A q-and-a on fracking with Robert Jackson

On Jan. 30, 2014, Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist from Duke University who has done extensive research on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil, will deliver the 14th lecture in a speaker series sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. 

Robert Jackson
Robert Jackson

The title of his lecture will be Fracking: What we know and don’t know about its impact on water. 

The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be at 7 p.m. in the theater of the Student Center on the university’s St. Paul campus. Learn more about the lecture and register to attend it.

In an email q-and-a interview with Freshwater, Dr. Jackson talked about some of his research findings. The interview follows:

As simply as you can, tell us what hydraulic fracturing – fracking – is.

To a geologist, fracking is injecting water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure to crack open rocks that hold natural gas and oil. To the general public, fracking often means the entire process of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, anything to do with producing hydrocarbons.

Is it a new technique, or are we just hearing more about it now?

Fracking was first used in the 1940s.  What’s new is the combination of high-volume fracking and horizontal drilling — injecting millions of gallons miles down and miles sideways.

What are some of those chemicals pumped deep underground? Who regulates what can be pumped into the Earth?

Some of the chemicals are harmless, such as coffee grounds, and others are carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants.  Examples of these include benzene, naphthalene, diesel fuel, and hydrochloric acid. With the exception of diesel, just about any chemical can be pumped deep underground in fracking.

For the critics of fracking, the biggest fear seems to be that some of those chemicals will make their way into aquifers from which drinking water is pumped. Or that brackish water and oil will escape into drinking water supplies as the oil and gas are brought to the surface. Talk about your research on that.

We’ve found evidence – in some places – for the migration of methane and other gases into drinking water.  We have not found evidence for the migration of salts, radioactivity, or other chemicals associated with fracking. We’ve worked in the Marcellus (PA and WV), Fayetteville (AR), and Barnett (TX) shale regions.

To your knowledge, has anyone else found evidence of drilling fluids or waste water contaminating drinking water?

In some cases, most recently in the Barnett shale.

What is there about the drilling or fracking processes that could have produced the methane contamination you found?

People have been most concerned about fracking opening cracks thousands of feet long, through which water and chemicals can move.  What we’ve seen is simpler – poor well integrity.  If you don’t cement or case a well properly, problems happen.

Where is the EPA in its evaluation of fracking?

The EPA is undertaking a national study to understand the impacts of fracking on drinking water. They released a general progress report in December of 2012. The full draft report is likely to be released in 2014.

You and your team from Duke have also have done some research on how drillers treat waste water from fracking. What have you found?

Recently we found evidence for radioactivity building up in river sediments downstream from a wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania.

The mining of silica sand for fracking is a controversial environmental issue in Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. What are the threats that sand mining pose for groundwater?

The biggest threat from silica sand isn’t to ground water, it’s to the workers on a well pad.  Recent research in south Texas showed that silica dust in the air was so thick that people wearing breathing protection were still exposed to dangerous levels.

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