Study: fracking fouls surface water

Plus: Boebert bungles finances--again; carbon capture convolution continues

THE NEWS: An extensive, wide-ranging statistical study published in the journal Science provides the first evidence that oil and gas fracking—the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—can affect surface water. 

THE CONTEXT: Hydraulic fracturing is the practice of injecting large volumes of water, chemicals, and sand at very high pressures into oil and gas wells to liberate the hydrocarbons from shale or sandstone. This method of “completing” a well was first developed in the 1940s and has been in use ever since. 

In the early 2000s, drillers began using a combination of horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from tight shale formations, sparking oil and gas booms in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and beyond. Fracking wells are far deeper, the method more extensive, and the volume of water used is much greater than with conventional drilling. 

After a well is completed, it not only produces oil and gas, but also gobs of water. Millions of gallons of hydraulic fracturing water and chemicals, or flowback, emerges from the well first. That’s followed by briny produced water, which naturally accompanies oil and gas underground and which continues to flow during the life of the well in massive quantities. Producers capture and often dispose of this wastewater, which is always salty, often contaminated with hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, and is sometimes radioactive, by injecting it deep into the earth. 

That all of this drilling, fracturing, sucking, and re-injection would affect nearby aquifers seems almost a given, and past research has linked fracking with groundwater contamination. But the recent study, which combined 11 years of surface water measurements with more than 46,000 hydraulic fracturing wells in 408 watersheds, is the first to find evidence that fracking, itself, (as opposed to spills) impacts surface water. The authors found that concentrations of salts that typically occur in flowback and wastewater—barium, chloride, and strontium—had increased in watersheds with newly fracked wells. 

The authors emphasized that the salt concentrations in streams were far below levels of concern. However, their presence indicates that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, which can be harmful at very low concentrations, may also be making their way to streams. How the salts are getting into the water is still not clear: Because the researchers used a statistical approach, they did not identify the pathways or means of contamination. Determining that will require more targeted study.

Sampling of materials added to hydraulic fracturing water: 1,2,4 trimethylbenzene; ethylene glycol; hydrochloric acid; naphthalene; walnut hulls; acetic anhydride; butyl lactate; methanol; aldehyde; citrus acid. 

2.4 million: Gallons of water, on average, injected into a single, horizontal shale well to hydraulically fracture it.  

200,000: Gallons of water used to hydraulically fracture a vertical, non-shale well. 

151,386,800: Barrels of oil produced in New Mexico during the first six months of 2021.

693,909,698: Barrels of wastewater produced by New Mexico wells during the first six months of 2021. 1 barrel = 42 gallons.

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THE HEADLINE: “Colorado’s Boebert discloses husband’s work for energy firm”

FIXED HEADLINE: Drill-happy, gun-toting, fossil-fuel-fetishist U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., failed to disclose nearly $1 million her husband received from an oil and gas company over the past two years, likely putting her in violation of ethics rules and campaign finance laws. She only owned up to the income in disclosures filed this week.

During her 2020 campaign to represent Western and Southern Colorado in Congress, Boebert listed her gun-themed restaurant and associated smokehouse in Rifle as her only sources of income. She noted on her disclosure form that her spouse, Jayson Boebert, was a self-employed “consultant,” but put “N/A” in the income column.

This week, however, after the Federal Elections Commission asked Boebert to explain suspicious payments made to her by her campaign earlier this year, Boebert filed another disclosure. While failing adequately to answer the FEC’s query, she did correct earlier omissions, this time saying Shooter’s Grill had lost a bucketload of cash during the last two years, and the couple’s only substantial income came from Jayson Boebert’s consulting business. Terra Energy Productions, according to the disclosure, paid Jayson Boebert $938,987 over two years for “consulting services.” Houston-based Terra Energy Partners (to which she must have been referring) touts itself as the largest natural gas operator in Western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.

Surely it was just an innocent oversight, right? I mean, who hasn’t overlooked a million bucks here and there? But Boebert’s accounting omission isn’t the only fishy piece of all of this. A bigger question: What the heck kind of consulting work did Jayson Boebert do for Terra Energy to rake in nearly a half-million bucks per year? 

Jayson Boebert has worked in the energy industry for a number of years, but his LinkedIn profile’s experience section, which appears to be out of date, lists just one job: well-site supervisor at Chesapeake Energy. That’s not the bottom rung of the roughneck ladder, by any means, but it’s also not a $500k-per-year position. Even petroleum engineers typically don’t earn that much. 

It kind of makes you wonder what, exactly, Terra Energy Partners was getting in return for the fees it paid. A firebrand in Congress to carry the oil and gas industry’s water for it, perhaps? Since getting elected, Boebert has taken an extremist line on everything from guns to the Capitol insurrection to Afghanistan, but she has been especially obnoxious when it comes to her pro-fossil-fuel stances, making outrageous claims about the economic impact of the Biden Administration’s policies, from the oil and gas leasing moratorium to the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

An ethics expert told the Washington Post that Boebert’s omission could be subject to large fines and punishment. It’s not the first time her finances have come under scrutiny: Last year her campaign fund reimbursed her $22,259 for mileage expenses, raising an eyebrow or two.

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Boebert will be happy to learn that the Biden administration plans to resume leasing drilling rights on public land to oil and gas companies after a judge ordered it to do so. The Department of Interior announced this week that it would appeal the judge’s injunction on the leasing pause, but at the same time would comply with the court order.

Don’t expect the leasing to proceed as it has in the past, however. Consider the wording in this passage from the DOI’s announcement: “Interior will proceed with leasing consistent with the district court’s injunction during the appeal. In complying with the district court’s mandate, Interior will continue to exercise the authority and discretion provided under the law to conduct leasing in a manner that takes into account the program’s many deficiencies.” The Bureau of Land Management has not scheduled any future lease sales, yet.

Interior is expected to release its review of and recommendations for the oil and gas leasing program this summer. It also announced this week that it will study the climate impacts of the coal leasing program.

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WE’RE ALSO READING …

… an Energy and Policy Institute report exposing more follies behind Enchant Energy’s scheme to retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture equipment to keep it running past its 2022 close-by date. It seems that the developers are having a hard time attracting investors and are spending far more money lobbying politicians for handouts than they are on the project itself.

The Biden administration has expressed support for carbon capture and recently forked out $24 million in grants for research on capturing carbon directly from the air. The infrastructure bill being debated by Congress likely will also include money for carbon capture projects. But all carbon capture is not equal: Retrofitting an old coal plant—especially one that is going to close—with the technology makes a lot less sense than capturing carbon from a manufacturing facility.

We dove deep into the whole project a while back: Carbon Convolution I and II.