Fracking – Views from an Industry Expert

We got in touch with industry expert and Chemical Engineer Ross Topliff who caught our eye with his insightful comments on one of PIF's previous posts on Fracking.

Here's what he has to say about Fracking as a whole:

Fracking Process

It is a potentially dangerous and very beneficial process. It all depends on how well it is run and managed. It is not that unlike other manufacturing processes that handle hazardous chemicals. They must and can be handled correctly to be safe. If handled properly, a facility can run indefinitely with no harm to the employees, public, or the environment around them.

All too often, the upper company management gets focused so much on the bottom line dollar profit, that they fall to the all-to-human tendency to cut corners where they can and let safety slide a bit. This is where having tight regulations and unassailable inspectors are critical. The more critical the process, the higher the hazards, the more the inspectors must be on the ball and beyond reproach. They must be paid well enough that they cannot be swayed to cut corners and let the sloppy firms get away with anything that knowingly endangers the environment.

We have seen all too often that when the environment is despoiled, it takes a very long time to recover. In some cases, it will never fully recover, just adapt and go on. Some mistakes will happen, and some damage will occur. Some will be intentional (clearing trees, etc. for the drilling pads) and some will be unintentional (containment ponds don’t hold). This is part of the price we pay for using the natural resources that God gave to us to live in a technologically advanced society.

I do firmly believe that fracking can be practiced responsibly and with minimal negative impact on the environment. When we consider the alternatives, each one has its own set of hazards and negative impact on the environment. It cannot be practiced without full and responsible oversight/facility inspections.

Disadvantages of Fracking

From what I have read, the two biggest dangers are handling the waste water created by the fracking process and contamination of underground water table. I will address the second first. Protecting the water table is a matter of proper sealing of the well casing as the drilling proceeds and the well sleeve is placed. This is not an easy task and requires significant skill. However, it can be done safely as demonstrated repeatedly over many years by well drillers across the globe. It can also be done incorrectly and result in possibly permanent contamination of the ground water when allowed to be done in a shoddy manner. This is one area where having unreproachable inspectors on site is crucial, at least until the company demonstrates that they can and will seal every well correctly.

Dealing with the waste water is a second and challenging issue. Every well drilled and fractured creates millions of gallons of highly contaminated water. This water contains agents added by the drilling company in order to open the strata containing the gas. When it comes back up, it is contaminated with additional materials picked up in the well. These all make treatment challenging and in some cases, dangerous.

'Reported water contamination caused by Fracking well'
'Reported water contamination caused by Fracking well'

Most companies working in this arena are working hard to develop economical means of treating this waste water so that it can be reused, instead of being trucked off for disposal. This would save tremendous wear and tear on local roads as well as reduce the amount of fresh water required by each well. The downside of these treatment processes is that they presumably produce a much more concentrated stream of waste materials that still must be handled and disposed in a safe and environmentally compatible manner.

I read a series of articles in Chemical Engineering magazine that covered some of the startling improvements made by the drilling and producing companies in the past few years. One “scare” video I watched when I first started to pay real attention to fracking overlaid potential drilling sites on a satellite photo of the Catskill Mountain and Delaware Valley areas. It was successfully designed to maximize the area to be deforested by these drilling sites. However, the drilling process has advanced to where the number of drill sites to cover an area for gas production has been reduced by a factor of five to ten. Plus, each drilling site has been reduced in the area needed. Combined, these provide a MUCH reduced footprint on the land. I read another article very recently that discussed the possibility of capturing CO2 from stacks and using that for in place of the water. Other companies are actively working on using propane and other hydrocarbon materials as the fluid for fracking.

NY Fracking Area

Fracking Safety

Now, let me return to the idea of providing trustworthy inspectors for the drill sites and related ideas. When I worked in industry, I was responsible for the safety and health of all personnel in my department. I conducted monthly training for all personnel and reported back up the management chain safety concerns that others brought to my attention.

When we could, we took corrective actions to remove or at least reduce the safety concerns. Sometimes this was not possible as being too expensive to implement engineering changes, so we had to adjust the process or operations in order to increase the safety of the workers. At times, this put me in the middle of a controversial concern with little I could do but try to explain to both sides how important the concern was and how impossible it was to provide an engineering solution in the short term.

To provide trustworthy inspectors, they need to be people of high integrity and then be paid well enough that they are not tempted to accept bribes from the drilling/processing firms in order to let short-cuts pass by. They also need to be knowledgeable of the entire process so that they can spot irregularities and short cuts a group is trying to take.  Of course, the best inspectors cannot spot problems if they are not on-site often enough.

Does this mean that we need to have a full-time inspector at each drill site? I don’t think so. It does require that only enough new sites are active at any one time so that the available inspectors can handle the load comfortably.

How do you feel about the idea of large drilling firms disregarding the safety of the general public in return for larger profits? Should we ensure that a full-time inspector is employed on each drilling site in order to minimise risk?   PIF would like to hear your thoughts on the subject of Fracking or any other issues this article has raised.

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