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Marcellus Issues in West Virginia: An Introduction

Hydraulic Fracturing

There's been so much said and written already about hydraulic fracturing that this will focus only on a select group of issues -- what's in the fluid and attempts to regulate it.

Hydraulic fracturing is a well fracturing process that is currently used to open existing fractures (caused during perforating a well) and create new fractures. It's along these voids in the formation that the natural gas flows. Hydraulic fracturing uses a fluid that carries proppant (usually sand) which keeps the voids open. The pressure of the fluid and sand is what opens and creates new fractures.

There are two basic types of wells -- conventional and unconventional. Conventional wells are drilled to a pressurized formation where the oil or gas flows naturally to the surface. Unconventional wells are drilled to formations that hold gas that is under pressure but it is trapped within the formation. Fractures are created to release the gas. Almost all currently drilled wells in West Virginia are unconventional.

In the past explosives were used to fracture and open up unconventional formations. If one examines completion reports at the Office of Oil and Gas from before about 1960, it's possible to see "glycerine" stimulations -- wells where explosives were used. Explosives were used in West Virginia into the 1970s.

And in the late 1960s atomic bombs were used twice in other states to fracture wells (quite satisfactorily, but expensive).

Another type of stimulation was the use of hydrochloric acid -- acidizing -- which is still done as a preliminary step to the fluid injection in hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing for a horizontal well is commonly done in stages. Each stage is proceeded by shooting explosive charges that pierce the casing wall and go deep into the formation. Acidizing follows. A multi-step fluid injection at high pressure is undertaken. The fluid type is variable for each step and some steps will include special product/chemical mixes.

The basic group of products used in fracturing are: hydrochloric acid; biocide (to kill bacteria that grow in a wet carbohydrate-rich environment); corrosion inhibitors (to deal with the caustic properties of the chemicals used); friction reducers (lubricating chemicals to aid the injection of water and proppant); gel (commonly a hydrocarbon solvent mixed with a carbohydrate such as guar gum); crosslinker (a chemical which enhances a gel's properties); a breaker (which breaks up the gel when fracturing is completed so the gel won't block the fractures); and water. Water is the main ingredient and it can consist solely of freshwater drawn from West Virginia's streams and rivers. Some operators recycle flowback and use it as a percentage of the water (examples seen on FracFocus have been less than 20% of total water).

The complexity of the process, the shortcomings and ambiguities of reporting, make it hard to precisely describe both what is being injected underground and what comes back to the surface as flowback. Industry created a web site called FracFocus which lists products and chemicals used at particular well sites (an example). Operators provide lists of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) which may, or may not, list chemicals used in a particular product. Product manufacturers (Halliburton is perhaps best known but not the only manufacturer of products or supplier of hydraulic fracturing services) are not required to list chemicals by precise amounts and are not required to list "proprietary" chemicals at all. Since some chemicals, such as diesel, are illegal to use for hydraulic fracturing (not that this has stopped industry from using diesel -- a MSDS for a gel product containing diesel), it's hard to be sure that proprietary, especially in the case of friction reducers or gel solvents, doesn't mean a chemical such as diesel that is not legal to use.

Industry has successfully quashed a regulation that would have required full reporting of all chemicals in West Virginia.

Hydraulic fracturing demonstrably contaminated a drinking water well in West Virginia in the 1980s. The Parsons' well is discussed in a good New York Times article that has links to a substantial group of documents, including a 1980s study for the EPA.

The types of contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing are covered in the Water Issues and Waste Management sections here. The Waste Management section (in the first part) has a link to a group of lab test results of flowback from a West Virginia horizontal Marcellus well.

On the next page we'll discuss the basic groups of products and provide example MSDS.


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