Fracking: technology of least resistance

Saturday 7th May 2011
Fracking. Courtesy:

A panel of experts has been named to develop a set of best practices for the use of so-called 'fracking' in natural gas drilling, the US Department of Energy said. It could be useful for the UK as Cuadrilla Resources makes the first UK application of fracking to extract shale gas near Blackpool. It's findings however will be under wraps for four years.

The US panel of academics and analysts will make recommendations on how to best extract gas using the rock-cracking process while at the same time minimise the risk of contamination of underground water supplies.

"We need to ensure we harness these resources safely," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said. "I am looking forward to hearing from this diverse, respected group of experts on best practices for safe and responsible natural gas production."

The hydraulic fracturing process uses liquid chemicals pumped deep under ground to break up shale formations that contain significant volumes of gas. The chemicals, however, can include toxic substances that critics say make their way into well water.

The commission appointed by Chu includes university engineering professors, Environmental Defense Fund President, Fred Krupp, energy analyst Daniel Yergin and John Deutsch, a former Energy Department official and CIA director, who is now a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The seven-member panel, which does not include any industry executives, will submit a preliminary report in 90 days followed by formal recommendations in about six months, the Energy Department said.

Four years of UK silence
In the UK, results of Cuadrilla Resources and its first use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking to extract shale gas near Blackpool will be kept under wraps for four years, reported The Guardian.

In March the company  pumped 1,200 cubic metres of highly pressurised water mixed with chemicals and sand nearly 3,000 metres underground into an onshore shale gas reservoir near Blackpool.

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla CEO, told MPs at the select committee hearing into shale gas that 99.8% of this is pure water bought from local supplier United Utilities. The rest is two chemicals: a fluid to reduce friction inside the pipe and an unspecified additive. Far greater quantities of water would be needed if full-scale production began.

According to Tyndall Centre, a climate change research body, about 2,500-3,000 horizontal wells spread over some 140-400km2 would need to be drilled using some 27 to 113m tonnes of water in order to sustain production levels equivalent to 10% of UK gas consumption.

Fracking typically lasts for 60 days although reservoirs produce for years afterwards. About a third of the water mix is recovered during the initial period, with at least half remaining underground. 

At the Preese Hall Farm site, an aquifer lies 200-400 metres below surface. Miller said solid rock between it and where the fracking takes place would prevent the water mix contaminating the aquifer.

The collected water, rock chips and drilling mud would need to be sent to landfill. He said that based on geological seismic surveys, the company could predict what happens to the fractured gas and waste water mix but admitted: "You never have control. Fractures will always go into the path of least resistance."

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