Prehistoric Flowback Adds Fresh Trouble To Fracking Woes

Scientist Say Frackwater Isn’t Drinkable by Chip Northrup, December 19, 2012, Shaleshockblog
Unless you are on an ultra high sea salt, high barium, high arsenic and high radium 226 diet. Which may account for all the novel ways the frackers are trying to make billions of gallons of the stuff disappear – as “de-icer” onto roads, down a shallow disposal well, or into muni treatment plants – or, condensed to a toxic, radioactive sludge, into a landfill near you. So that your kids or grandkids can drink it. . . and get sick.

Prehistoric Flowback Adds Fresh Trouble To Fracking Woes by Tina Casey, December 19, 2012, Clean Technica
Until now, one major focus of concern has been fracking water contamination from chemicals in the original fluid. The new twist, according to the research team, is that the spent fluid comes back laden with a brine containing elements that have been locked beneath the earth for hundreds of millions of years dating back to the Paleozoic era. With elements like barium and radium in the mix, the end result could be costly new regulations for the transportation and disposal of fracking brine, and new headaches for the fracking industry. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. EPA has been moving toward tighter regulations for the fracking industry. Progress has been slow partly because fracking was exempted from federal regulation under the Clean Water Act, and drillers were entitled to keep the ingredients in fracking fluid a secret. The notorious case of drinking water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming is one example of the difficulty faced by EPA investigators in confirming the connection between fracking and specific instances of water contamination. However, anecdotal evidence has been steadily mounting that contaminants in the original fracking fluid, as well as escaped gas, have been entering drinking water wells.

The Penn State team looked at another aspect of the operation, which is what happens to the spent fracking fluid after the drilling operation. The research paper is available online at Applied Geochemistry. It covers flowback from fracking operations in the Marcellus region, which covers heavily populated areas in the Northeast including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The research team used four different sources of data covering Marcellus wells, primarily in Pennsylvania. That included one group of conventional oil and gas wells, and three groups of gas fracking wells. According to the study, in a typical fracking operation, only about one-quarter of the original fracking fluid returns to the surface. The study found that a major component of this fluid was a highly saline brine, which was not consistent with the salinity of the original fracking fluid. The high levels of salinity, though, were consistent with deposits during the Paleozoic era, which also include naturally occurring barium and radium. Though the ancient elements are highly diluted, the study concludes that the levels are high enough to be out of compliance with drinking water standards, with consequent implications for the safe handling and disposal of flowback water.

The Hidden Cost of Fracking
Fossil fuels are popular because they are relatively cheap. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. When public health and environmental issues are factored in, costs begin to mount and the luster begins to fade. In addition to water contamination issues, a recent study by Cornell University suggests that the fracking industry will eventually need to address the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during fracking operations, in the form of methane gas leakage. Earthquake risks are another consideration, as are other local effects including new traffic patterns (primarily due to heavy truck traffic) and the potential loss of value for farmland and other nearby properties. Fracking is nothing new, by the way. It has been flying under the radar for years, primarily because it was mainly located in sparsely populated areas. Now that fracking is taking place in heavily populated regions, more people are immediately affected and public awareness is growing. [Emphasis added]

Analysis of Marcellus Flowback Finds High Levels of Ancient Brines by Science Daily, December 18, 2012
The study indicates that the brine flowback elements found in high levels in the late stages of hydraulic fracturing come from the ancient brines rather than from salts dissolved by the water and chemicals used as part of the fracking process. The paper by Lara O. Haluszczak, a Penn State student who has since graduated; professor emeritus Arthur W. Rose; and Lee R. Kump, professor and head of the Department of Geosciences, detailing those findings has been accepted for publication in Applied Geochemistry, the journal of the International Association of Geochemistry. For the study, the researchers analyzed data primarily from four sources: a report on brines from 40 conventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania; data on flowback waters from 22 Marcellus gas wells in Pennsylvania that the state Bureau of Oil and Gas Management had collected; flowback waters from two Marcellus gas wells from a previous study; and an industry study by the Marcellus Shale Coalition on flowback samples from eight horizontal wells that was reported in a Gas Technology Institute report. … The paper notes that about a quarter of the volume of fluid used for fracking returns to the surface, but with the brine as a major component. The paper looked at fluids that flowed back within 90 days of fracking. The samples analyzed in the study come from wells in Pennsylvania, along with two from northern Virginia. The analysis shows that the brine flowback had extremely high salinity that does not match the chemical composition of the solution put into the wells during the fracking process. Instead, the elements being released are similar to those deposited during the Paleozoic era, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Rose said the naturally occurring radioactive materials being brought to the surface after having been 8,000 feet deep were deposited with formations in that era. He noted that while much attention has been focused on the chemicals that are injected into the shale formation during the fracking process, also of concern is the release of elements such as barium and radium that have been in the ground for millions of years. “Even if it’s diluted quite a bit, it’s still going to be above the drinking water limits,” Rose said. “There’s been very little research into this.” … “Improper disposal of the flowback can lead to unsafe levels of these and other constituents in water, biota and sediment from wells and streams,” the researchers noted.  “The high salinity and toxicity of these waters must be a key criterion in the technology for disposal of both the flowback waters and the continuing outflow of the production waters,” the paper concludes.

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Penn State, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS. Journal Reference: Lara O. Haluszczak, Arthur W. Rose, Lee R. Kump. Geochemical evaluation of flowback brine from Marcellus gas wells in Pennsylvania, USA. Applied Geochemistry, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2012.10.002 [Emphasis added]

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