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Resources Tech Article Library Shale Gas and Hydrocarbons - Background and Geologic Illiteracy

Shale Gas and Hydrocarbons Development: News items, television dramas and "documentaries" and memories of the 2010 oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico ... People want to know will deep shale development contaminate ground water?

This is a legitimate concern, but first, let's separate the new "unconventional" shale gas and oil development from the Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010: Gas and oil drilling on land does not involve the risks of catastrophic and widespread environmental damage posed by drilling in 5000-ft-deep sea water. In a worst case scenario of full-systems breakdown, effects are local.  Hydrofracturing · Leasing · Injection · Water testing · Links

Oil field at Cygnet OhioAlso, this is not your father's or grandfather's oil industry. The most damage done by oil drilling was done - such as in the photo on the left (Ohio Geological Survey) in its first few decades before invention of the blowout preventer (find and view the movie Giant for example). Much "Halliburton" technology was developed by Halliburton when it was just an oilfield service company, Baroid and others before corporate acquisition by the company villified for its role in Iraq and Katrina problems. That technology -- sophisticated mud and grouting programs, the blowout preventer and more -- has helped to prevent disaster and leakage. Drilling is conducted using rotating drill bits, pipes and fluids consisting of (mostly) clay solutions with some polymers (essentially soap). Air as a circulating fluid is increasingly used, often with "foam" (air, water, "soap"). Oil and gas wells are cased in multiple casing strings through potential ground-water sources (in Ohio, aquifers with water below 10,000 mg/L TDS), other oil-and-gas zones if not the target, coal mines and other such leakage routes. In Ohio and some other U.S. states, there are safeguards and inspections with these steps. However, no system is perfect. Still, as long as we need hydrocarbons -- including gasoline and diesel to drive to fracking protests -- oil and gas development will be necessary, and the current industry is much more environmentally aware and cooperative, embracing the value of water protection (at least in principle), and also subject to tighter regulation, than was the case even 20 years ago.

Hydrofracturing (often known as "fracking" or "frac'ing"): First, hydrofracturing (using fluid under pressure to widen openings in rock) is a completion process that is part of the larger well development scope. HF is neither new nor exclusively used in either gas and oil development or the deep ("unconventional") hydrocarbon "plays" now opened up by horizontal drilling and HF techniques. It is a routine practice in developing more shallow "conventional" (tapped by vertical wells) gas and oil and in coal gas extraction. It can be (as used in water well production improvement) merely injection of water into the aquifer under pressure (your author wrote a short book on the subject for the National Ground Water Association). Sometimes in well development, proppants are used. Hydrofracturing in deeper oil and gas development requires much higher pressure, often much more fluid, proppants, and additional additives not used in water well development.

In addition to these "wet" fracs, some fracs are conducted using propane, carbon dioxide or nitrogen. These are likely to become more commonly used, but are somewhat specific to reservoir conditions.  was used in the Pavillion, Wyoming, "conventional" (vertical drilling into traps) oil and gas field that is currently the subject of U.S. EPA study. CO2 HF is commonly used in coal gas extraction.

Marcellus, Utica-Point Pleasant, Barnett, and other deep shale hydrocarbon "plays" in the Appalachian basin (as well as shallow coal gas development, and even some fresh water development) require hydrofracturing to be economical. Hydrofracturing HF in the Appalachian basin is most often conducted using water, sand, and some chemicals, although there is high interest in the gas frac methods.

In wet fracs, because the deep shale formations are very tight, when gas is released, a large portion of the "frac" water rebounds back up the hole with the gas. Frac return water contains fluids from the formation as well as additives. Formation fluid is high in total dissolved solids (TDS), potentially radioactive constituents, and hydrocarbons and must be controlled. This has not always been successful. The volumes can be huge. Large open impoundments pose the highest risk of spills, physical and contact chemical hazards and air quality impairment. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, ranks of enclosed "frac" tanks are increasingly common. For both economic and environmental reasons, efforts are being made to recycle this water for further hydrofracturing.  This effort is underway and involves a number of creative efforts.

Remember - the economics drive the producers. It costs a lot to store, transport and treat water. They will achieve recycling. This will reduce demand for "ambient" water to be injected (and lost to the accessible biosphere until plate tectonics brings it back up many millions of years hence). However, recycling naturally generates solids that have to removed, and tends to concentrate radioactive constituents. So such water has to be treated to remove radium and other radioactive content before handling.

Note - the American Petroleum Institute (API) the petroleum industry's society -- has numerous guidelines on good practices. Hold them to them. See the U.S. Department of Energy link below.

People want to know, will 'fracking' harm my water? The chemicals used in wet fracs are  concentrations in the 0.1-1-percent range. These are used to increase interaction with shale, reduce surface tension between water and sand (to increase the fluid feed rate), and to repress bacterial growth in the fractures. Honestly, look at your dishwashing detergent or shampoo and conditioner for the types of chemicals used, and if you have power washed with chemicals, you have a sense of the chemical exposure risk. Some biocides are used (most typically glutaraldehyde). Glutaraldehyde poses some toxicity risk (mostly to the applicators, who should be wearing respirators and protective gear). However, biocides, acid and "soap" (polyacrylamide) are diluted at a proportion of < 1 gal per 1000 gal of water before injection. These proportions are typical of those used in potable water well cleaning, but still the volumes can be in the 10,000s gallons per treatment. Wet fracs will probably remain most common in the Marcellus and Utica-Point Pleasant fields in the Appalachian basin. Science and consensus on the toxicology of exposure to some chemicals is still in development. Also, concerns about air quality exposure have been raised.

Here is a discussion of the list of chemicals compiled by the Pennsylvania DEP. Other resources below. The US EPA is studying the use of development chemicals and their risks. Risk to the environment is mitigated by the "being injected into tight rocks 8000 ft into the earth" part, and of course, dilution and chemical breakdown in situ.

With the chemical concern, the next issue is "can these solutions intercept usable aquifers?" Studies to date in various shale basins show that the scaling and steering of fracs keeps the fractures confined to the shale units themselves. This is a function of both technique and rock mechanics. It is another technique that is still in development, with much of the experience since 2007. Still, the techniques are sophisticated and there is much incentive to get this right.

Oil and gas drilling projects today case and cement off water supplies and other sensitive formations and are (rather) well-regulated (federal MMR failures in the Gulf notwithstanding). This is closely watched in Ohio and other shale play states.  Most regulation is at the state level and this regulation is based in rather well understood geological and engineering principles, and adapting as they go. The percentage of projects with failures or deficiencies in cementing remains unacceptably high (5-10 % range) if there will be thousands of these completions.

As mentioned above, it should be understood that oil and gas issues in particular in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are both long-standing problems, and associated with geologic conditions. The study of gas in water well occurrences in Bainbridge Township, Geauga Co., Ohio is typical. These investigations began after an explosion in a home in 2007. The report of investigations is found here. Part of what the study reinforces is that gas is a natural part of the geologic setting in the region. A cursory review of gas-bearing geology in Pennsylvania shows why people have some gas in their wells in places, however casing-cementing deficiencies have contributed to making some water wells unusable in NE Pennsylvania.

The concept of enlightened self interest factors into the success of frac jobs and avoidance of penetrating other formations, potentially water-bearing or protective of water. The self interest is that the developers want gas and a few other hydrocarbons to come out of the wells - and NOT water. They do not want to separate water from gas, or sulfide from water - they want gas and "wet" hydrocarbons. They also do not want to penetrate cap rock above the gas-bearing shale.  They want all the gas leaving the production zone to leave through a well to become salable product, not leaking up to cause trouble in fresh water. Geologists and engineers have the tools to evaluate formations and to set the placement and orientation of horizontal bores and fracturing tools so that the fractures a) optimize gas removal and b) avoid surrounding formations.

If you are a land owner and you are approached about leasing land for hydrocarbon production, you can apply the same "enlightened self interest" principles. Go into the process with open eyes - and not obscured by large dollar signs. Learn the process, get to know your rights and what you can expect. You can negotiate the conditions of your lease, including water quality and site issues. These terms are not set in stone. Sophisticated lawyers write the basic language for the producers, so get help with interpretation, and join a land owners group in your area. Retain rights to control fluid management on your land. A clause requiring water testing and clean up if something happens can be added to your lease. Get your water supply and surface water (creeks, ponds, etc.) tested and document results. If your neighbors will be leasing, test to protect yourself. Document everything. We would encourage producers to do the same. Ground Water Science can help you with testing and designing plans and systems to protect water supplies.

You can choose with whom you lease. Do your homework. We suggest researching the players and choose those with the best safety and environmental records, as well as good landowner relations (we think these go together). People experienced with the industry know the players who "just comply with the letter of regulations" and those who go two steps beyond to be on the safe side. Your flexibility to negotiate depends on where you are, and your lease can be swapped to other producers as they work to build square-mile property aggregates. Join the landowner group. If you are anticipating leasing, get some informed legal help. These attorneys and these attorneys (among others - check around) are ahead of the curve in Ohio in focusing on helping property owners in negotiating mineral rights. Other resources in links below. Did we mention "join a landowner group"?

Excellent quote in the April 4, 2012 Youngstown Vindicator from a gentlemen in Texas experienced with oil leasing (and doing quite well): "He acknowledges that there have been incidents, some serious, but to him it’s preventable by dealing with the right company at the outset, outlining clear rules for safety, maintenance and eventual site cleanup and understanding and trusting in the science" and another "Don’t take their first offer, ask for a whole lot more than you think you’re going to get, then you can negotiate. If you sign what they come up and offer you, you messed up.” (articles by TheNewsOutlet.org for the Vindicator). We absolutely cannot say it better ourselves.

"Brine" injection (Class II) injection wells and oilfield fluid disposal: An unfortunate side effect of oil and gas production is produced low quality fluids (that come up with the oil), HF flowback water, and byproducts of well drilling. In Ohio, such "brine" may be injected or in limited cases, spread for deicing. Most of the fluid is injected in Class II underground injection wells. Each state regionally has primacy, and one agency or another is in charge of these under the US EPA UIC program. Ohio's Class II wells are administered by the Ohio DNR UIC program.

Ohio has "favorable" geology (that is, good for injection) for Class II injection in porous formations mostly 4500-8000 ft in total depth. Many of these are converted oil and gas wells injecting into spent gas-producing formations. Some of the deeper ones inject into the Mt. Simon formation, just above the Precambrian "basement" rock, which overlies the earth's mantle! In recent news, a deep (9300 ft) well in Youngstown, Ohio has been the subject of study and controversy, since a series of 12 small earthquakes since March 2011 (including a Mag 4 quake rockin' New Year's Eve) were centered near it (this has not occurred locally before in the record). The Ohio DNR has officially concluded that fluid injected into the Precambrian played a role in activating fracture zones there. Eastern Ohio's Precambrian is in the Grenville belt, the remnants of an ancient mountain range, and faults are known to exist there. Northeastern Ohio is an active (but low energy) seismic zone. It will be interesting to see the outcomes of further studies under way, but Youngstown is now the Rock and Roll Capital of Ohio! This should end with new rules adopted by Ohio. Unfortunately, due to federal interstate commerce rules, Ohio must accept waste fluids from other states, who have no great incentive to manage their own darn fluids. PA's Class II UIC program is under USEPA jurisdiction, so the chances of having a well approved seem slim. So a lot of Class II fluid is injected in Ohio. The state funds the oil and gas regulatory program with fees from fluid haulers.

Hauling and fluid accountability is a big concern. With the recent revelation that a business in Youngstown was dumping large quantities of waste into the Mahoning River, hauling accountability has again become a matter of concern. There is always incentive to cheat, collect funds to haul but not deliver to secure disposal. A particular danger is in the radioactivity of these fluids if dumped in surficial waters or insecure disposal points.

Solid waste handling: Running under the radar is the issue of handling the massive amounts of drilling cuttings from well development. As wells are drilled, drilled up rock (cuttings) come up and are stockpiled. The shale that is the target of the hydrocarbon development tends to have significant naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), mostly radium and uranium. If meeting U.S. DOE and U.S. EPA requirements, such cuttings should be transported to low-level radioactive waste repositories (LLWR). However, only two of these exist in the USA, both in the West. However, at present, Ohio is accepting shale cuttings at solid waste and construction demolition landfills (lower standards than solid waste landfills) as simple solid waste, not measuring for NORM. You are courteously invited to complain to the State of Ohio about that.

Water testing and monitoring: If you own land or are working in western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, or anywhere in Ohio, contact us about well testing and risk analysis. Although all the responsible producers are doing their own testing and sharing results, we recommend doing your own to be sure.

If you have water well performance and quality problems (even when they seem to occur suddenly) these are most likely to be natural occurrences caused by conditions in your well and local aquifer. See elsewhere in this web site for reasons. The solution usually is cleaning and maintaining your well, if it isn't a general issue of the local aquifer. Often, aquifers above oil and gas zones are degraded in quality, but this can be a natural situation. However, any big and sudden changes should be investigated carefully. Do not be put off as a "nut case" (or "we can't analyze that") by your regulators if you have documentation and data. We have lab capability to investigate the strange.

Think critically. We should view large, complex hydrocarbon production activities (and similar projects such as CO2 sequestration and nuclear waste storage) critically, but objectively and based on science, not ignorance.Contribute to the conversation. If you are on LinkedIn and have something informed and intelligent to contribute, or wish to see what people in these fields are thinking, join appropriate discussion groups. We can advise if you contact us.

Words like "super giant" and "game changer" offer great promise and great burden. However, HBO's Gasland (based on their web site), for example, promises no such valid analysis. If we want to reduce dependency on these types of activities, let's be conserving.

Some links on gas drilling and fracking that we found useful -- in addition to those embedded in the text above (we welcome other suggestions and notification of link changes):

FrackTracker - source of maps and data collections that helps to look at the situation spatially.

"Fracfocus" from the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission - a variety of information including frac chemicals

A primer on modern shale gas drilling and development technology produced by the Ground Water Protection Council.

The Youngstown Vindicator's Shale Focus page -- some pretty good reporting and information collecting -- we are seeing some good journalism on this issue in regional outlets (and some awful work by the national and international sources). See also The NewsOutlet.org.

U.S. Department of Energy resources on improving hydrofracturing safety and environmental performance - many resources

Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) "white paper" on hydrofracturing and ground water protection.

The Shale Network (will be developing a comprehensive water quality and geochemical database for PA)

B.F. Environmental - Water testing and training in northeastern PA, including an existing citizen's water quality database that predates the Shale Network effort

Weston study of water quality in Bedford County, PA (in association with USEPA), prepared for Chesapeake Energy

Frac water contents example (see also PA DEP list linked above and NY Dept of Environmental Conservation following):

Frac Focus Chemical Use Registry

Halliburton disclosure on frac fluids and processes.

Pennsylvania DEP Marcellus reports landing page (with numerous other links)

Penn State University Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (information resource)

Marcellus and Utica (Devonian shale hydrocarbon systems) information links posted by Ohio Geological Survey

Ohio DNR Division of Oil and Gas

Ohio EPA guidance and reference on shale hydrocarbon development in Ohio. Links and fact sheets.

Interactive Natural Gas Mapping (full use requires subscription)

Geology.com's hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and Marcellus shale information pages

Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies - Report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences 2012

New York Dept of Environmental Conservation Environmental Impact Statement on shale gas drilling (a variety of useful information and background - 2009)

US Geological Survey fact sheet on Water Resources and Natural Gas Production from the Marcellus Shale (FS 2009-3032).

Draft US EPA study of ground-water quality problems near Pavillion, WY that may be related to hydrocarbon resource development

Critique of the draft USEPA study from Energy in Depth

Oil and Gas Mineral Services -- oriented toward land owners and current or potential mineral rights owners and leasers

Look Before you Lease - Information to inform landowners: Ohio focus

Ohio Oil and Gas Association - producers, regular conferences: Interesting talks at Ohio Oil & Gas Assn meetings

Utica shale maps -- among the numerous independent news and information sources

Fracking Resource Guide -- Not sure how to categorize this, but looks to be trying to offer a broad range of views

Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy - to give us healthy pause about potential health, safety and environmental effects.

US EPA information on Class VI (CO2 sequestration) injection wells

And of course, Truthland - The Movie - a feel-good antidote to Josh Fox's Gasland. Tell us what you think.

If we can help you with your testing, let us know. We do not provide a biased result for any agenda, but objective data and interpretation. Please refer to our discussion of professional ethics. We use reputable labs experienced with the effects of natural gas and industrial development on water wells, and we have been recognized by the Ohio EPA as a top-rung chemical data collector, in addition to our other credentials.


What kind of work do we do? Here is an example:

Village of Coldwater - Detailed delineation & optimization of wellfield (as adjunct to maintenance)

Coldwater has a carbonate-aquifer wellfield with modest-capacity wells that have a history of repeated and severe maintenance problems. Work completed: First we got them out of water emergency by planning and implementing a well cleaning program. We then reviewed their wellfield management, combining development of a large and highly detailed MODFLOW-MODPATH model, with dual use of wellfield use planning and WHPA delineation, and further well rehabilitation work to improve performance. With the siting of two new wells to replace multiple older wells for new water treatment plant, a water supply transformation was completed. Work conducted with our colleagues at Fanning/Howey Associates.

As indicated in the chart, well cleaning had the effect of "adding a new well" without physically siting (or bearing the expense of) a new well. Again, Ground Water Science demonstrates its versatility in serving a client's needs over many years.

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Protecting larger wellfields may require calculation of wellhead protection areas. Your state may have already done that for you, but it’s a good idea to have a hydrogeologist update the delineation.

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