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Frack Soup

Part two of our series examining the oil and gas fracking industry, and Louisiana’s troubled marriage with it.

On Tuesday, April 28, 2009, 17 cows, panting and bellowing, dropped dead in a northwest Louisiana pasture.

They had been foaming at the mouth, bleeding from their eyes and rear ends. Less than an hour before, they had been drinking from puddles of runoff from the deep natural gas well being drilled 150 feet from their pasture fence.

The recently-drilled well was in the process of being fracked.

A necropsy conducted by the veterinary school at Texas A & M listed the cause of death as “respiratory failure with circulatory collapse.” The drilling company which took soil samples for testing the day after the herd died, said only that they found “elevated levels of potassium chloride.” But it takes 2600 mg. of potassium chloride per kilogram of weight for toxicity, or nearly 4 pounds of pure potassium chloride per cow. And state officials’ requests for listing of what’s in fracking fluid were denied, because “it’s proprietary – trade secrets”.

Reports of more cattle deaths, stillborn calves and other farm livestock fatalities began surfacing from other states – Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Wyoming – where fracking of deep shale deposits was a booming business.

There were also reports of mystery illnesses plaguing residents near the wells: respiratory and cardiovascular problems, blood and nervous system disorders, and birth defects. Well workers,too, developed similar problems, which their employers endeavored to handle quietly – all the while refusing to divulge the chemicals used to frack open the shale.

Monday morning, April 19, 2010, deputies began knocking on doors at 5 a.m., warning hundreds of residents in rural south Caddo Parish that they needed to evacuate. A fracked natural gas well nearby had blown out, contaminating their drinking water aquifer. Residents of 145 area homes were told not to drink or bathe in the water, nor to wash their dishes or clothes in it.

Finally, in October 2011, Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources began requiring those seeking permits to drill horizontal wells to disclose chemical additives in their fracking fluids “that are not deemed trade secret.”

What’s in Fracking Fluid?

The primary ingredient in fracking fluid is water – a lot of water. In the Haynesville field, where the gas-bearing shale is 11,000 feet deep, on average, five million gallons are needed per well. When the fracked well frenzy was at its early peak in 2009, production companies were using the same underground rivers (known as aquifers) that supply the entire northwest Louisiana region with drinking water. The aquifer levels dropped precipitously, causing water well pumps to burn out and water pressures to drop all across the area. Since then, Louisiana DNR has “encouraged” (but not required) “the use of surface water.”

Fracking fluid also contains sand (known as “proppant” in the trade – more on that in a bit), and chemicals, collectively referred to as “surfactants”. While most of us are familiar with relatively safe surfactants like detergents and soap, the chemical compounds used for fracking are far from harmless, both individually, and when all mixed together.

Here’s a sampling from current drilling permit applications on file with DNR:

1. Ethoxylated 4-nonylphenol (10%): an emulsifier and surfactant, used in detergents. An endocrine disruptor (mimics estrogen and disrupts the natural hormone balance), it is bioaccumulative. It degrades in sunlight, but is known to persist in sediment for more than 60 years.

2. Ethylene glycol (5%) : a colorless, odorless sweet liquid, commonly used in antifreeze. More than 5000 cases of poisoning from ethylene glycol occur in the U.S. annually. An outbreak of deaths in 1937 due to a medication mixed in a similar compound, diethylene glycol, resulted in the 1938 enaction of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

3. Hydrochloric acid (36%).

4. Sodium hydroxide (3%): lye

5. Naphthalene (1%): mothballs, basically.

6. Heavy Aromatic Naphtha (5%): The European Union’s chemical registry classifies this extremely flammable liquid and its vapor as “dangerous”. It causes eye irritation, skin irritation and may be fatal if swallowed or enters airways. Prolonged or repeated exposure can damage internal organs, and it is a suspected cause of birth defects. It is extremely toxic to aquatic life.

7. Dazomet (24%): a common soil fumigant that acts as an herbicide, fungicide, and nematicide. Used to kill pests that inhibit plant growth. As it decomposes, it releases methyl isothicyanate – a gas. Acutely toxic to mammals, it persists in water runoff.

8. Formamide (30%): A solvent which can decompose into hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid) and water at 78.1F (25.6C). Prussic acid was as the killing agent in Nazi extermination camps’ gas chambers.

9. Benzyl chloride (1%): Made by combining toluene with chlorine, it reacts with water to form benzyl alcohol and hydrochloric acid. Classified under federal law as an “extremely hazardous substance”, it is required to carry an absolute warning: “Do NOT let this chemical enter the environment.”

These toxic chemicals are mixed into the water and frack sand slurry, creating a volatile soup. It’s all pumped under high pressure down 11,000 feet underground, then makes a 90-degree turn into the horizontal well bore. The finely-grained sand acts as both the abrasive agent (propellant) to fracture open the shale layers, and a prop to hold them open, releasing the gas (or oil). Hence, the name “proppant”.

Once the well is fracked, something has to be done with the chemical-laden fracking wastewater. State law allows “on-site disposal, well injection, commercial disposal, or recycling”.

At one time, fracking fluid was taken to local sewage treatment facilities, but in June 2016 the US EPA banned the practice as hazardous. Now the preferred method is disposal of the fluids in injection wells, and as of the end of 2015, Louisiana had nearly 3700 of them.

Injection wells have become increasingly controversial in other states. Most of them are repurposed old, inactive wells, with casings that weren’t engineered for the volume of “brine” (as drilling wastewater is often euphemistically called) or types of chemicals they’re being expected to contain. And now scientists have confirmed that they are the source of “induced earthquakes” in those areas.

“Proppant-geddon”

As previously reported in this series, natural gas and oil prices today aren’t what they were a decade ago. So the oil and gas industry has been searching for ways to make these wells – which cost $8 to $10-million each to drill and frack – more profitable. One way they’ve done this is by drilling longer horizontal runs, with laterals of 10,000 feet or more. The other way is by increasing the pressure at which they fracture the shale, increasing the amount of sand used.

In 2016, Chesapeake Energy fracked a Caddo Parish well using 30-million pounds of sand. Announcing the results on a conference call, Chesapeake CEO Doug Lawler said they intended to have greater success by increasing the proppant in future wells to 50-million pounds of sand, gleefully referring to the next step in fracking the Haynesville field as “proppant-geddon.”

It’s not a foolproof process. There can be microscopic stress fractures in the metal well-casings, and voids in the concrete that surrounds and supports it. A little seepage of the pressurized fluid into the surrounding geology deep underground can travel outward and upward, migrating over time along previously unknown geologic micro-faults, into the aquifer, into water wells, and into active or abandoned oil and gas wells nearby. More pressure means more leakage when the integrity of the wellbore itself is compromised, and that means a myriad of problems.

In December 2013, Shreveport TV station KSLA reported on two northern Caddo Parish families whose tap water had suddenly become flammable. The homeowners blamed it on leakage from a recently fracked natural gas well nearby. DNR officials said they would investigate.

In DeSoto Parish, where much of the current Haynesville Shale drilling is occurring, there have been numerous blowouts of these new “proppant-geddon” wells over the past year – particularly in the Bethany Longstreet oil and gas field, located 15 miles north of Logansport, and about 5 miles east of the Texas-Louisiana state line.

Drinking water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer has become contaminated, while waterwells and old capped oil and gas wells have ruptured, spewing geysers of gas and fracking fluid into the air. Ponds are bubbling and forming sandboils. Wildlife and fish have been killed, while soil tests show the land itself is contaminated – by chemicals that match the list of hydrofracking additives. More than fifty area residents have now joined together to sue the oil, gas, and drilling companies involved.

The primary defendants in that suit are applying for more permits to drill in the Bethany-Longstreet field. More on that in part 3, next week.

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