Fracking: Science needs to catch up with public awareness, researchers say
New studies uncover organic compounds in fracking fluid that could contaminate water
By Lucy Goodchild van Hilten Posted on 8 April 2015
Fracking isn’t just splitting rock – it’s splitting opinion. One of the concerns raised by the public has been about the millions of gallons of fracking fluid required during the process, and its potential to contaminate groundwater and drinking water sources.
Two new studies, published in Trends in Environmental Analytical Chemistry and Science of the Total Environment, identify the major organic compounds companies are adding to fracking fluid. The science is still slightly behind the public’s lead, say the researchers, but the new findings will help the authorities test groundwater and drinking water for contamination, and in the future, set levels for regulation.
Fracking: the process and the problem
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process used to release oil and natural gas from underground shale rock. It works by injecting fracking fluid – water with chemicals added – at high pressure into wells to create cracks in the rock. When the pressure is released, hydrocarbons seep out and can be recovered. An effective method for extracting oil and gas from the ground, fracking has proven popular with energy companies, and advocates who say it will bolster the economy and support energy independence. Resistance from much of the general public, however, has led many local and national governments to reconsider whether to allow it.
One of the concerns is water contamination. Fracking fluid comes back out
Lead author Dr. Imma Ferrer, Chief Analyst for the Center for Environmental Mass Spectrometry at the University of Colorado
A few years ago, we started thinking that this could be a significant environmental water problem. In some cases, the fluid has leaked from pipes and into groundwater. Before we can assess the environmental impact of the fluid, we have to know what to look for. If we find out what’s in it, we can check if the groundwater is contaminated and also treat the flowback water to make it safe.
Public awareness is ahead of the science, researchers say
It’s common for scientific research and advances to happen before the public is aware of the details, and sometimes even about the problem that led to the research. This case is different – according to the researchers, the public has been aware of the potential risk of fracking fluid contaminating the water supply for several years, and now the science is catching up.
“I think the involvement of big oil and gas companies, and the potential environmental impacts of the process, have put fracking in the public eye,” explained Dr. Ferrer. “People have been aware of it for five years or more, and now that it’s becoming increasingly common – and controversial – more research is going into different aspects of fracking.”
Dr. Ferrer believes this increasing focus on potential water contamination from
Identifying organic compounds to test and treat contaminated water
Previous studies have examined fracking fluid for
The results reveal about 25 percent of the organic compounds the researchers believe to be present in fracking fluid. This includes surfactants – molecules that are commonly found in soaps – and biocides – potentially harmful compounds that kill microbes in the fluid and the well casing.
[pullquote align="right"]“We’ve identified the compounds that are necessary to test for contamination in groundwater and drinking water." — Lead author Imma Ferrar,
“We haven’t found everything, but we think these are the most important organic compounds,” Dr. Ferrer said. “We’ve identified the compounds that are necessary to test for contamination in groundwater and drinking water.
“It’s really exciting because I realized there had been a lot of research done on inorganic compounds, but the organic ones had been left a little bit aside. We now have sophisticated analytical techniques we can use to investigate this relatively new area, and this is really our chance to use these tools to identify as many compounds as we can.”
Read the studies
Elsevier has made these articles freely available for 90 days, until July 7, 2015:
- “Chemical constituents and analytical approaches for hydraulic fracturing waters,” by Imma Ferrer and E. Michael Thurman, Trends in Environmental Analytical Chemistry, Volume 5 (February 2015)
- “Characterization of hydraulic fracturing flowback water in Colorado: Implications for water treatment,” by Yaal Lester, Imma Ferrer, E. Michael Thurman, Kurban A. Sitterley, Julie A. Korak, George Aiken and Karl G. Linden, Science of The Total Environment (April 2015)
Fracking stories by Elsevier authors:
- Fracking for shale gas – the science behind the risks (By Mike Stephenson,
PhD, Chief Scientist, British Geological Survey)
- Fracking — the pros and cons (By Scott A. Elias,
PhD, Professor of Quaternary Science, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London)
Fracking hits the headlines
- Big Oil Pressured Scientists Over Fracking Wastewater's Link to Quakes – Huffington Post, 30 March 2015
- In New York state, fracking ban fuels secession talk – Los Angeles Times, 26 March 2015
- Doctors and academics call for ban on 'inherently risky' fracking – The Guardian, 30 March 2015
- What to know about fracking outside the US – The Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2015
- Water Use for Fracking Has Skyrocketed, USGS Data Show – National Geographic, 26 March 2015
Elsevier Connect Contributor
After a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences.