Fracking is literally a 'dirty bomb,' says former industry insider
by James Northru
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he regulations on hydrofracking proposed by the DEC were written for existing small vertical New York wells—known in the industry as “stripper wells”—oil wells that produce fewer than 10 barrels a day. A horizontal hydrofrack in a tight shale formation is from 10 to 100 times larger than the fracks put on these small vertical wells; yet the proposed regulations on horizontal hydrofracking of shale gas differ only slightly from those imposed on small vertical wells.

The existing DEC well regulations are grossly inadequate to regulate a horizontal hydrofracked well in shale gas. They are a prescription for disaster for New York’s drinking water.

Horizontal hydrofracking of shale gas formations is essentially a hydrobaric underground explosion, i.e., a bomb. A very powerful, very dirty, pipe bomb.

A bomb’s explosive power is a function of the pressure wave it generates and the mass of air or water it displaces. An “air bomb” used in Afghanistan as an anti-personnel device has a pressure wave of about 500 lbs. per square inch (psi). It can be heard up to 100 miles away. A horizontal hydrofrack in shale can have pressures approaching 15,000 psi, or 30times that of an air bomb. That is equivalent to the water pressure six miles deep in the ocean.

The volume of fluid in a hydrofrack can exceed three million gallons, or almost 24 million pounds of fluid, about the same weight as 7,500 automobiles. The fracking fluid contains chemicals that would be illegal to use in warfare under the rules of the Geneva Convention. This all adds up to a massive explosion of a “dirty bomb” underground.

Since the chemicals in most fracking fluids are hydrocarbons (i.e., oil-based), they separate from the frack water, meaning they rise to the top of the fractures within a matter of days. So, while they represent a small fraction of the total fracking fluid, they are disproportionate at the top of the formation—which is why they are found in relative abundance in adjacent water wells when such wells are polluted by shale gas drilling.

When a shale gas well is hydrofracked, the explosive power of the frack breaks up the rock indiscriminately for a considerable distance—far enough to break into nearby aquifers—particularly if the frack hits a vertical fault that may cause the gas bearing formation to “communicate” with other strata. This can release natural gas—which consists of methane, butane, propane, and benzene, etc. — into drinking water, along with the toxic chemicals in the fracking fluid. Once introduced, there is no way to remove the gas or the chemicals from the drinking water. As originally proposed by the DEC, a horizontal hydrofracked shale gas well could be 50 feet from a municipal drinking water source such as Lake Otsego. That has been the setback for “stripper wells” in New York; it’s about the width of a small residential lot. The well itself can be drilled under the lake, since it would go out horizontally from the shore. The frack on the well could penetrate the aquifers under the lake, which in turn would pollute the lake with gas and toxic chemicals. After Otego 2000 protested the proposed regulations, the DEC increased the setback to 150 feet from the lake—three house lots away from the shoreline. A spill at the well site would easily get into the lake. The horizontal section of the well could extend far under the lake—since the lake is not controlled by the municipality that uses it for drinking water. The proposed DEC regulations offer no protection for the lake or its watershed. They pose a threat to all water wells, creeks, rivers and lakes in the Southern Tier.

As proposed, New York’s regulations are the worst in the country. Unlike another states, there is no direct tax on the gas produced, so the state reaps no direct benefit from production. Unlike other states, New York tasks its regulatory agency, the DEC, with the issuance of drilling permits—thus compromising the DEC’s mission as environmental watchdog. Unlike other states, New York can compel a landowner to participate in drilling a well—even if the landowner has not signed a lease; this practice is known as “compulsory integration,” which is illegal in other states.

New York represents a dramatically different drilling regime than other states where horizontal hydrofracking of shale has been developed. For example, Texas is about the size of France but has only one natural lake (Caddo). All other surface water sources are impoundments (man-made reservoirs) and all of them are either owned or controlled by a municipality for drinking water, or by the Corps. of Engineers. If Cooperstown were in Texas, Lake Otsego would be a reservoir owned by the townships and county. Whether to drill next to the lake or frack under it would be a municipal decision, not a private one. New York’s proposed regulations treat New York City and Syracuse differently from other municipalities with respect to drinking water sources. The DEC puts a gloss on its reasoning for such disparate treatment, but it is not likely to survive a court challenge. Otsego County residents should have the same protections as New York City residents—and every Texan.

The proposed DEC regulations should be scrapped. The state should wait for the EPA to issue its new guidelines on horizontal hydrofracking of shale gas wells. And the state should wait for Congress to close the “Halliburton loophole” in the Clean Water Act, so that such wells are once again brought under federal jurisdiction, as they were before the 2005 Energy Act exempted them from regulation.

James Northrup of Cooperstown was in the energy business for 30 years. He has been an independent oil and gas producer in Texas and New Mexico and has owned onshore and offshore drilling rigs in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, West Africa, Brazil and the South China Sea. This article expands on his comments at a public forum on natural gas drilling, organized by the Otsego County Board of Representatives.