What the Frack? Growing Kansas Industry Faces Controversy
- May. 3, 2012
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The first hydraulic fracturing wells were drilled in Kansas in 1947, but this method of extracting natural gas from groundwater has never been more pervasive and controversial than it is now.
With the increase in these hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” sites across the state and nation, Gov. Sam Brownback has recommended dedicating more than $500,000 in his proposed state budget to help the Kansas Corporation Commission review and inspect the growing number of fracking wells developed in the state. The legislature is still debating budget proposals.
The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC), the state’s public utilities commission, is responsible for inspecting fracking sites. However, the uncertainty and risks associated with a specific fracking technique called horizontal drilling have environmentalists pushing for federal regulation of the process.
The Kansas Farmers Union has supported a moratorium on fracking permits until more is known about the process and the possible correlation with groundwater contamination. Lauren Clary, communications specialist for the group, said members voted for the moratorium at their convention last year in Topeka, but said the vote was largely symbolic — the legislature has not considered their request.
Fracking is a drilling process in which wells are dug deep into the earth’s surface. Pressurized fluids containing sand and a variety of potentially dangerous chemicals are fired into the wells and designed to release oil and gas from shale formations. In horizontal drilling, a controversial fracking technique that has been around since the late 1980s, the wells run deep into the earth’s surface then turn and run horizontally.
According to the KCC’s website, the first horizontal drills were installed in Kansas in 2009. Since then, there has been a 300 percent increase in horizontally drilled wells in the state. The KCC estimates that 250 permits will be granted this year and 500 permits will be granted in 2013. The oil and gas industry employs more than 28,000 Kansas residents and generates more than $6 billion a year.
Don Steeples, professor of geology at the University of Kansas, said the increase in hydraulic fracturing wells across the state, to a degree, can be attributed to the price of natural gas, which costs a third of what it did three years ago. The cost of oil isn’t the only thing driving the increase, though. With advancements in technology, developers are able to drill into “tight” formations that were previously unprofitable.
Also, in 2005, the gas industry succeeded in gaining exemptions from regulations included in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the safe Drinking Water Act.
“From 2005 to 2010 we had more gas wells drilled than in any time in our history,” said Joe Spease, chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club Fracking Committee. “It’s just a no risk thing for the gas industry right now.”
CONCERNS ABOUT GROUNDWATER
The greatest concern many environmentalists have about hydraulic fracturing is the risk of groundwater contamination.
Groundwater contamination from fracking usually occurs when there is a problem with a certain part of the process called casing. When wells are drilled thousands of feet into the earth’s surface, the gears of the drill chip away at rock while pumping down drilling fluid, which brings the chips to the surface along the outside of the pipe attached to the drill. After that, cement is pumped down into the hole and a pipe is inserted into the cement. Ground water contamination from fracking usually occurs when there is a problem with the cement casing.
“As long as you do the cementing right, the danger of pollutants getting into the near surface groundwater is very small,” Steeples said. “The cement needs to be well designed and executed according to design.”
A 2011 study by Duke University, which was supported by the National Academy of Sciences, showed that many of the measures taken to prevent contamination have been ineffective. The study reviewed 68 wells within one kilometer of various fracking sites and tested them for contamination. Of the 68 wells tested, 51 had hazardous levels of radiation contamination. After wells are contaminated they are useless, which puts farmers and ranchers who rely on their well water at serious risk.
Despite the risk to their land, many farmers and ranchers have ignored the dangers in order to profit from the development of fracking. In Western Kansas most leases have gone for $50 to $400 an acre depending on the potential for development. In Medicine Lodge, where shale formations are most promising in Kansas, leases have gone for more than $1,000 an acre, Steeples said. The leases give oil and gas developers the right to explore for close to three years in the specified area.
“I would hope the farmers who are looking for a quick fix with money would have a chance to talk to people in other states who have seen a fall in profit, for signing the gas lease,” Spease said. “Farmers need to be very cautious about their expectations. It’s kind of a big gamble. Some probably will make a lot of money, but their are others who are risking their farms on this gamble.
Another perceived drawback to the process of fracking is the depletion of water resources. Typically, millions of gallons of water are used per fracking attempt. Shell Gas, for example, uses 4,000,000 per attempt. After being mixed with radiation and compounds that combine with the water, the water becomes useless and is taken out of the hydrologic cycle. This is a major concern in Kansas, at a time where the state lost 2 billion dollars in yield from crops produced in 2011 because of drought.
“What concerns me is, where are they going to get all this water?” said Clary, the communications specialist for the Kansas Farmers Union. “We don’t really have a yes or no for fracking, but we asked for a moratorium until we find more information.”
In Kansas, oil and gas developers aren’t required to divulge the chemicals used in their fracking processes, although the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, which is made up 1,400 small independent oil and gas producers, encourages them to do so, said Edward Cross, president of the organization. Developers are required to keep such information on sight in case of an emergency.
“Some of the proprietary information is kept secret because they don’t want the recipe to get out,” Cross said.
Cross, along with many other independent oil and gas producers, believes that the process should only be regulated at the state level, and that it doesn’t make sense to impose national standards, because geological formations vary and require different chemical compounds.
The EPA is beginning a study, which will conclude in 2014, that evaluates the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.
“Fracking has been done for years but is being done much more extensively so of course it should be regulated,” Lisa Jackson, current administrator for the EPA said. “Don’t assume when I say it should be regulated that it means I think the EPA should. EPA for the most part does not regulate oil and gas development in this country. States do. States have for the centuries we’ve been a country.”
At the national level there has been bipartisan support for developing natural gas resources, because combusting natural gas only produces half as much of the green house emissions as burning coal.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama assured the nation that natural gas would be developed safely and that it would helps support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade, but until the EPA finishes it’s two year study, nothing is certain.
“The technology has unlocked, over the last decade or so, the potential for gas we knew was there all along. We just need to make sure that in the process of getting it we don’t destroy our drinking water,” Jackson said.