The Chemistry of Frac-ing
You are standing next to an oil or gas well. You see a bunch of 400 barrel tanks standing side by side. You are waiting to watch a frac job; a small one would have four or five tanks, whereas a big one might have 20 of them. At 16,800 gallons per tank, that’s a lot of water.
The pump trucks pull up to the well head and connect the tanks full of water to the tanks full of other stuff, hook up the big pumps and manifolds and push a huge volume of frac fluids deep into the bowels of the earth, way deeper than any aquifers being used by anyone, to unlock vast quantities of gas or oil.
Meanwhile huge controversies rage: what is in this witches’ brew? Why is the mix kept so secret? Aren’t there horrible chemicals percolating up around our feet, leaking into water wells and killing frogs and birds?
The biggest ingredient is water. Another main ingredient used to be guar gum. Ask the folks at Wrigley’s. Nowadays they use a polymer with no solids that would plug up the pores. Frequently sand and larger particles are forced into the cracks in the sandstone or shale to prop it open.
Hydraulic fracturing is the most efficient technology to increase domestic oil and gas production. It is pretty benign. Regulators require drillers to set “surface pipe” (vertical steel pipe) to a depth below the deepest local aquifer before injecting anything other than cement into the bore. Then the surface pipe is cemented in place. Then the drilling proceeds to TD (total depth), then they frac.
I called the Wyoming Oil and Gas Supervisor, Tom Doll. Tom, a petroleum engineer, has enjoyed a broad range of exposure to many different types of oil and gas “plays.” For a guy who used to work in the industry, he sure is taking a new line on a number of issues. The regulatory environment at the state level has changed thrice in the past fifteen years; first when Don Basko retired and Don Likwartz came on board, next when Dave Freudenthal was elected and he actually took an interest in regulating the industry (some say a somewhat punitive interest), and then when Tom Doll was appointed. This isn’t your grandfather’s Oldsmobile, folks. Tom and I are pretty good friends, but that didn’t stop him from forcing me to post a huge bond on a gas well I inadvertently inherited from a busted deal while trying to help a client. Ouch. Mistake for sale? Call me.
Anyway, I called Tom because I have been working on this piece and the Casper Star-Tribune’s Dustin Bleizeffer sort of scooped me, and I needed to play catchup. Tom reports that most in industry refer to hydraulic fracturing of impermeable (tight) oil and gas formations as “frac-ing”, whereas the newly interested refer to it as “frack-ing”. Now we know where to look on the internet.
Tom pointed out that frac-ing has been going on a long time with few incidents or complaints, a subject about which I have previously written. Sometimes, depending upon the chemistry of the water in the oil and gas formation, operators add some acids or biocides (bacteria in oil and gas formations can corrode pipe and make hydrogen sulfide) to gelling agents and water, but when these substances are mixed with massive quantities of water, they may be diluted to a few parts per million.
The Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission is getting out ahead of the feds and will be requiring oil and gas operators to divulge their frac-ing plans, including a list of ingredients, with their applications for permits to drill and sundry notices. (A “sundry notice” is a form for reporting “I will be doing something to this well bore,” like cementing, fixing, plugging, re-completing or frac-ing).
These disclosures will come as boring non-surprises to everyone. Read the label on your laundry detergent or automobile polish; it might be more exciting. The fact that Halliburton (surely a corporate incarnation of the devil, right?) and its competitors want to keep their recipes secret just whets the appetite of everyone who detests secrets. Be prepared for a huge yawn.
This is less exciting than the Wagon Wheel Project, proposed in the late 1960s-early 1970s. The federal government was going to set off nuclear explosions underground to unlock the natural gas around Pinedale. This proposal was one of several to motivate formerly earnestly conservative Republicans to turn into environmentalists, part of our hard-to-label Wyoming history. Wagon Wheel went home.
Like the drug companies and the weed-spray companies urge, read the label, folks. Unlike prescription drugs and weed sprays, the label on frac-ing fluids will be a big yawner.