Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process used to increase production of oil and gas in impervious rock and shale formations. Large volumes of water, fracking fluid, and sand are injected under extremely high pressures into the formations, creating cracks and fissures in the rock that allow oil and gas to move freely and create new pathways for them to be extracted. Fracking, coupled with horizontal drilling, has significantly increased natural gas and oil production in the United States. However, fracking is criticized for its potential to contaminate groundwater with toxic chemicals, and the industry is stalwart in its opposition to further regulations and to the disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process.
How Fracking Works
The fracking process takes approximately 2-3 months from drilling to well completion. From the well pad site, a vertical well bore is drilled deep into the earth through layers of sediment, the water table, and shale formations. Shale formations are typically very deep, and fracking wells often go several thousand feet beneath the surface. After reaching the resource deposit, the drill is slowly angled and continues drilling horizontally. The drill is then removed, and a cement casing is installed in the well. Another drill bit then extends the well bore further, creating a space for the fracturing to take place. Small fractures are often then created with the use of explosives. The well site is then “fracked” by injecting large quantities of water, chemicals, and sand at enormous pressure, which further fractures the bedrock and allows for the natural gas to pass through. After a well is fracked, 60-80% of the fluid is returned to the surface along with the oil or gas.
The Dangers of Fracking
Because of the toxicity and enormous quantity of chemicals injected into the well, fracking is criticized for its potential to contaminate groundwater. Many of the chemicals used in fracking are carcinogenic, a fact that concerns people who are dependent upon the groundwater for their drinking and irrigation. There is also a lack of research on the risks of fracking fluids contaminating underground drinking water sources.
While the industry claims that the possibility of water contamination through fracking is extremely low, there have been documented cases of fracking contaminating groundwater. These cases may be due to operator error or faults in the installation of the well head, or cement casing, although there has been some evidence of the actual fracking process contaminating groundwater.
How Fracking is Regulated in Montana
The practice of fracking is largely unregulated at the federal level. Fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) through the so-called “Halliburton Amendment,” a product of Dick Cheney’s vice-presidential Energy Task Force. However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires regulation of fracking operations under SDWA if diesel fuel is used as a fracking fluid additive. As of Fall 2011, the U.S. EPA was studying the implementation of diesel fracking rules, although many operators consider diesel fuel to be substandard compared to other additives for many frack operations.
During the 2011 Montana legislative session, there were several proposals to increase the regulation of fracking in Montana, but they were all tabled in committee at the request of the industry. In August 2011 the BOGC adopted a fracking fluid disclosure rule. This rule was aimed at protecting public health by making the contents of fracking fluid known to the public and interested parties for review. Although the rule is a step forward in disclosure, it is inadequate. Importantly, it does not require prior notification for adjacent landowners of well fracking. This is important because landowners need to have adequate time to obtain baseline water testing. The rule also contains a very broad trade-secret exemption that allows the industry to keep the chemical concentrations and mixtures a secret.