Fracking: Are We Crying Wolf at the Wrong Wolf?

Jay Daniels

The Tulsa World Sunday, June 9 edition published an article by Russell Gold. Gold is the author of a new book on fracking called “The Boom.” He also has covered the energy industry for the Wall Street Journal since 2002.

I found the article very informative and caused me to rethink my position on oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly referred to as “fracturing, fracking, or frac.” Throughout the past few years I have researched this fracturing method and jumped back and forth between my thoughts. One thing continues to jump out at me. Fracking has been used since the late 1940’s without much fanfare. The key difference today is new technology, the price of a barrel of oil, the heightened activity and the ability to diminish the United State’s reliance upon foreign oil consumption.

In the mid-1940s, researchers for Stanolind Oil & Gas in Tulsa, OK, had an idea. Why not try to create fractures on regular wells? The theorized fractures might force out trapped oil and gas. The researchers decided to substitute water, sand and soap for cement. Their thinking was that the water would fracture the rock, the sand would hold the cracks open, and gas or oil would flow to the surface.

Halliburton licensed the technology soon after. That was 65 years ago, and for decades the method evolved steadily.

The fracking method has been thwarted by questions such as can fracking contaminate drinking water? Does it cause earthquakes? Is the increase in criminal activities worth it?

In a yearlong study of seismic activity sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers failed to link fracturing rock and quakes.

What the experts did find was a strong connection between injection wells and tremors. Such wells are used to store wastewater and other unwanted liquids. If pressures get high enough, quakes can occur, according to the academy’s report.

Some environmentalists worry about fractures spreading far from the drill pipe and contaminating groundwater with either fracking fluid or hydrocarbons, but injecting used water and other fluids from fracking back into the ground in waste water wells is believed to be the safest way to dispose of it.

Some industry people believe federal regulations would even the playing field. Research places the risks on waste water disposal rather than the fracking process.

Earthquakes also are a concern. According to an analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey, there were 183 quakes in Oklahoma of at least a 3.0 magnitude between October 2013 and April 14, 2014. On June 16, 2014, Oklahoma reported three earthquakes during the morning in succession. Scientists who have studied the phenomenon say, however, that the fracturing process itself is unlikely to be causing the tremors.

There are about 35,000 wells nationwide today where hydraulic fracturing is being used. Since 1947, about 1 million wells have been fracked.

In horizontal drilling, a company bores a hole straight down to a large shale layer. It then turns the drillhead and continues to bore sideways. Later, the company perforates the horizontal leg of the pipe and pumps water and sand in.

This allows the company to tap a much larger area of shale than would be possible with a traditional vertical hole.

There was an oil spill of almost 700 barrels of oil north of New Town, North Dakota, which is the tribal government base for the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Fortunately, the entire well site was bermed to contain spillage and the spill occurred at the pipeline connection on the well due to a faulty seal. Industry has been constructing pipelines from the well to a central pick-up point. This lessens the impacts on road infrastructure damage resulting from “high” usage of hauling crude across Indian reservation roads. I have seen firsthand the volume of trucks and the bottleneck of moving about town as well as outside of town. The Bureau of Indian Affairs resurfaced a tribal highway only to see it return to the same damaged state within a few months.

My thoughts now lean toward focusing on the disposal of waste water rather than fracking wells. The focus should be on safety monitoring of waste water disposal wells. The method of fracking is only a part of the issue but the disposal of waste water is the greatest concern in my opinion. This opinion has developed after a nearly 33 years of watching drilling, waste water disposal, and plugging or abandonment (“PA”) of wells. Some dry holes are converted to waste water disposal wells. If not, the well is PA. If converted to a waste water disposal well, it is often left unmonitored and can be abandoned without notice with insufficient liability to meet rising costs for PA.

Finally Indian Country is prospering from their natural resources in a manner that has created wealth and a better life for the mineral owner. There are many bad elements increasing, such as drug sale and abuse, sexual abuse, deaths, etc., but Indian Country has long suffered from insufficient law and social programs staffing and funding. There must be a push, with a portion of the costs passed on to Industry, to increase these resources.

Let those who are fortunate to own Indian trust mineral rights enjoy the riches for once. Nothing wrong with Indian millionaires on the reservation.

Jay Daniels has 30 years of experience working in Indian Country, managing trust lands and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. You can find resources and information at RoundhouseTalk.com.

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