Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What a Fracking Mess

It's always disheartening to see the same misinformation peddled over and over again. I guess it's a tenant these days that if you say it enough times, whether it's right or wrong, people will start to believe it.

So it is with fracking.

The environmental left (no, that's not redundant) has made opposition to fracking a rite of passage. Just utter the word and you get cries of anguish. You don't have to understand it. You just have to oppose it. At a recent political gathering, I overheard one leftie say to another, "Fracking? We're against that, right?"

Fracking is back in the news again because several state legislators, cajoled by hysterical environmentalists, have proposed bills that would ban the procedure in Florida. SB 462/HB 237 would prohibit so-called fracking.

Not surprisingly, we're told of this through an overlay of misinformation. A Naples Daily News reporter recently wrote, "Fracking is a general term for various ways oil companies pump chemicals into a well to either dissolve or break up underground rock formations to stimulate oil or gas production."

Wrong. Fracking isn't pumping chemicals into a well. Fracking is a popular shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, pumping water under very high pressure into an oil- or gas-bearing formation. Slurried sand, part of the injection fluid, holds open the fractured rock to ease recovery of the trapped hydrocarbons. Chemicals make up less than 1% of the mix.

For those interested in learning about fracking, I recommend two terrific books -- Gregory Zuckerman's The Frackers and Gary Sernovitz's The Green and the Black.

The indisputable fact is hydrolytic fracturing, coupled with horizontal drilling, has transformed global energy, revitalizing old fields and opening up new ones that were previously unprofitable. It has freed the U.S. from energy dependence on the unstable Middle East. And it has benefitted the environment by providing cheap natural gas to replace coal in our power plants.

Some say the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling is one of the most important advances in the past 50 years. I don't disagree.

But some do. Our local watchdog, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, has made a cottage industry of decrying fracking and its presumed evils. Instead of doing the hard work to reduce  nutrient pollution of our waterways, a real problem in Florida, it has chosen instead to pick the low-hanging fruit, grab the headlines and demonize something it barely understands.

The Conservancy claims "toxic chemicals" used in the fracturing fluid will contaminate aquifers that provide our drinking water. I challenge them to prove that. The fact is the chemicals, mostly fluidizing and suspending agents (some of them food additives) are used in minuscule amounts, far below toxic levels, and are further diluted in the formation and largely recovered in the pump-back fluids.

The horror stories from fracking's early days (see Zuckerman and Sernovitz) simply don't apply anymore. Today's procedures are well controlled, with care taken to ensure the fluids are safe, casings are secure and leakage is minimized or, in most cases, eliminated altogether.

Whether you believe this or not, the proposal to ban fracking is a solution looking for a problem. Fracking hasn't been done here. There has been no hydraulic fracturing in Florida. The Conservancy cites the Collier-Hogan well near Lake Trafford as an example. But that well wasn't fracked. It was acidized, a long-standing procedure to boost production that's been used for decades around the country, particularly in limestone formations like we have in Florida. Further, in spite of frantic attempts to prove the Collier-Hogan procedure tainted nearby groundwater or aquifers, no signs of pollution have ever been found.

The confusion between fracking and acidizing points up another problem. All of the local attention is being given to "fracking." In fact, hydraulic fracturing is but one of many types of enhanced recovery that could be used in Florida. Along with acidizing, some of the others include microbial treatment to fluidize heavy oil, carbon dioxide injection to cut oil viscosity, surfactant sweeps to scrub residual oil and gel emplacements to reduce water production.

Regulating just fracking isn't enough.

What should be done? Don't ban anything. Get some facts. Put a hold on all forms of enhanced production until risks  can be assessed.  Carry out an objective study -- the DEP is right group to conduct it -- based on Florida's geology. Investigate possible damage to our water supply from all types of enhanced recovery. Then, when real information is available, impose standards.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) and a number of her colleagues agree with this approach, which was tried without success the past two sessions. It should be tried again; it's the right way to go.

In the meantime, SB 462/HB 237 should be allowed to die, with or without hearings. The bills are inadequate and have little merit.

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