Engineers and educators sound off on the fracking debate

Well, well, well—a very deep subject.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is frequently in the news. This drilling technique has enabled energy producers to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock deep within the earth, making energy much more affordable, while also sparking a fire of environmental concerns.

Tired of seeing those Measure Z signs on every corner? Although there is no fracking currently in Monterey County, Measure Z introduced the topic to many in the area. If residents passed the ballot measure, fracking and new oil wells would be prohibited.

In addition to banning fracking, Measure Z would also impact current local drilling. It proposed to require treatment of all wastewater produced through current drilling operations, rather than the current practice of injecting wastewater far below the water table.

Measure Z might have been the first time you have heard about fracking, but modern-day fracking began in the 1990s as a new technique that combined vertical hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling. Although fracking is more expensive than conventional drilling, the rise in oil prices—caused by diminishing domestic oil production—spurred investors to commit to the more costly method.

The process of hydraulic fracturing is a marvel of engineering. A well must be drilled vertically 5,000 to 10,000 feet deep, depending on the underground geologic structure of the earth. Then it is expanded horizontally, which greatly increasing the area a single well can pump.

Michael Doyle, a civil engineer with 25 years of experience in the oil and gas industry, explains the next steps in the process.

“An explosive charge will then be put down the well and then detonated to create fractures in the shale layer,” Doyle describes. “Then the process of pumping down a gel composed of water, sand and other chemicals can begin.”

The injected fluid is then pressurized up to 30,000 pounds per square inch, expanding the fractures. Oil or natural gas is now free to flow through those fractures and be drawn to the surface, where it is then processed by experts like Doyle.

One of the controversies unearthed by fracking is the disposal of the hydraulic fluid. A drilling site may use millions of gallons of contaminated water, which then becomes known as “process water.”

Carmel High School Chemistry and AP Biology teacher Thomas Dooner elaborates on this issue.

“Some of the most carcinogenic chemicals known to man are potentially going into that cocktail of chemicals down into the earth,” Dooner reveals. “Whatever goes in must be brought back out—so what do you do with all that wastewater?”

There are actually two answers to his question.

The water is either treated and recycled for similar procedures or, more commonly, injected deep into the earth far below any aquifer.

Although conserving water by treating and recycling it appears logical, AP Environmental Science teacher Jason Maas-Baldwin gives insight as to why this is easier said than done.

“Usually it’s not that expensive to get rid of 90 percent of the pollutants in the water, but the final bits of pollution are hugely expensive and energy-intensive to purify,” Maas-Baldwin says. “Reverse osmosis or microfiltration would be needed to get it to a tertiary (drinkable) treatment level.”

For example, in Bakersfield, California, where Doyle is currently working, all process water is treated and reused. In southern Monterey County, Chevron actively treats only one-third of their wastewater and injects the remaining two-thirds below ground.

Although in California there have been zero instances of groundwater contamination, the Environmental Protection Agency has documented multiple instances in other states. Most contamination cases result when the company, as a cost-saving measure, neglects to drill the disposal well deep enough or seal it properly. Such irresponsibility is costly to everyone and presents an environmental risk.

“The fracking industry has many guidelines,” Doyle points out. “They need to observe proper drilling and casing procedures, as well as undergo regular inspections. If all is done correctly, fracking can be safely done without contaminating the water table.”

Doyle discourages fear of fracking accidents any more than fear of bridge building or skyscraper construction. If engineering rules and procedures are followed, success is likely. If corners are cut, disaster can result.

Maas-Baldwin stresses that even one instance of cutting corners is unacceptable because it is drinking water being affected. He emphasizes that proper oversight, proper regulations and proper caution are imperative.

The environmental science teacher also brings up the issue of water allocation in general.

“The big question for California is, ‘Where is the water for fracking going to come from?’” Maas-Baldwin asks. “This is where you see competing industries. California’s main economic industry is agriculture. It really becomes a question of water resource priorities.”

As to benefits of fracking, Dooner doesn’t have a hard time coming up with answers.

“Benefits? I like a hot shower and I like my cell phone,” Dooner says. “If I want those things, I need energy. If I enjoy my lifestyle and I don’t like fracking, I need to find another answer.”

Doyle agrees. “What’s good about fracking is it’s a way to gets a relatively cheap fuel out of the ground economically. We can use this cleaner source to make energy. This method puts people to work, generating revenue and income.”

In addition to making energy more affordable, natural gas collected by fracking is cleaner burning than coal or oil. It contains less pollutants and contaminants than coal or oil. It is also more efficient than the dirtier fossil fuels with nearly a 100 percent combustion ratio.

“Our energy needs are not going away,” Maas-Baldwin summarizes.

Whether these needs should be met by fracking, or whether the risks outweigh the returns, fracking remains a very deep subject indeed.

-Connor Suess