Topic Subtopic Fact Sheet Mining: Hydraulic Fracturing
Mining: Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking or hydrofracking, is a method used to enhance extraction of oil and gas from underground seams by injecting very high-pressure fluids. Proponents note that the methane gas typically produced burns cleaner than oil or gas, may significantly reduce the cost of energy and imports, and increases jobs, often in depressed rural areas.

Typically, oil and gas well depths are several times greater than that of ground water wells in aquifers used for irrigation and water supply, so if a well has been cased correctly through upper formations according to Colorado's guidelines, the direct threat to shallower ground water may be minimized.  However, as a well ages, concrete and steel casing materials wear and may leak, which could increase the risk of contaminating ground water aquifers and surface water supplies.  Bradenhead pressure and other variables may be monitored to help detect completion or cementation problems. However, such monitoring cannot stop leaks, but must be followed through with conscientious stoppage of operations for comprehensive analysis and repair.  Abandoned wells must also be properly filled and sealed to prevent contaminant entry. 

It is also important that all waste fluids are correctly handled, since spills and air release of materials may occur.  Typically fracking fluids are disposed through deep-well injection (see EPA draft regs), but sometimes they are evaporated in shallow ponds, then the waste sludge is disposed of as a hazardous material.  However, fracking fluids can also be recycled or cleaned before disposing of the sand, salt, water, and chemical mixture.  Best practices include working towards zero discharge and recycling the fluids to limit the large amounts of water needed in the typical operation in water scarce environments (Examples: Encana, Piceance Basin; AquaPure Portable Rover; and Devon Energy, North Texas).  If water is not available at the well head, trucking in water or trucking out waste fluids can increase traffic substantially.  Limited water availability may also lead to conflict in areas of high alternative demands or drought. 

Water may also be a by-product from the deep formation produced from oil and gas well development.  This "produced water" that is considered tributary to streams and lakes in Colorado must be replaced through augmentation, which is governed by the Colorado Dept. of Water Resources.  Produced water is often very saline and high in other dissolved minerals, usually requiring cleaning before use in well operations or for other purposes.

In addition to water quality and quantity concerns, air quality may also be of concern.  Methane gas is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2.  In three years, new EPA rules may take effect to require "green completions" which will limit gas escaping into the air during months of initial well development.  Some companies have been doing green completions for years, since recovery of the additional methane, more than offsets the filtering cost (a $50,000 savings per well).  Air quality effects from heavy equipment, truck traffic, drilling, and pumping may also be substantial. The new roads and pads created may fragment wilderness areas and affect habitat access.  This leads opponents to vehmently refute methane's clean energy claims.

The full spectrum of facts and opinions from Colorado industry supporters and opposition groups has been provided in the links and action opportunities shown here to the extent possible.  Please contact us with additional links, action opportunities, or suggestions. The National Ground Water Association has developed a position paper that may prove helpful to find balance.  Colorado operators have proactively developed a Voluntary Baseline Ground Water Quality Sampling Program through the Colorado Ground Water Association.  The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission controls well permitting, while the Colorado Division of Water Resources regulates produced non-tributary groundwater.  The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates potential environmental concerns associated with oil and gas drilling including air quality, Safe Drinking Water Act, radioactive wastes, wastewater, stormwater, disposal ponds, and ground water quality.