Knowing this, Halliburton staged quite the show to prove that its new fluid was safe. In August 2011, a conference was held by the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, and Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar was a keynote speaker. He addressed public concerns about hydraulic fracturing, then showed a glass of liquid to the conference, which held the new CleanStim fluid. A fellow Halliburton executive was called up to the stage and, after feigning reluctance, took a swig of the fracking fluid.
The incident was called everything from a publicity stunt to a valuable demonstration, but it caught people’s attention either way. The problem was there were still some holes in Halliburton’s claims. “I thought, if this stuff was so benign, why wouldn’t the CEO drink it himself?” asked Environmental Defense Fund’s Mark Browenstein, quoted in an article by Catherine Tsai (Tsai, 2011). Browenstein raises an interesting point, though it seems the fluid is as safe as Halliburton claims when one considers a more recent conference that included some more CleanStim ingestion. At a Quebec Oil and Gas Association in October 2013, about two dozen executives—including Halliburton Canada’s Vice President John Gorman— took a taste of Halliburton’s fluid (Blake, 2013).They are all still doing well enough to tell the tale, so perhaps Halliburton really has created a safe fracking fluid. The question is, will it be used?
The second issue that concerns critics of fracking is just that: even if there are new, cutting edge technologies coming out that make fracking safer, will companies spend the time and money to implement them completely? In the case of one past advancement, Dopefree connections, the turnover was successful and actually ended up being more efficient than the old technology. Before Dopefree technology became popularized, pipe- dopes (liquid lubricants manually applied to thread connections together) were the norm (Houston Advanced Research Center 2013). These lubricants often contained heavy metals that could be dangerous to workers, they froze in sub-zero temperatures, and they would sometimes become contaminated with debris or sand due to their stickiness (Tenaris Inc. 2012). The introduction of a dope-free coating was met with enthusiasm, and was implemented for most wells.
Another new technology is a membrane distillation process by General Electric. “The membrane distillation system is mainly used to concentrate produced water from the hydraulic fracturing process, and is expected to reduce produced water disposal costs and enable water use,” according to water-techology.net (2013). Produced water includes all wastewater produced in the fracking process. Water that emerges from the well after production begins is often salty water that was contained in the shale. Having been successfully tested in Texas, the new technology also proved to consume less energy than traditional methods (water-technology.net 2013).
At first, it looks like developing this system was a great use of time and money—it reduces time, energy and the likeliness of a toxic spill. But, according to Mark Boling, President of V+ Development Solutions, the technology will not be useful everywhere. The technology would only be practical in places that are very dry or where the water is high in salinity (Bullis, 2013). Despite this, the new distillation system is being celebrated as another step forward in making fracking more environmentally friendly, and also a more cost-effective practice. Its cost-effectiveness is a main reason it could be assumed fracking companies would be open to implementing this new system.
One very important problem associated with the research and development of greener fracking technologies is that even if the process of drilling for natural gas is improved, burning it will still be damaging to the environment, no matter how much “cleaner” it is than coal. “Given that it’s a fossil fuel that emits CO2, unless we can affordably capture the carbon, which no one is even talking about since it’s ‘relatively clean,’ it’s not a viable option for the long term,” according to engineer and author Bob Siegel (Siegel, 2012). There is debate as to whether funding research into greener fracking is even useful from an environmental standpoint—won’t the inevitable release of pollutants like methane, CO2 and nitrogen oxides counteract any positive advancement made in the realm of green fracking technology? Maybe not, since at least the accidental release of methane is becoming not so inevitable.
A system known as Green Completion, also called Reduced Emissions Completions (REC’s), has been developed for use and is now being implemented across the country. An REC requires natural gas to be captured immediately after the well is completed, rather than flaring it off (burning it) or letting it be released into the atmosphere. Since 2000, REC’s have been reducing methane emissions (EPA 2011), and on April 17, 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulations requiring the implementation of REC’s on all natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured (EPA 2012). There will be a grace period until January 1, 2015, after which it will be officially required that all well owners or operators use only REC’s. Although the primary reason for the new regulation is environmental, the REC’s also provide an economical benefit. Since the excess natural gas produced is now being captured instead of lost or burned, it can be used for energy. The graph above shows methane emissions before REC’s are mandated.
The successful development and implementation of REC’s is an important step forward in the industry’s fight against emissions and consequently, accelerated climate change. Methane, along with carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas responsible for trapping radiation. According to the EPA (2011), the gas captured by REC’s between 2000 and 2009 was enough to represent an additional $1.5 billion of gas sale revenue. This much gas was saved even before it was announced that REC’s would become required, so the additional revenue from captured gas in the future will undoubtedly be much higher.
Although there are some great strides being made to reduce the pollution associated with fracking, there are some environmental impacts associated with the practice that are still, for the most part, unaddressed. The issue of induced earthquakes or seismicity caused by deep injection wells has been a lesser-known, though still important, issue with fracking that is cited by critics. The majority of concern about earthquakes associated with fracking is focused on the injection of wastewater rather than on the drilling itself (Ellsworth, 2013).
According to the U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS), “more than 300 earthquakes above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year from 1967-2000” (Ellsworth, 2013). There is still debate about exactly how much of this seismicity is man-made, but it is generally accepted that there are places where earthquakes are clearly associated with the deep injection of wastewater. These earthquakes are rarely noticeable, let alone powerful enough to cause annoyance or damage, but the idea of any sort of man-made seismicity is enough to alarm the public.
The problem is, from a scientific standpoint, induced seismicity on the small scale that is occurring at now is not enough of an issue to garner research and solutions being presented. The public associates earthquakes with high risk, and, as a whole, rejects the idea of any sort of manmade earthquake as an acceptable side effect of fracking. “The current regulatory frameworks for wastewater disposal wells were designed to protect potable water sources from contamination and do not address seismic safety” (Ellsworth, 2013). Not much attention is being paid to this particular issue, at least when compared to the concern fracking companies have demonstrated over air and water pollution. The USGS “hopes to increase research efforts to understand the causes and effects of injection- induced earthquakes,” (Ellsworth, 2013) but there is no evidence of any concrete projects that have been started. This concern is evidence that while some of the issues of fracking are being addressed, there are still problem areas that are not receiving the research attention that the public would like.
Hydraulic fracturing, like any other process for harvesting energy, has its pros and cons. There are definitely issues surrounding it, environmental and otherwise that have yet to be solved. However, the efforts of drilling companies have already yielded some impressive advancements in technologies like Green Completion and Halliburton’s CleanStim fluid. Through further research, more environmental issues associated with fracking could be addressed, and the process could be a successful and more accepted part of energy production.