As oil, gas ‘fracking’ gains popularity in Kansas, so does safety debate

In the 2010 documentary “Gasland,” a Colorado homeowner sets his tap water on fire and residents complain of mysterious health problems.

They point the finger for the source of their troubles at the natural gas wells – drilled using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – that litter the scenic valley east of Grand Teton National Park.

With environmentalists crowing that this is proof that fracking causes contamination and the industry denying any such thing, it’s turned into another politicized free-for-all.

The national debate over fracking has darkened a good-news story for the country: horizontal multistage hydrofracking has reversed the growth of imported oil and natural gas, created hundreds of thousands of American jobs and, in the case of natural gas, dramatically cut prices.

In the past few months, the fracking debate moved to Kansas as large companies using horizontal multistage hydrofracking started drilling in Sumner, Harper, Barber and Comanche counties. They are drilling through a 320 million-year-old layer called the Mississippian limestone 4,500 to 5,000 feet below the prairie.

Fracking isn’t new or unusual, Kansas oilmen are quick to note. It’s been done for more than 60 years and is used on virtually all of the more than 5,000 conventional wells drilled in Kansas every year.

That’s why many in the industry in Kansas are dismayed, even disgusted, by the fact that there is a controversy. To them, there’s a debate only because gas drilling is growing rapidly in Pennsylvania and New York, where East Coast environmentalists are thick on the ground.

Kansas regulators say the record for fracking is clear: There has never been a case of groundwater contamination caused by fracking in the state’s history.

But environmentalists say the new wells raise the stakes. These wells run 4,000 feet horizontally and require many thousands of gallons of hazardous chemicals per well.

No matter what the record is, say environmentalists, accidents are inevitable. In booming areas such as western Pennsylvania’s gas area, the Marcellus Shale, some of the producers have been sloppy, cutting corners.

Environmentalists aren’t quite as thick on the ground in Kansas, but there are some – and they are worried about Kansas.

Joe Spease, chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club’s hydraulic fracturing committee, said the record of drillers in Pennsylvania makes him worry about Kansas.

“We have to take a hard look at this,” he said. “If these chemicals get into the groundwater, it’s ruined forever. This is a major threat to the water supply.”

The EPA is in the midst of a massive study on fracking and its impact on water. It expects to issue its first report before the end of the year.

Driving the debate

What drives the debate is the extraordinary success of horizontal multistage hydrofracking to get to the vast amounts of gas and oil tied up in deep rock formations.

Using techniques perfected in the last 10 to 15 years, and made hugely profitable by $100-a-barrel oil, a horizontal well can take the place of six or eight vertical wells.

It’s become a significant proportion of all natural gas production. One forecast calls for production of U.S. shale gas to move from 23 percent of gas production in 2010 to 49 percent of a larger volume by 2035, according to a federal estimate. However, some gas companies are slowing production because of low prices.

Nationally, the jobs numbers tossed around are huge. A 2010 study by IHS, an economic analysis firm, reports that shale gas production supported 600,000 jobs.

Oil production in deep formations around the country – and around the world – is just beginning to ramp up. The vast Bakken shale formation is poised to make North Dakota the second-largest oil state, just ahead of Alaska.

Kansas doesn’t have shale oil, but it does have the Mississippian limestone. Tom Ward, CEO of Oklahoma City’s SandRidge Energy, the biggest player in the new Kansas oil boom, compares the Mississippian limestone to the Bakken shale.

Ward bought 2 million acres across the two states and embarked on a rapid buildup in production. Other big companies from Oklahoma and Texas are following suit.

Ward said that each million dollars spent by oil companies results in 1.9 direct jobs and 3.9 total jobs.

“We believe there will be 100,000 jobs added to the Kansas economy over the next four years,” he said. “So it makes Boeing leaving look paltry.”

What is fracking?

The industry has long known that oceans of oil and gas were trapped in the tiny pores of difficult rock formations, but it didn’t go after them because cheaper oil was available.

Starting a decade ago, shrinking supplies and rising natural gas prices convinced companies to drill into the deep shale formations such as the Barnett Shale under central Texas and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York. Production from these formations has been so striking that gas prices have tumbled and companies such as Chesapeake Energy are rushing to switch to oil.

This is the same technique used in Kansas, although in a layer of Mississippian limestone, rather than a shale formation.

A horizontal multistage hydrofracked well starts with the drilling of a horizontal well. In Kansas such a well goes down about 4,000 feet, then through manipulation of the drill bit, the wellbore curves until it runs horizontally through the desired layer of rock. The bit will then cut about 4,000 feet horizontally.

The well is lined with steel tubing, which is cemented in. A unit is lowered into the hole that blasts holes through the tubing at regular intervals. A special crew using massive pumper trucks then forces 2 million to 3 million gallons of water under high pressure into the well. Using valves, the work is done in sections to fracture the surrounding rock beyond the holes.

This is where the controversy comes in. The crews use a mixture of roughly 90 percent water, 9 percent sand and 1 percent a stew of hazardous chemicals to prevent corrosion, retard bacteria growth, bind clay, ease the flow of liquids and more. While these chemicals are used in fractions of 1 percent, the volumes are so large that it can mean 20,000 or 30,000 gallons of these chemicals in each well. Each well site typically will have four horizontal wells going out in each direction.

Much of the fracking water and chemicals return to the surface once the liquids starts to flow. The Mississippian limestone is saturated with salt water, 10 times more than the oil. The horizontal drillers must have water injection wells near their oil wells so they can pump the water back into the ground. Injection wells typically are drilled down to the Arbuckle layer, which those in the industry describe as a 1,000-foot-thick sponge that can take all the water sent to it.

“The Arbuckle across a four-state area will take more water than the Mississippian could ever give it,” said SandRidge’s Ward.

Water contamination

It’s the potential of the contaminated water, or the oil mixing at any point with the groundwater or surface water, that makes environmentalists jittery.

And ground zero for that jitter is northwest Pennsylvania, where widespread gas drilling in the Marcellus shale formation has caused an economic boom and a political backlash.

Over the last two years, Pennsylvania has levied several sizable fines against operators, saying their gas wells contaminated nearby water sources. Drillers are required to test the groundwater before they start. Unless operators can prove otherwise, they are presumed to have caused any pollution that shows up within 1,000 feet of the water supply, if that pollution shows up within six months after well completion.

Several towns in the region have opted to ban hydraulic fracking and states are considering new rules.

The Sierra Club’s Spease said that Kansans should look at Pennsylvania as a warning for a likely future.

But those in the industry say that Pennsylvania isn’t Kansas. The geology is totally different – there won’t be any fines when an access road collapses into a mountain stream – and the population density is less.

Kansas vertical wells have been fracked for decades and the fracking fluid is much less toxic than it used to be, they say.

“There was never any question about fracking until they started drilling in Pennsylvania,” said Ward.

A comprehensive study, released last month by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed contamination reports in three of the nation’s big shale gas plays, including the Marcellus in Pennsylvania.

Ray Orbach, director of the institute, said the study found no instances of groundwater contamination directly attributable to fracking.

There were instances of pollution caused by wells that had been fracked, he said, but those problems stemmed from conventional issues such as poorly constructed cement well casings or spillage from retention ponds. He said the horizontal hydrofracked wells were no more likely to have violations than regular vertical wells. In other words, Orbach said, there’s no emergency, no crisis, but there is an opportunity for smarter enforcement and better and more transparent practices by industry.

“That has implications for regulation,” Orbach said. “If it is no more serious than regular drilling, they don’t need a whole set of rules. You can use the same rules.”

Construction is key

Regulation of fracking is largely at the state level.

Doug Louis, who heads oil and gas oversight for the Kansas Corporation Commission, said he isn’t worried much about fracking, as long as the rules are followed.

Nothing that far down will migrate to the surface because of the impermeability of some of the layers above it, he said.

That means the well construction is crucial to keeping fluid used in fracking from seeping up through the borehole to groundwater.

Kansas drillers are required to have what amounts to two steel tubes, two layers of cement casing and drilling mud lining the wellbore from the surface to below the level of groundwater. If the cementing process is done correctly, there is no chance for any chemicals left in fluid 5,000 feet below the surface to reach up through the wellbore to the groundwater, Louis said.

“There hasn’t been any problems from when they started fracking,” he said. “That was in 1947 and the success speaks for itself.”

Kansas does not regulate hydraulic fracking specifically, nor does it require drillers to list the chemicals they use.

Many of the largest companies have agreed to voluntarily reveal the chemicals they use in fracking at To date, only a small handful of oil and gas wells in Kansas are listed.

If a well is contaminated, regulators would be able to determine whether the contamination comes from a fracked well or not.

Rep. Carl Holmes, R-Liberal, chairman of the House Energy and Utilities Committee, said that will change this year.

He expects the Legislature to give the KCC explicit authority to regulate hydraulic fracking this session.

Texas and Colorado have recently required hydraulic fracking companies to divulge their chemicals.

Felix Revello lives in Pawnee County, and he’s worried about fracking.

He’s heard the claims made about contamination and environmental problems elsewhere.

But he also knows the benefits that this new oil and gas production will bring to the country.

“The point is, if we are going to do it, then we need to go the extra mile to do it right,” he said. “We need to do it in a way that passes on a healthy environment to future generations.”

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