5 ways to clean up fracking's chemical act

Risks of contamination by toxic chemicals strongly drive public fear of the hydraulic fracturing operations (commonly known as fracking) used to capture natural gas and oil from shale. The public fears known chemicals (such as acids and biocides that are toxic) as well as the unknown chemicals hidden behind claims of confidential business information.

These fears, together with a wider array of concerns about the environmental and community impacts of shale energy operations, translate into the potential loss of companies’ social license to operate. There's a possibility that these concerns could also lead to increased numbers of bans and moratoria both in the United States and around the globe.

Oil and gas producers have made sizeable strides in disclosing many of the chemicals. But three major questions remain substantially unaddressed:

  • First, and most importantly, do producers have systems in place to evaluate whether they are using more toxic chemicals than necessary?
  • Second, what are producers doing to encourage their suppliers to provide safer alternatives?
  • Third, what tools can suppliers use to develop and market safer alternatives?

The economic benefits from smarter management of chemicals include lower costs when fewer chemicals are used, reduced environmental damage and litigation risk from operating errors and accidents. Another potential benefit: reduced delay on projects that might arise from community opposition.

The oil and gas industry understandably downplays the hazards from fracturing chemicals. It stresses they are a very small percentage of the fluids going down the bore hole — approximately 1 percent or less— and these chemicals are commonly found in household products. This rationale ignores scale and life cycle.

Millions of gallons of fluid (mainly water) are used for fracturing, so for a single well thousands of gallons of chemicals will be hauled to the job site and stored on location -- then pumped down the hole. For example, a fracturing operation using three million gallons of water would likely use 15,000 - 30,000 gallons of chemicals. Multiply this by thousands of wells drilled in major shale plays and you'll get the picture. Some of these fluids will return to the surface and require storage, treatment and disposal. The greatest contamination risks appear to stem from spills on the surface and from poorly constructed wells.

Here’s a five-part prescription the energy industry should follow to lower fracking’s chemical impact and address community concerns with more meaningful public disclosure.

1. Develop a chemical reduction program. Relatively few shale energy producers publicly describe their programs for reducing and eliminating worrisome chemicals. For example, Encana has established a Responsible Products Program. Through its Responsible Product Assessment Tool that taps government toxicity databases, Encana assesses chemicals and decides whether to eliminate them or reduce their risks. Encana prohibits the use of any hydraulic fracturing fluid products containing diesel, 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) or benzene and has determined that none of its fracturing products contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead or mercury.

Next Page: Chesapeake Energy's Green Frac program