The Secret Recipe to Natural Gas

October 4, 2014

Hydraulic fracturing is a highly disputed method of extracting natural gas from rock formations deep underground. Well operators pump fluids at high pressures into the ground to create small fissures, allowing the gas to seep out and be collected. The fluids are normally composed of water, sand, and additives, which compose by volume approximately 98%, 1.2% and .8% of the injection, respectively. Chemicals serve engineering purposes dependent on needed functionalities. For example, materials can be added to reduce friction, prevent microorganism growth, or stabilize corrosion of pipes.
Historically, the identity of these fluids has been closely guarded as a trade secret. As mentioned above, certain mixtures produce favorable characteristics for injections, which companies want to protect from being utilized by competition. Though the process of hydraulic fracturing has been utilized since the 1940’s, the worry about the environmental dangers of these fluids has been relatively recent. This increased concern could be correlated to the large amount of hydraulic fracturing operations occurring since 2005 all over the nation. The main worry about these fluids involves the effect of possible carcinogenic additives, such as formaldehyde or benzene. Since companies can qualify non-disclosure under trade secret exemptions, many believe the surrounding public will not be able to control substances that could possibly be leaked into their ground water. As of 2012, there were twenty-nine states with hydraulic fracturing operations, of which fifteen had some form of disclosure requirements.
The link between injection and ground water contamination has been a highly debated topic. Both sides grapple for scientific results that prove definitely whether these chemicals pose a statistically large threat to a communities’ groundwater. A recent collaboration between Duke University and the National Science Foundation has produced a method of detecting the source of groundwater contamination. The method has shown that poorly cemented well casings have caused contamination in eight clusters of gas wells. The contamination, however, involves only natural gas, not the hydraulic fracturing fluid. Additionally, uncertainty remains to whether these observed levels pose a human risk and if the number of tainted groundwater reservoirs is statistically significant. These problems do not seem to be unique to hydraulic fracturing, as many other industries experience similar issues. The former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection has commented “what people are expecting – and they are not going to get – is a pregnancy test. It is much more complicated than that.” Additionally, many commentators have explained

[t]he answer is not to stop drilling. The fix is better executions on the construction of the well and improving well integrity.”

These injection fluids are exempt in federal law from disclosure. Consequently, almost all of the regulation must be promulgated at the state level. Some states have demanded use of to present non-trade secret fluids to the public or required trade secrets be disclosed only to state regulators. A few companies, however, have decided to voluntarily release the identity of all the components in their fluid. Baker Hughes, a major oil-field services company responsible for injection fluid, recently announced that it plans to start disclosing injection chemical identities starting October 1st, 2014. The ratios of the components, however, are still proprietary. The company instead is releasing the chemical identity separate from its overall combinations, and also is only disclosing the maximum quantity that could possibly be used. This movement could be the signal of a trend, as companies like Exxon Mobile call for further public disclosure of these fluids. Voluntary disclosures could ease public relation problems and promote trust between communities and hydraulic fracturing companies.
In the future, however, such disclosures could be motivated to only please a concerned public. Many state laws, although not all, incorporate protections to the local community from groundwater contamination. Considering the fact that these chemicals are not definitively proven to be a major threat to communities, these disclosures could not be as large of a problem as some believe. Additionally, groundwater contamination only constitutes one factor in an overall debate regarding the viability of hydraulic fracturing. A corollary issue, on which many environmental organizations focus, regards the leakage of these injection fluids into surface water. Other considerations include geopolitical benefits of American energy dependence, impact of hydraulic fracturing infrastructure on local communities, increase of American economic output, and decrease of greenhouse gases. Consequently, the disclosure of chemicals to prevent groundwater contamination is not likely to be the sole determinative factor in the overall hydraulic fracturing debate.