A study of one component found in the fracking fluid injected into shale to release oil and gas contains chemicals found in substances most people ingest all the time, including ice cream, laxatives and toothpaste, according to new research from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Though the fluid is mostly water and sand, many critics of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, say chemicals added to the fluid contaminate groundwater. The new study suggests that additives found in one component, surfactants, which breaks surface tension to allow oil to be extracted, are no more toxic than common household items.
University researchers collected samples from fracking fluid surfactants in five states — Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. The findings were recently published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
“We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home,” Michael Thurman, lead author of the study, said in a news release.
Oil and gas companies use additives during drilling, including anti-bacterial agents and corrosion inhibitors. However, the study focused specifically on surfactants. Other chemicals used are commonly found in hair color, IV fluids, laundry detergents, cosmetics and household cleaners, according to Chesapeake Energy.
The fracking process pumps high-pressured water, sand and chemicals underground to crack into shale. Sand keeps the cracks open so the oil and gas can be extracted. Anti-bacterial agents reduce bacteria in the water, which can produce corrosive byproducts, and corrosion inhibitors prevent pipes from corroding. During fracking, some of the same chemicals found in ice cream and toothpaste make water thicker to suspend sand, Chesapeake said.
But the drilling has created a constant battle between those who call it an environmental disaster and those who see it as the key to energy independence for the United States, adding jobs and driving down gasoline costs.
“What we have learned in this piece of work is that the really toxic surfactants aren’t being used in the wells we have tested,” said Thurman.
Thurman, a co-founder of the university’s Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry, and Imma Ferrer, the chief scientist at the laboratory and a co-author of the study, are expanding their work to examine more water samples from other wells across the country.
The study prompted a statement from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
“We welcome and embrace sound science, thorough studies, and continued transparency,” Doug Flanders, the organization’s director of policy and external affairs, said. “For Colorado families, this should again give comfort that oil and gas development is being conducted responsibly. It’s critical to note that in Colorado any concerned resident can already learn exactly what’s in fracking fluid, thanks to the state’s first-of-its-kind disclosure rules. This is another example of how Colorado’s tough regulations on oil and gas development are working.”
In September, five universities published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at drinking-water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas. It found gas that had leaked into the groundwater from geological formations known as the Barnett Shale in Texas and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania didn’t appear to be the result of fracking per se; it appeared to be the result of faulty casing and cementing. During drilling, steel pipes are inserted into wells for gas to travel through, and cement is used to seal the casings. If not inserted correctly, such pipes can cause groundwater contamination, the study said.
“This is relatively good news because it means that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity,” lead author Thomas Darrah of Ohio State University told the Dallas Morning News.
Opponents said the results were splitting hairs. After all, without fracking, there would be no groundwater contamination at all.
Last week, propositions to ban fracking popped up on ballots from California to Ohio to Texas. Some counties approved the measures; others voted them down.
However, Tom Shepherd, an organic farmer in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, told the San Francisco Chronicle the real issue is about more than chemicals.
“To me, the water is the story,” he said. “Here we are, in the midst of a drought, and you’re not concerned about your water and fracking? The aquifers have been drawn down. The rain we’ve had has been absorbed by the ground. The creeks don’t run.” He added: “I’ve accepted oil [operations] in the county because I’m a farmer, I drive a truck, I use diesel. I can’t take my produce to market with a horse and buggy, and I understand that. Fracking is what I’m opposed to.”