Industry Insight: The Great Fracking Debate (as seen by water suppliers)

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The process of hydraulic fracking—better known as hydrofracking or simply fracking—has been the source of an overwhelming amount of controversy. From films like “Gasland” to news that earthquakes are linked to the drilling, concerns about fracking continue to grow on a global scale. Our own Paul Granger, P.E. is one of the founders of the Hydraulic Fracturing Committee for the New York State Section of the American Water Works Association (NYSAWWA), and is currently the committee’s Chairman. We sat down with Paul to discuss the issues currently surrounding fracking, as well as the impact that it can have on our water supply. Can you go over the source of the controversy around fracking? As you know, hydraulic fracturing is very controversial. It’s a very complex, large-scale construction and industrial operation that involves drilling rigs and acres of disturbed area. People are concerned, and rightfully so, about the contamination of their drinking water supply and its drilling methods. The enormity of the operation—how deep they go—also concerns people. They can drill almost 2,000 feet deep and are using chemicals—granted they only make a small percentage of the mixture—that are being injected into the ground at high pressures. What we’ve started learning is that what goes into the ground comes out. As you go deeper into the shale formation, which actually contains some radioactive matter, the flowback water could also can contain some radioactive material. People see the potential for getting these chemicals, and perhaps radioactivity, into the water supply. How long does the fracking process usually last? The construction lasts about six months to a year.

The wells can produce for many decades, and most produce quite well. The footprint of the well gets relatively small after construction. Do you think fracking has a great economic benefit to the communities in which it’s occurring? I understand that there are those who see hydraulic fracturing as an economic benefit. If you’re looking at the economic stimulation from the construction side, that only lasts about a year, mostly consisting of a transient population. I think the only real benefits are for the landowner and perhaps the municipality, if it is deriving any royalties from the well. I do feel that if the locality can derive any tax revenue or royalty revenue from the gas that’s being produced, that’s something that’s sustainable. Can fracking directly affect the water? Three things can go wrong.

First, it could be methane contamination or any type of petroleum product that comes out of it. Second is figuring out what to do with the flowback water and how do you discharge of that water safely. Third is figuring out how to handle the fracking chemicals up on the surface. How do you protect against radioactive material getting into the groundwater? What we look at as water suppliers is how they construct the casing of the well. We check that the quality control and the type of construction is protective of the drinking water. You want to prevent the chemicals from the fracking operation from getting back into the formation, and you also want to be careful that you don’t have any methane or gas migration into the formation. How do you get methane migration? There are a lot of moving parts with fracking, and so much going on beneath the ground surface, but it’s usually attributed to improper drilling techniques and improper construction of the vertical wells. Is methane migration the only type of contamination? On top of that, you also have the potential to contaminate surface water bodies—something that’s happened in Pennsylvania.

There are impoundments, which are used to store that water that comes back up from fracking. So, if a fracking tank or impoundment springs a leak, it can get into your creek and then your water supply. The concern becomes how to dispose of the fluids so that you don’t contaminate the water supply. What happens if fracking water contaminates our water? The most notable case happened in Pittsburgh. They brought the fracking fluid to a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), which couldn’t process that water because the WWTP’s process is more biological. Instead, they got this highly saline water to go into the Allegheny River, and it changed the water’s chemistry to the point that the downstream surface water suppliers got high trihalomethanes (THMs). When they added chlorine to their water, they created problems, which was an indirect result of fracking water being disposed of in a river. Why has no fracking been allowed in New York State? You can see here that there’s a lot of inherent issues with hydraulic fracturing. In New York State, the DEP has an exemption that says you cannot do any fracking in the New York City watershed, simply based on fear that you don’t know what the geological formation is. Fracking can create a problem in their watershed. From the perspective of a water purveyor, you have to compliment the Governor for taking his time, because he’s under pressure to stimulate the state economy. I personally appreciate that. What will need to happen for fracking to occur in NYS? A lot more experience and research, I think, needs to be done. Is the quality control getting better? Yes. Could there be issues when you do such large-scale operations? Absolutely. If you are going to proceed with fracking, proceed with caution. Do maybe some pilot fracking and, even though they’re doing it in Pennsylvania, walk before you run—that’s the approach. Can you talk about the link between earthquakes and fracking? Usually it’s caused by deep injection wells that have caused the seismic reactions. An example is the earthquake swarms they’ve had in Oklahoma. Do you buy it? I guess it’s possible, and based on the press releases and hearing the science behind it, it makes sense. When they re-inject the wastewater into the shale formation under high pressure, it’s causing some sort of low-level earthquakes. It’s nothing catastrophic, but it’s enough to be concerned. Looking at it intuitively, you’re injecting fluids under high pressure and you’re creating little explosions under the surface of the earth. If you are near a fault or some void, anything can happen.

Do you think communities should be worried about earthquakes or contamination caused by fracking? I wouldn’t say anyone should be worried, but be vigilant and use any worry in a constructive way. If you’re going to frack in certain areas, what I recommend to the water suppliers is to conduct a survey of your watershed area. As a water supplier, I advise people to look at the big picture and survey from both a water perspective and from a geological perspective. There’s a tremendous anti-fracking contingent. Will common ground ever be found? I’m under the belief, being an engineer, that any industrial activity poses a risk. A gas station, even farming activities pose a risk to your water supply. If you get enough cow manure and a lot of rain, it can go into your watershed and then you get biological contamination. So, while I appreciate the environmental community’s concern on this issue—and it’s good because it really pulls everybody’s feet to the fire—there is a middle ground. When it comes to hydraulic fracturing, you need proper regulatory oversight and solid regulations based on what we do know. Why hasn’t there been a resolution yet? There are still so many unknown aspects to fracking. Fracking wells are under very high pressure and they can put out gas for so many years, but when they stop producing gas and you have to cap them, what’s the long-term sustainability of that well not being contaminated? I think there’s a short-term solution. Regulatory oversight, good engineering and drilling practices and just learning from other areas and proceeding with caution. Long-term, we must figure out how to restore the land and protect the well long-term, once it’s done producing gas.

What do you see long-term for New York State? I think fracking will take place. In speaking with some industry people, particularly the attorneys representing the industry, they don’t feel it makes sense economically to frack in New York because the regulations being proposed are very onerous. It’s cheaper for them to stay in Ohio and frack into the Utica shale, which is much deeper and a more expensive construction method, because the regulations and laws are not as tough. Could that hurt the State? I don’t think that’s such a bad thing because it means that our quality control is more protective of the environment. What I want to make sure that New York does, and this is what I’ve been telling my members, is to keep the pressure on to make sure that adequate funding is in place for the DEC to have regulatory oversight. Paul Granger, P.E. is Vice President of H2M Water.