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Hydraulic fracturing and coal bed methane part 1

by Carla J. Dolce

HUERFANO- As more coal bed methane (CBM) producers move into Huerfano County, all aspects of this source of natural gas are becoming more relevant, especially to those living near CBM wells.  This two-part article discuses the process of hydraulic fracturing (known commonly as “frac′ing”), which is used by CBM producers in about 90% to 95% of all CBM wells including those in Huerfano County.  This controversial procedure has been blamed for wells going dry as well as for numerous illnesses.

    Frac′ing is a process in which frac′ing fluids are injected underground at high pressures to create fractures in the coals seam.  A “propping agent” (usually sand or ceramic particles carried by high-viscosity additives) is pumped into the fractures to keep them open.   After the formation is frac′ed, water is pumped out.  About 70 to 80% of the frac′ing fluid is pumped out with this “produced” water with the other 20 to 30% remaining in the gas-producing formation.  Pumping out the water reduces the hydrostatic pressure releasing the methane so it can flow through the fractures to the well where it′s collected.

    Although water is the primary fluid used in frac′ing, the process also uses numerous additives: gel stabilizers, fluid loss control additives, acids, corrosion inhibitors, catalysts, clay stabilizers, biocides, bactericides, friction reducers, surfactants, solubilizers and pH adjusting agents.   Among the additives may be toxic compounds like benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylenes, napthalene, and 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE).  Patent applications for frac′ing processes list thousands of chemicals that may be used.

    Frac′ing is profitable both for the producers who get increased gas production and for the contractors who provide frac′ing services.  According to a Los Angeles Times article (Oct. 14, 2004),  hydraulic fracturing earns $1.5 billion each year for Halliburton Co., the company where Vice President Cheney′s served as chief executive from 1995-2000.

    Since frac′ing involves pumping chemicals into underground sources of drinking water, the safety of this process is important.  If you read the Denver Post last Nov. 17th, you were probably alarmed to learn about numerous incidents of water contamination related to frac′ing in CBM fields.  There′s the well in Sublette County, Wyoming contaminated with benzene, a chemical used in frac′ing that′s believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia.  It was in a concentration 1,500 times the level safe for people.  There′s the rancher who was hospitalized as a result of drinking well water from his own tap a few weeks after benzene was discovered nearby in an area of CBM drilling.  There′s Laura Amos, from Silt, Colorado who suffered from an adrenal tumor, after her well was contaminated.   The CBM drilling company eventually admitted it used the chemical 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE), known to cause adrenal tumors in rats, in at least one adjacent gas well.

    On December 1st, the Denver Post published a guest commentary claiming that hydraulic fracturing is safe stating, “since fracing was first used in 1948, there has not been a single documented case of contamination of drinking water.”  This commentary was written by Kathleen Sgamma, the director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS).  According to its website, IPAMS represents over 400 independent oil and gas producers and has “[e]stablished relationships with lawmakers and their staffs, fostered by regular trips to Washington, D.C. to meet with Congress and the Administration.”  In short, it′s a lobbying group for independent oil and gas producers.

    The Nov. 17th article was written by Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica, which according to its website, “is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”  ProPublica is funded by several philanthropic foundations and does not represent any corporate or industrial interests.

    So, who′s right?  Is frac′ing a threat to our drinking water or is it safe?   Stay tuned for next week′s installment!