Doing Some Math on Fracking Propaganda

By reader bob of upstate New York, which is still frack free and fighting

A story by the Associated Press that tried to do some jusitsu on fracking critics, claiming they were guilty of the same practices they accused the industry of using, namely, using bad science, ironically, it included a pro-fracking example of the same.

While there are many logical inconsistencies within this piece, the one major issue with fracking, waste water, is given a great spin:

An analysis by The Associated Press of data from Pennsylvania found that of the 10.1 million barrels of shale wastewater generated in the last half of 2011, about 97 percent was either recycled, sent to deep-injection wells, or sent to a treatment plant that doesn’t discharge into waterways.

This is artful. Lets start from the beginning of the fracking process. Each well requires between 5-10 million gallons of fresh water (depending on the industry source for the estimate). We’ll give the frackers the benefit of the doubt and go with 5 million gallons of water per well.

They take this 5 million gallons of water and pour it down a newly drilled gas well. Proprietary chemicals are then added to the well at different points in the fracking process to achieve different results. Some of these chemicals are added first, some last, some in between. This is important to note because it makes reusing the “frack fluid” impossible without some sort of treatment. You can’t get the flour back out of a loaf of bread without a lot of work.

When the fracking is completed, about 10% of the water/chemical mixture flows back out of the well according to the industry. They call this “waste water” and more frequently “flow back”. It’s only waste water above ground. If it’s still in the well, it’s benign.

10% of 5 million is 500,000 gallons. The treatment, or disposal wells are not next to the gas well. At a high estimate of 11,000 gallons of water per tanker truck, this means at least 45 tanker trucks full of wastewater to be trucked away after each well is fracked.

They then have to treat or dispose of this ‘waste water’. According to the AP story, this waste water is either recycled, pumped into another well, or sent to a treatment plant. Putting recycling first in the list leaves the impression that this is done frequently. It’s not, and the “recycled” frack fluid cannot be reused without being diluted with more clean water. Let’s look at a story on a state of the art recycling operation in Ohio:

The new system means Chesapeake needs less fresh water to hydraulically fracture, or “frack,” the Utica shale that lies under the eastern half of Ohio, he said. Recycled water will be mixed with fresh water for future fracking operations.

So, the “treated” water still isn’t clean enough to be reused? This plant and process is new, and in one location. The AP fails to mention how much waste water is being ‘recycled’. Deep injection wells account for most of the disposal. A “treatment plant that doesn’t discharge” is called a storage tank. The waste water is still there.

So, from the beginning again. 5 million gallons into the well, 500,000 out. Of that 500,000 gallons per well, the majority will go down another deep injection well. But wait, what about the 4.5 million gallons of waste water left in the gas well? It stays right where it was made, in the well.

Rewriting the AP quote from above, taking all of the above industry sourced numbers into account yields:

Of the 4.2 billion gallons (10.1 million barrels times 10 times 42 gallons per barrel) of clean water that was turned into waste water in the last half of 2011 by the fracking industry in PA, less than 462 million gallons was handled in any way after it was polluted. Of that 462 million gallons of waste water that was handled after drilling, most was simply put down another well without any treatment. A very small portion of that 462 million gallons was treated or recycled.

The current state of the art in treatment and recycling, a plant in Carrollton, OH, can handle 73 million gallons of fracking water a year at full capacity. This is less than 2% of the 4.2 billion gallons of water used by the fracking industry during the last half of 2011 in PA. At 73 million gallons of “recycling” capacity a year, only 8% of the waste water that is discharged from the wells, “flowback”, could be treated at 2011 levels of drilling production. Production is roughly doubling in PA YoY. The water that is treated could then only be used as part of the water required to frack a new well. It is still not clean enough for the industry to use.

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  1. YankeeFrank

    The AP lies. Not a surprise, but thanks all the same for reporting on it bob. And thanks for fighting fracking upstate.

    I am surprised the NYC brahmins are not up in arms about this due to worries it will pollute our drinking water. Actually, what am I saying? Its probably the only reason our esteemed governor hasn’t removed the moratorium yet. Poorer NYC residents have no idea how much they benefit from all that money nearby. They don’t benefit in any direct way, except in terms of the slow trickle down of money, but they do get cleaner water (though not cleaner air). So let me moderate that — poorer NYC residents get cleaner water for all the exploitation they suffer at the hands of the 1%. Of course, even that isn’t strictly true, as most pollutants in our water are leeched in once the water hits the private structure’s pipes, and since poorer NYC residents are poor due to all that exploitation, their pipes are ancient and dirty, and likely contain too much lead. So, to clarify my message once again — poorer NYC residents are really screwed by the 1%. I try. I really do try to see something good coming from all this concentrated wealth, but its hard going. But perhaps if I work harder I can get a job on the New York Times Dealbook blog, perhaps a little side-blog entitled “A Walk on the Sunny Side (of Plutocracy)”.

  2. YankeeFrank

    Or better yet, Yves can employ me to be first to comment in the wee small hours, knocking all these recent trolls off their game. Actually, I’ll do that for free :).

  3. YankeeFrank

    Oh, and I really wasn’t serious about all that cat/dog stuff, if anyone missed my apology comments. I love cats very much. Our feral cat is worrying me lately actually because she keeps coming home with scratches on her face and ears the past few nights. I want to keep her in but she howls like the dickens if I lock the little kitty/doggy door. What to do? :\

    1. Warren Celli

      Yankee Frankee, ferral cats are a thread derailer that will energize the left and right cat wing. Some will want to kill your nuisance cat to get a good nights sleep and others will want you to sit on the porch all night waiting up to comfort it.

      Back on fracking… if you really want to get some support against fracking you need to talk about the toxic chemicals used, not in parts per million in the ground but TOTAL gallons used.

      Fracking is like cutting down a healthy fruit tree in its prime to gather the fruit. It is well beyond being prudent — it is stupid.

      Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

      1. dooberheim

        Except concentration (ppm) is what matters when you’re talking about toxic chemicals. To give absolute amounts without indicating what the amounts are a fraction of is the deception. It’s one used across the political spectrum, to all of our detriment.

        WHat fraction of fracked wells are associated with groundwater contamination? I’ve never found a good number, and that’s far more what matters than simply if it happens. Natural gas is an important energy source, and it’s not like it just sprouts out of your yard like a fruit tree.


  4. Dave B

    Great article. But a minor point about the trucking of the waste water. It tends to be laden with salt, and at leat 10 to 20% denser than tap water. A truck hauling 4000 gallons of briney water weighs about the same as a 6000 gal tanker of gasoline. There are weight limits for hauling stuff over roads, and tht limits it to (mostly) 4000 gal of water/water-like stuff per truck. This is another reason that fracking can trash rural areas -so many trucklooads of stuff in and then out again.

    The 10% figure of liquids out versus liquids in may also be low-balling it. That water is also laden with petroleum residues, at least in Ohio, since tat is “oily shale” and thus much sought after, unlikete mildly to more than mildly radioactive water from the “dry gas” of northern central Pa (and southern central NY State would be). And that oily water means benzene, for starts. Yum….

    Dave B

    1. rob

      But fracking is going to save the planet…..we get all this clean natural gas to burn.Now we don’t have to waste our money on solar or wind energy,or wave generation.
      With all the talk of the droughts around the country,to let an industry that depends on using enormous amounts of water,is short sighted.In the wave of recent fracking,to not think about the pollution that is seeping up to the water tables faster than they predicted,is short sighted.To not demand these companies release data on just what these “proprietary”chemicals,they are pumping under the population,so that regulations pertaining specifically to them,is short sighted.What are land values going to be when the ground water is polluted?What is a house worth without water?What taxbase will a town have if people can’t get drinking water nearby?
      Fracking,like nuclear,is just a bad idea.shortsighted,driven by big money.The local/national gov’t employees whose job it is to protect and regulate for the common good,are hogtied and given a rubber stamp for industry to trash our country.Someday,people will say,”Boy,we couldn’t have seen that coming”

      1. James

        On the plus side, the bottled water industry can always step in to provide the locals water – at a suitable markup of course. Hey, wherever there’s opportunistic capitalists, nice profit generating solutions are always close behind. And when the good quality water begins to dry up no matter the source? Through the infinite wisdom of price discovery we’ll find out who was really thirsty in the first place.

  5. Beth

    I grew up in eastern OH and I frequently follow the news in the area, particularly how fracking is tearing up the landscape. When I was growing up, the energy boom was coal and strip mining was rendering the land a moonscape. Now the frackers. The area is in the grips of a drought and the Berlin Resevoir, a major source of water for NE OH is at a 21-yr low. I guess frack water is more important than drinking water? But then corporations are people, my friends, and are ever thirsty for profits!

  6. Lafayette

    Science for hire by industry to come up with “factual studies”. How sooooo last year!

    See this book about the subject here.


    To keep the public confused about the hazards posed by global warming, second-hand smoke, asbestos, lead, plastics, and many other toxic materials, industry executives have hired unscrupulous scientists and lobbyists to dispute scientific evidence about health risks. In doing so, they have not only delayed action on specific hazards, but they have constructed barriers to make it harder for lawmakers, government agencies, and courts to respond to future threats.

  7. Borsabil

    So let’s see. Solar dependent on rare earths, highly toxic/radioactive, also very expensive and unreliable. Wind ditto, with the added bonus of needing roads and assorted infrastructure wrecking some of our wildest and most beautiful landscape, not forgetting the enormous amount of birdlife that’s shredded on those propellors. Coal, miners dying digging the stuff up, radioactive waste when burned, and if AGW is your thing it will eventually fry us all. Same for oil, and do we even have to discuss nuclear fission? The moral of the story is there is no ‘clean’ way of producing electricity or transportation fuel, even hydro is not without it’s costs. Fracking is simply another way of getting hydrocarbons out of the ground, and as long as it’s not done over aquifers all the evidence suggests it’s relatively OK. The real problem here seems to be the death of peak oil theory, which the current US oil boom is mercilessly destroying. Many on the green left had banked on an escalating marginal petroleum price driving us into renewables, shame it won’t happen in my lifetime but there you go.

    1. Patccmoi

      You’re seriously comparing the ‘damage’ caused by Solar and Wind power to the one caused by fracking and then you say basically “there’s no clean energy so who cares?”.

      I mean sure, there is no 100% clean 0 environmental impact source of energy known right now. But it’s not even on comparable scales. Did you ever compare the “wreck” of a landscape caused by fracking vs one caused by wind turbines…? Wind turbines that could be there for centuries (obviously likely replaced and upgraded over time, but without further wrecking of the environment since the roads are already there) vs a fracking well that will be flat-out empty after 10-20 years just leaving a totally wrecked, polluted landscape that will be unusable for much of anything?

      And it’s funny, I still see people talking about peak oil theory with data supporting it. Sure, we are finding other ways and sources of oil (like tar sands), but they’re so polluting that any fair system where the companies would also have to pay for the permanent environmental damage they cause would make them unviable economically, same could likely be said for fracking, I mean how much is worth square miles of land that becomes unusable for decades? The massive devaluation of all properties around it that people would like to leave but could never find a buyer? Must be worth SOMETHING.

      So please, go do your shill job somewhere else. We’ll remember to worry about highly toxic and radioactive solar power and landwrecking wind power.

        1. ebear

          >>I understand the life of a fracked well is measured in months, not years.<<

          That's nothing. The life of a thread on NC is measured in hours, not days.

          Then it's on to the Next Big Thing.

          Seriously, I wish I could keep up.


      1. Borsabil

        Shill? Moi?? Not everyone who disagrees with left fantasy land math is a shill for the oil industry. The point about renewables is the pollution caused in their construction and their utter uselessness in producing relaible base load electricity. No energy source can be exploited without a cost to the environment, accepting I guess that the people dying from the appalling practices in rare earth extraction live in China, so out of sight out of mind I guess.

        I see no ‘moonscapes’ caused by fracking. There may be an issue with pollution of underground aquifers, hell even the odd seismic disturbance, but the question is can these risks be managed and do the benefits outweigh the potential problems? I would say yes to both. Personally I rather enjoy living in an age where access to cheap abundant energy, in the form of hydrocarbons dug out of the ground, has given billions the chance of a decent life. Accept the environmental damage caused by our existence and do our best to minimize and repair it, is the best we can do friend.

        1. Christophe

          Your ruthless and thorough analytic reasoning would put any preoperational child to shame. How they would marvel at the wonders your concrete operational thinking could accomplish. “I see no ‘moonscapes’ caused by fracking.” Would they not cower at your reasoned faith that anything you can’t yet observe can’t possibly be occuring? Seeing often leads to believing in a species as visually oriented as humans. If only we could all believe in the infalibility of our experience and analysis with your level of confidence. Keep up the faith!

        2. Strangely Enough

          So, “solar,” “appalling.”

          Fracking, “acceptable.”

          “out of sight out of mind I guess.”

          “I see no ‘moonscapes’ caused by fracking.”


      2. Up the Ante

        “You’re seriously comparing the ‘damage’ caused by Solar and Wind power to the one caused by fracking and then you say basically “there’s no clean energy so who cares?”. ”

        Now, now, Pat, the Air Force and Navy/GE personnas have_a number_of tasks to perform, and easing your transition into dumbed-down-no-other-alternatives-to-enlisting is to be enlisted in support of their employment. Wonderfully circular for them.

        In the end, you will be left with ‘Don’t you want to help us .. remain employed ??’, and the politicians removing their masks to reveal Freddy Kruger chewing a stick of balogna.

      3. redleg

        Yield boost from fracking is essentially parabolic and tails off in 18 to 24 months. The well can be fracked again, leading to another yield spike that lasts 18 to 24 months. The spikes in yield generally follow a declining exponential curve as the fluid leaves the rock.
        From the water demands I have dealt with, 300k to 5M gallons of water are used per well when developing, along with many tons of silica sand. The chemicals added to the fracking fluid can be a problem, but are in small amounts compared to the volume of material injected.
        The new technology is the horizontal well, not the fracking. The majority of the problem with fracking is what comes out, not what goes in, and how the well is constructed. Frcaking a vertical well carries little risk of contaminating anything, as the materials injected and released stay in a small area around the well. But a horizontal well can release contaminants over a wide area, increasing the likelyhood of contaminating local and even regional aquifers.
        What comes out – fracking a well is designed to break up rock that is impermeable. By making the rock permeable, the stuff in the rock is released – hydrocarbons, gases (CH4, H2S, Rn, etc.), saltwater, solids (clay, silt, salt), etc. By releasing it, the goal is to have it flow into the well but this material is also released into the surrounding strata, especially the overlying rock.
        In a vertical well, the released material stays in the vicinity of the well. In a horizontal well, the released material can affect a much wider area.

        1. Aquifer

          ” … along with tons of silica sand.”

          Yup, a second hit for aquifers as the sand deposits that are dug up are themselves the stuff of which highly productive aquifers are composed – and their mining mot only changes that capacity but opens those aquifers to contamination as well – not to mention the moonscapes left …

          So aquifers get screwed on 2 fronts by this process – what folly …

          1. redleg

            Actually, most of the silica sand mined so far in the midwest is surficial – the sandstone is located at or very close to the surface. The mines are effectively no different than gravel pits used for construction aggregate. Some of them actually are aggregate pits, with the sandstone mined after the dolostone (mined for aggregate) overlying the sandstone is depleted. There are some underground mines, but most of the mining is open pit and not especially deep pits at that.
            There are disputes over mines operated/proposed in the vicinity of public wells, but the fracsand mines are no different from aggregate mines from a planning, regulation, and operation perspective. Further, dewatering is expensive and full of unintended consequences so sandstone located above the water table is the prime target. The fact that most of the midwest sandstone units coarsen upwards makes dewatering unnecessary in many locations.
            Like any mine/deep hole there is the potential to affect recharge and flow in the vicinity of the mine, as well as increases in truck traffic, dust, vibration, etc.

            My professional opinion is that horizontally bored wells pose the greatest risk to the surrounding residents, especially when fracked, as these wells are drilled explicitly to release the material contained within the rock (salt water, H2S, petroleum, gas, etc) over a wide area. Vertical constructed wells can only mess up a relatively small area around the well, where a horizontal wells can extend many miles horizontally from the wellhead. If the well drillers, servicers, and owners were held criminally liable for damage caused by drilling/fracking AS THEY SHOULD BE, many of these plays would not be drilled at all – Bakken, probably yes, Marcellus, probably no. The same liability standard should be extended to all mining/dewatering activity both domestically and to foreign operations via tariffs, IMO.

    2. Yearning to Learn

      The real problem here seems to be the death of peak oil theory, which the current US oil boom is mercilessly destroying

      Please. This blog is not made up of simpletons who listen to regurgitated talking points. As everybody knows, the theory of peak oil is that over time we will have to resort to more and more difficult extraction procedures in order to procure our energy.

      The lengths to which we are going to procure energy sure seems more difficult in 2012 compared to 1950. Back then, put a tap in the ground and oil just flowed up.

      Now, we have to find energy in shale and by fracking, not to mention digging multi mile deep wells under the ocean.

      Yep… nothing more difficult about that!

      It will be especially “easy” to continue fracking as we see more and more earthquakes in areas that are not earthquake prone, not to mention the first time a proprietary chemical is found in the municipal water supply.

      As you correctly stated: there is no zero-impact energy source. The problem we face is how to provide the needed energy while attempting to limit the environmental impact?

    3. robert157

      “The real problem here seems to be the death of peak oil theory, which the current US oil boom is mercilessly destroying….”

      The oil boom in the US isn’t even destroying Peak Oil in the US (1970–10mbd), let alone globally. Don’t believe the hype.

  8. Mcmike

    Nice analysis, but dont buy their premise about the 97% that stays in the ground or is reinjected. It is toxic contaminated, and it will migrate. Sooner or later we will realize that injecting billions of gallons of toxic water underground is idiotic.

    PS, the way to talk about the chemicals is in terms of TONS added per well. Truckloads of chemicals. Toxins by the pallet. Yes, it gets mixed with a lot of water. But much like liquid fertilizer, which destroys its intended beneficiary if applied in concentrations exceeding a few ounces per gallon.

  9. McKillop

    “You can’t get the flour back out of a loaf of bread without a lot of work.”
    From what I imagine, the simple act of chewing gets the flour out of bread – or starts the process.
    Of course, what is ‘left’ is feces.
    I am gobsmacked that industrial pollution of water _water_is encouraged with the pretense that poisoning adds value to our lives

  10. Jonathan Bernstein

    Regarding the productive life of a fracked well. Even the ones that produce oil/ natural gas liquids, seem to be shorter lived than comparable oil wells. Of course gas wells of any type are relatively short lived — the pressure forces gas out quickly once it is tapped. The production curve of an oilwell over time is normally bell shaped — low production followed by peak production followed by decline. The gas well curve starts at peak production and drops rapidly over time.

    Either way, fracked wells are more costly to drill than conventional ones, given all the extra steps they take. I know that Exxon chairman Rex Tillerson (who worked on early fracking projects as a junior engineer) loves fracking and there is very, very big money behind it. Still I am wondering if the economics are worth it, all in. ASPO had a wonderful podcast on this back in May.

    Finally, re the argument that fracking has put paid to peak oil theory. Yes, fracking has caused a bump in US production, which had been declining since Prodhoe Bay peaked. But — for this increase to continue ever upward as the frackers predict, we not only need lots and lots of new fracked wells to be drilled, both to add new production and replace the fracked wells that play out so rapidly. You also need for the other (often older), conventional fields to be replenished/ halt their continuing decline.

    Show me a field by field analysis of why that is possible, or give it up.

  11. McMike

    Re nat gas and peak oil.

    Unconventional natural gas manged to put a second hump back into US nat gas production, but it still has not matched the 1970’s peak of conventional gas production. And by all reasonable estimates will soon enough roll over and start to fall off again.

    1. Mcmike

      Actually bob, it pretty simple;

      Fracking is unsafe at any speed.

      Injecting millions and millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the ground is insanely stupid

  12. bob

    I was trying to tacking just one HUGE issue. The ammount of water that is contaminated.

    Where that water comes from, how it is transported and where it ends up is outside the scope of this piece.

    That’s not to say that these issue aren’t important. It seems the broader you make the topic of “fracking”, the more you open the door to pro-fracking trolls.

    It’s this simple- all of the water they use is waste water, under any defintion of wastewater, even the drilling industries definition.

    Oh, but they can “treat” some small ammout of the water, and claim, in the national press that…”97% of the water is recycled…”


  13. stevefraser

    If we are gonna stop Capitalism and take the Republic back to the Iron Age, we gotta stop fracking (along with tearing down all the dams.).

  14. Caleb

    Society dictates policy. You driving your car dictates that oil in the ground is more valuable than pollution. Every object in every store is transported by oil. The world runs off oil. You want to stop pollution? You’ll pay for it. Don’t cry to Obamatard that gas prices are too high either, because that doesn’t pull oil out of the ground.

    Oil is more precious than water. Anti-fracktards obviously don’t get LIFE. Money talks. People eat McDonalds and complain about environmental affects; does that not spark a question? Not just fast food, but almost all food is GMO, hormone injected, and covered with pesticides that are linked to health issues. Yet they still do it? Why? Because PEOPLE NEED TO EAT. When you figure out how to provide the world with it’s needs without a little sacrifice, THEN WE CAN CHANGE THINGS.

    Monsanto OWNS the food industry. They control the government. Such is the oil industry. Why? Because money talks. Fairy tale fantasies walk.

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