Just the Fracks
A CON TROVERSIAL oil-drilling technique
has environmentalists, landowners and regulators
loudly pushing for greater accountability. And
in the whirlwind news cycle, project owners are
quickly learning they’d better address concerns—or
risk project failure.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process
by which companies drill deep wells, breaking
through hard layers of shale or other deposits to
access untapped oil and natural gas reserves. They
then pump pressurized water, sand and chemicals
down into the wells to pry open fissures and flush
the gas or oil to the surface. Although drillers use
mostly water, a number of environmental groups
contend the companies are also injecting harsh
toxins that taint aquifers and wells.
“We have a lot of doubts about whether
[fracking] can be done safely without hurting
our precious water,” New York State Assembly-woman Barbara Lifton said at a community
meeting in late September.
The issue is particularly contentious in North
America. In the United States, the suspicions
are amplified by the fact that fracking is exempt
from the Safe Drinking Water Act. A flurry of
protests, articles and public events arguing that
the projects are hazardous to the environment is
prompting legislators at the state level to enact
new rules aimed at lifting the veil of secrecy on
fracking. The state of Wyoming, for example,
passed a law requiring energy companies to reveal
the chemicals used in fracking, so if groundwater
contamination does occur, the toxins could be
either identified or ruled out as the cause.
The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) is in the process of con-
ducting a $1.9 million study of fracking’s
effect on groundwater and any potential
for public health risks, but the results are
not due until 2012. Like the EPA, the
state of New York has not yet issued any
determination on the process, but its sen-
ate did pass a moratorium bill that will
remain in effect until 15 May 2011.
In the Canadian province of Quebec,
Questerre Energy Corp. was forced to
postpone its plans to drill two test wells along the
St. Lawrence River after some residents demanded
a moratorium over environmental concerns. The
50-200 feet 1,000 feet 3,000 feet 1 mile 7,500 feet 2 miles
a process by
which companies drill deep
layers of shale
or other deposits to access
Building 1,250 feet
GRAPHIC COURTESY OF
provincial government is reworking its regulations
to address the challenges posed by fracking, which
the company insists is just fine.
“We’re not in a rush; there is no rush,” Ques-
terre CEO Michael Binnion told The Globe and
Mail. “We’re not in commercial development, and
there is plenty of time to update the regulations.
And quite frankly, the industry is unlikely to pro-
ceed unless there is a good regulatory environment
in the first place.”
It may be a moot point. Operating costs in
Quebec are so high that natural gas prices would
have to rise significantly for the shale in the area to
RISK VERSUS OUTRAGE
Whether or not the regulations are put into law,
companies launching fracking projects should
Project managers have to factor in the potential
for community pushback and the need for local support into their project plans, says Dennis Lathem,
executive director of the Coalbed Methane Association of Alabama, a Birmingham, Alabama, USA-based trade association of the state’s gas producers.
“It goes to risk versus outrage. It might be that
technically and logistically, the project is very low-risk. But if you don’t understand the outrage factor,
you are going to have problems,” he says.
“It’s easy to dismiss people as environmental
extremists, but a lot of times that’s not the case,”
adds Gene Citrone Jr., engineering project manager
and director of special projects in the energy and
environment business unit at Process Plants Corp.
(PPC), Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, USA.
PPC is currently leading a project to clean salts
and chlorides from flowback water used in fracking
projects at the massive Marcellus Shale development
field in Western Pennsylvania. Seventy-three drilling companies are currently operating onsite—and
they’re all contending with a great deal of attention.
For any project manager, the focus should be on
“These citizens are concerned about their water
and their environment and they are the most
important people for project managers to talk to,”
Mr. Citrone says.
Many of the chemicals that worry people, including manganese and magnesium, are already present