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Fracking an 80-year-old method with a clean record

In response to Eleanor Bravo’s op-ed piece in the Jan. 9 Rio West section of the Albuquerque Journal, I feel compelled to criticize the Journal for publishing a scare piece that is riddled with truths, half truths and lies.

Global climate change is a geological fact and has been going on for billions of years. It is usually attributed to the distribution of solar heating in the atmosphere and its redistribution that is periodically changed by volcanism and ash in the atmosphere. Many of the changes are of short duration. Or there are long-term cycles, such as the Melankovich Cycles, that when some parts of cyclic variations are combined and occur at the same time, they are responsible for major changes to the earth’s climate (even ice ages).

Milankovitch estimated climatic fluctuations over the last 450,000 years, and described cold and warm periods. Though he did his work in the first half of the 20th century, Milankovich’s results weren’t proven until the 1970s.

Perturbation of the Earth as the Earth’s axis precesses every 12,000 years also cause long-term climatic patterns.

One may hypothecate that the hazard of human waste and trash generated by people in Rio Rancho is more dangerous than oil and gas exploration that is carried out under strict regulations.

In fact, from her comments, Bravo knows nothing about fracking. SandRidge probably will use fracking. It has been used for about 80 years. The U.S. EPA has studied fracking to death and they have yet to verify that fracking has led to contamination anywhere. Not many people know what fracking fluid is. Fracking fluid starts with water. The water may be fresh water or it may have a high concentration of dissolved solids naturally. Deep groundwater in the Rio Puerco that I have sampled runs about 11,000 parts per million (by weight) or one third the salinity of sea water. It contains a proppant to hold open fractures.

The proppant is usually spherules of sand or glass beads. The sand will settle in the water, which is not good, so a small amount of guar gum is added. Guar gum is a food thickener found in soups and other food products. Guar gum increases the viscosity of the water to keep the proppant in suspension.

On a radio talk show recently, I presented the host with a box of Frack Fluid Soup I purchased at a local grocery store. Because the guar gum is very sensitive to the pH and the temperature of the solution, there are a few additives that are commonly added to maintain the viscosity. This concoction is sometimes called slick mud because it feels slippery to the touch.

These additives are commonly ascorbic acid and/or citric acid. Of course, ascorbic acid is vitamin C. Citric acid is usually found in edible fruit and is digestible. The frack fluid soup had some vegetables added, like carrots and onions. When the pH becomes alkaline or temperature rises significantly, the viscosity of the guar gum breaks to the viscosity of water and is pumped out of the well. In fact, a slight amount of sodium hydroxide is injected as a chaser, so to speak, to break the viscosity intentionally.

Before a well is fracked, it is necessary to cement the steel well casing into the earth. The oil field method is to first conduct a caliper log after drilling to determine the amount of behind-the-pipe cement needed. Steel casing should be set with borehole centralizers. A cement shoe is added to the bottom of the casing before the casing is run into the ground.

Next, a high silica Class A Portland cement is injected into the casing and, by application of pressure, the cement is forced through the cement shoe and up the backside of the casing to the surface. The cement must be high silica cement because straight Class A cement will shrink and crack. It may pull away from the boreface and the casing. This provides conduits for hydrocarbon, including methane, to vent to the atmosphere. Methane is a GHG. So, it is not the frack fluid, but faulty well completion, that is the cause of potential contamination.

The author claims that the Environment American Research and Policy Center has shown contamination by frack fluids in New Mexico and elsewhere, yet the U.S. EPA has found none. In fact, frack fluid commonly is recovered and re-used. I myself have used slick mud to collect a sample of fluid from a deep monitoring well at Los Alamos.

The trend in the industry is to drill multiple wells from one pad to minimize environmental disturbance. In North Dakota, an application was filed that proposed drilling 27 wells from one pad. This reduces road traffic.

William Turner is a Ph.D. hydrogeologist and oil man. He is a Certified Professional Geologist in Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas and Missouri. His certification is pending in California, New Hampshire and Maine. New Mexico does not require certification. He has a nationwide water resources practice. He was the New Mexico Trustee for Natural Resources under the Johnson Administration and he has been president of the Albuquerque Geological Society.

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