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What is fracking fluid made of?
Governor John Hickenlooper (at podium), Schuller and other stakeholders gather to announce the state’s fracking-fluid disclosure rules in 2011.

Fracktivists call it poison. Governor John Hickenlooper sips a special formulation of it like a fine craft beer. But what's really in the billions of barrels of fracking fluid that oil-and-gas drillers are pumping into the ground across the country?

The simple answer is water — and a little something extra. The typical recipe for fracking a well calls for 90 percent water and about 8 or 9 percent sand. The complicated answer has to do with the little something extra.

See also:
- How Tisha Schuller went from environmental activist to industry champion
- The price of fracking in Colorado

The hydraulic fracturing process of freeing oil and gas from tight shale formations has been around for more than sixty years. But the increasing demand for the process as "easy" pockets of fossil fuels are exhausted has produced increasingly sophisticated formulations. Dozens of chemical additives are now used at various stages to help fracture the shale, expand the fissures that allow oil and gas to flow into the well, reduce friction and flush the wellbore.

To get things rolling, companies frequently use a dilution of hydrochloric or muriatic acid to dissolve debris in the well and help open fractures. That's followed by biocides such as glutaraldehyde (used in disinfecting dental equipment); more acids and scale inhibitors, such as ethylene glycol (antifreeze), to help stabilize the mixture; friction-reducing agents, such as potassium chloride (used in everything from fertilizer to food processing to heart-stopping lethal injections); corrosion inhibitors (including industrial solvents); gelling agents, primarily guar gum (a thickener found in many soups and condiments); and perhaps a dash more ethylene glycol as a cross-linking agent to enhance other solutions.

Companies are required to file material safety data sheets for every chemical employed at a drill site. Residents of some states, including Colorado, can also look up the ingredients of the fluid used at a particular drill site on a registry found at fracfocus.org; while companies are allowed to shield the exact proportions of some proprietary blends as "trade secrets," the site presents detailed information on the maximum concentration allowed. For example, a well operated by Noble Energy close to I-25 north of Fort Collins uses more than fifty chemicals in its fracking fluid, in amounts so small they're calculated in fractions of a single percentage point — even in ten-thousandths or less of 1 percent.

Fracking opponents contend that those fractional amounts don't seem so negligible when you take into account the toxicity of many of the ingredients and the staggering volume of water required to frack a single well — from one to eight million gallons. That presents a formidable treatment-and-disposal problem for the tainted wastewater, the possibility of surface spills — and a fear of groundwater contamination, since half or more of the fracking fluid pumped into the ground is never recovered.

Two years ago, Governor Hickenlooper declared at a Colorado Oil and Gas Association meeting that groundwater contamination was "almost inconceivable" in the state, since the wells extend thousands of feet below freshwater aquifers and are sealed after use. Earlier this year, the onetime geologist boasted to a Senate committee that he'd even sampled a glass of fracking fluid to demonstrate its harmlessness. But the version Hick quaffed is a special "green-friendly" prototype that Halliburton is developing, sourced from the food-additive industry — heavy on the hydrogenated vegetable oil and sulfonated alcohol but lacking the antifreeze, industrial solvents and other nasty stuff found in your average frack.

"It was not particularly tasty," Hickenlooper told the astonished senators, "but I'm still alive to tell the story."

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14 comments
Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Alan Prendergast is quickly outgrowing this Michael Roberts publication .....!

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

I'm legally blind & could see there IS a problem w/ my debilitating eyes ...

clayton4H
clayton4H

Right. Westword deserves kudos for this week's edition - maybe even a Pulitzer. The article about Tisha Schuller is equally fair and interesting.

clinoform
clinoform

Wow -- there is more information (and more factually correct information) in this one article than I've seen in the past several years that hydraulic fracturing has been covered in our local media.  Denver Post writers and local television reporters really need to do a better job researching this topic.  The misinformation that gets reported is nothing short of a huge disservice to all Coloradoans.

clayton4H
clayton4H

"Eternal sequestration" of water. Now that's a misunderstanding of basic chemistry and completely misleading. A natural gas well that produces 1 BCF of methane - which is then burned by those of us who use electricity - will insert 11 million gallons of new water into the hydrologic cycle. This is about three times as much water than was used in the drilling and fracking of the well. For a refresher on the stochiometry of burning gas visit this web link or any chemistry reference book. http://eidmarcellus.org/marcellus-shale/turning-natural-gas-into-water-hydraulic-fracturing-doesnt-deplete-water-supplies/7713/

dbtst
dbtst

Hickenlooper is a fraud. He could have drank a Pepsi and called it fracking fluid, it's about as close to being used as what he drank.

Mark897
Mark897

Of even greater concern is the extent to which fracking results in what apparently amounts to eternal sequestration of vast quantities of precious water from the ecosystem.  This is by far the most disastrous potential consequence of fracking in the arid West, yet is ignored in most critiques of the practice.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

@clayton4H  

I'm home the next cpl days & I plan on 'sharing' this piece w/ EVERY possible interested source,  WORLD WIDE !!!

Kiki4H
Kiki4H

Just wanted to add that people ultimately concerned with H2O useage in the hydraulic fracturing process should educate themselves about total water usage in the state of CO and the SOURCE of said water useage.  To put this into perspective, let's review as below:  Hydraulic fracturing = one tenth of one percent of all water used in the State of CO in a single year.   Another way to look at it:  An average Niobrara formation well consumes 300,000 gallons to drill and about 4 million gallons to fracture (if a horizontal well).  That amount of water is equivalent to watering ONE golf course in Colorado for 21.5 days; or 26 minutes of water use in the City of Denver; or the amount of water used for 6.5 acres of wheat fron one growing season.  If 1,000 horizontal wells were drilled in Colorado's Niobrara formation, they would use about 0.13 percent of the state's water.  And, according to the Department of Energy, hydraulic fracturing requires as little as 0.6 gallons of water for every million BTUs produced.  By contrast, ethanol produced from corn requires from 2,510 to 29,000 gallons per million BTUs; and biodiesel fuels from soybeans need anywhere from 14,000 gallons per million BTUs to a whopping 75,000 gallons per million BTUs ("A Closer Look at Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use", COLORADOBIZ).   

Most people don't know up to 80% of the water used in the fracing process can be fully recovered (treated) and returned using a permitted underground injection well or discharged to surface waters (EPA Website).  In the U.S., 45% of domestic natural gas production and 17% of oil production would be lost within 5 years without the process of hydraulic fracturing ("Measuring the Economic and Energy Impacts of Proposals to Further Regualte Hydraulic Fracturing", IHS Global Insight).  And...hydraulic fraturing has been used for a wide variety of purposes, from stimulating the flow of water from water wells, to bringing geothermal wells into commercial viability.  It's even been called upon by the EPA to serve as a remediation tool for cleaning up Superfund sites (http://www.energyindepth.org/just-the-facts/). 

And this from the Wall Street Journal:  "The question for the rest of us is whether we are serious about domestic energy production.  ALL forms of energy have risks and environmental costs, not least wind (noise and dead wildlife) and solar (vast expanses of land).  Yet renewables are nowhere close to supplying enough energy, even with large subsidies, to maintain America's standard of living.  The shale gas and oil boom is the result of U.S. business innovation and risk-taking.  If we let the fear of undocumented pollution kill this boom, then we deserve our fate as a second-class industrial power. "

Fear/Emotion or Facts?  You have a choice.......

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

@clayton4H  

Thank you for providing links/sites . It's much appreciated by this reader wanting to learn !

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

@dbtst  

Hick is OVER his head . Not a good liar .

Otherwise, NOT a politician .....

mrpeteng
mrpeteng

@Mark897

As JaseRRoberts and Clayton4H point out, it is far more beneficial to frac and get the CH4 out of the ground to add a net gain of H2O to the ecosystem.

Myth busted.

Another point; IF frac’ing removes so much water from the ecological system in eternal sequestration, then how could frac’ing contaminate ground water, which is part of the ecological system?

dbtst
dbtst

@mrpeteng @Mark897 Because they put the contaminated fluids back into the earth in  disposal wells, as well as the unrecovered fluid left in the initial well once they are done with it and have sealed it up. You should really do some more research if aren't aware of what they do with the contaminated water.

 
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