between Guthrie and Crescent, raises a variety of exotic deer behind a 3-mile-long, 8-foot fence. He said his experience with an independent oil exploration company from out of state, which has seven wells that have been fracked on his land, has convinced him that Oklahoma property owners have little recourse when a developer wants to drill on their land.

In Oklahoma, the ownership of resources under a tract of land, such as oil and natural gas, can be inherited, bought and sold separately from the surface rights. In Logan’s case, there are 30 to 40 people who share the rights to the minerals under his farm.

“When I bought my property in 1984, I had no mineral rights at all,” Logan said. “I really didn’t want to lease my minerals, but you don’t have a choice. All they have to do is get a majority of the mineral holders to sign a lease. There are a lot of minerals on my property, and these minerals have been passed down from family to family.”

Although Logan said he received payments totaling approximately $70,000 from the well developers for access to his farm, he claims he has spent more than half that amount in efforts to force the developers to abide by the contract they signed.

In each case, he said he had to go before the state Corporation Commission accompanied by a lawyer to seek redress, and came away each time more disheartened by the lack of control he has on his farm.

“This is an oil-producing state and the Corporation Commission sets up the guidelines, and they work for the oil companies,” Logan said. “Devon and Chesapeake — they may not have any of these problems. The big oil companies may treat their surface owner right, but your small companies — no.”

Fracking Online
 
For more information about hydraulic fracturing, visit the following online resources:

Chesapeake Energy’s YouTube Channel www.youtube.com/user/ ChesapeakeEnergy

Don’t Frack With NY www.dontfrackwithny.com

Harlan Hentges www.organiclawyers.com www.centerforenergymatters.org

James Northrup www.vimeo.com/14295502

Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association www.oipa.com

ProPublica’s Natural Gas Series www.propublica.org

The Sierra Club Fracking Regulatory Action Center www.sierraclub.org/naturalgas/rulemaking

 
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