Appalachian Basin

Hydraulic Fracturing Is An Open Book

Speculative fears are used by agenda-driven groups to suggest something’s hidden and must be found about hydraulic fracturing, but the process and fluids are an open book, so complete and mundane as to be boring to anyone interested in the facts.  The truth is this; items arguably the safest of all are the ones most likely to be proprietary. 

Some people are never happy.  When I first became interested in natural gas as a landowner some four years ago, there was considerable controversy over the fact hydraulic fracturing fluid compositions were typically not shared with the public.  They were the essence of what gave one fracturing process the advantage over another and, therefore, protected as proprietary.

Natural gas opponents seized on this to suggest unknown elements were somehow being introduced into groundwater and threatening us all.  It wasn’t true, of course, as both the EPA and dozens of states have repeatedly stated, but the mere fact anything was unknown was exploited to create doubt.

The natural gas industry responded to this concern by participating in a new initiative called where the composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids has been publicly disclosed.  This website now includes data on fluids used at more than 31,000 well sites developed by 300 energy-producing companies who have registered with FracFocus in a period of just one year.  States also have signed onto the program and are requiring registration and disclosure using it.  It is, by any measure, a tremendous success.

The opposition, of course, isn’t pleased.  It has simply shifted the emphasis and is now demanding more.  Dozens of stories have been written about the fact some constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluids are treated as proprietary and not disclosed to the same detail as others.  This is standard practice with many new products where manufacturers need to protect their formulations to ensure the ability to recover their investment in research.  It’s the same reason we have patent laws and, absent such protection, there would be far fewer technological advances.

None of this matters in the minds of NIMBYs, of course.  They simply see it as another example of withholding vital information. Meanwhile, those who are ideologically opposed to natural gas development continue to whip up fears of terrible things being introduced to water supplies, notwithstanding it’s never happened.  They prey upon the fact some individual constituents are not being fully disclosed, even if the fluids and the additives are.

While there’s no way to satisfy the true believers on the other side, we note the polls indicate most folks recognize the need for natural gas development and simply want the facts.  They deserve them.  So, let’s take a close look at this whole issue of disclosure.

Our opponents would have the public believe hydraulic fracturing fluid formulations are hidden, despite FracFocus, state disclosure programs and company websites providing incredible amounts of information.  The truth is that more information is available on hydraulic fracturing fluids than some very common products.

Consider, for example, something known as Solid Green #78 Glass & Neutral Cleaner which is designated by the EPA’s Design for the Environment program as one of several “products that perform well, are cost-effective, and are safer for the environment.”  It’s also listed on the Healthy Schools Campaign website as a recommended school cleaning product that meets “green standards.”  Yet, here is the relevant portion of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for this product:


Solid Green #78 MSDS Excerpt

Not a single ingredient in this formulation is disclosed.  Still, there is a MSDS and a review of the entire document indicating it provides all the essential information about the product, including hazards, safety procedures and control measures.  One can easily conclude it’s safe from the information provided.  Such is the way the system works, even for designated green products. Proprietary information is protected, while essential safety data is disclosed.  It’s a balance essential to progress.

Eco-Conscious Spot Remover with Proprietary Ingredients

The same balance should apply to any product and it generally does.  Cleaning products and biocides often involve withholding of some proprietary information, presumably because there are new variations constantly being developed.  There is this brick cleaner, for example, which includes an organic salt compound, the constituents of which are not disclosed.  Then, there is this hydroponics ph adjuster, where the exact percentages of constituents are protected, this knife honing oil, this “eco-consciousspot remover, this first aid burn cream, this concrete cleaner and this swimming pool chlorinator.  Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is this water treatment product and this one, both of which are used to ensure drinking water supplies are safe.

Get the idea?  If it’s possible to put things directly into the water supply with full disclosure of risks, but not necessarily exact formulations, it sure as heck ought to be possible to do the same for stuff  injected a mile below the water table with numerous layers of impenetrable rock between.  It is, in fact, possible because the same balance is achieved on FracFocus and elsewhere with the disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluid compositions.

FracFocus already, after roughly a year of operation, posts the formulations of hydraulic fracturing fluids associated with some 30,000 natural gas wells.  Wells can be located by state, county, operator, well number or even well name.  Entering well number 37-015-20891, for example, yields this pdf file for a well developed by Talisman USA.  The file indicates the well is in Bradford County, is some 5,538 feet deep and required 2,857,386 gallons of water to hydraulically fracture.  It also provides the list of ingredients by percentage of mass (weight) which can be converted to pounds if one knows water weighs 8.345 pounds per gallon.  Here is a table constructed from that data, which tells us quite a bit:


First, note the amount of recycling that was involved with this well.  Almost 28% of the hydraulic fracturing fluid consisted of recycled water, something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.  Also, there are only 11 additives other than water and sand which make up the fluid.  Two of those, which represent but 0.0002% (that’s two ten-thousandths of one percent) of the hydraulic fracturing fluid and only 0.36% (36 hundredths of one percent) of the items other than water and sand, are listed as proprietary in nature.  This means we get to know what they are generally, and in this case the tiny amounts of each involved, but we don’t learn the precise constituents.  They are both aliphatic compounds.

Leaving aside the infinitely small amount of material in this instance, this doesn’t mean we can’t learn more about it, however.   The FracFocus listing, for example, tells us the well was fractured by Schlumberger and a quick visit to their website (where they describe various even newer fluids with additional disclosures) offers this regarding aliphatic compounds:

One of a group of organic compounds of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) in which the carbon atoms have linear, branched chain (open), or both types of structures. Aliphatics, as they are informally called, can be divided into paraffinic (saturated) and olefinic (unsaturated) chain types. The simplest aliphatic, paraffinic hydrocarbon is methane, CH4. The simplest aliphatic, olefinic hydrocarbon is ethylene, C2H6. In drilling fluids, particularly oil-base muds, the amounts and types of hydrocarbon in the mud can be an important parameter in overall performance of the mud.

We also know these compounds are included on MSDS documents for other products, including a Schlumberger  corrosion inhibitor additive (perhaps the same one used in this instance) and this fire suppressant, both easily found with some Google searching of “aliphatic MSDS.’  The MSDS sheets fully describe the risks associated with the products of which the compounds are part, so there is nothing in particular that needs to be known that isn’t known.

Vegan Wine Made with Bentonite

Most significant, however, is the fact the fire suppressant consists totally of aliphatics and the MSDS for it indicates it is non-hazardous, stable and non-flammable.  So, when we get to the bottom of everything, what we have is a mere 82 pounds of what we can reasonably judge to be fairly innocuous material being sent a mile under the water table – hardly something to quiver over.  Moreover, there are even further disclosures available to medical professionals.

You can read the rules, which apply to all products, not just hydraulic fracturing fluids, here.Other companies have their own disclosure programs offering additional information.  Halliburton, for example, has a very user-friendly website offering a thorough explanation of everything in their fracturing fluids.  Simply click on the state and then “Pennsylvania HybridFrac Formulation” and you get a listing of the 10 additives employed in that hydraulic fracturing fluid formulation (not including water and sand), along with access to their MSDS documents and a separate listing of the 32 constituents that make up those additives.  This listing also includes common uses of each constituent and indicates whether it is considered hazardous or not for MSDS purposes.  Two of these constituents are identified as proprietary; “Modified Bentonite” and “Polyacrylamide Copolymer.”

Bentonite is a common product used in cat litter, plumber’s putty, fruit juices and nectars and numerous other products including colon cleansers.  It can be purchased in modified form for human use here, for example, where it is described as “a medicinal form of earth used for centuries for nutritional supplementation and detoxification.”  It is also used to seal water ponds and reservoirs.  Finally, it is used in wine-making to clarify the vino for consumption (see Vegan Wine example to right).  The fact the exact form of it used in hydraulic fracturing is proprietary hardly matters given it is good enough to use in and on our bodies and to filter what we drink.

What about that other constituent with the dangerous sounding name of “Polyacrylamide Copolymer,” though?  Well, it goes by the name of “Water Jelly Crystals” in the commercial vernacular.  Here’s the description (emphasis added):

Gardening with Hydrogel Crystals
Using Water Jelly Crystals to help conserve water in the garden.

Water Jelly Crystals are an example of a water-absorbing polymer called a hydrogel.  Think of these hydrogels as long chains of molecules (called polymers) that absorb incredible amounts of water, only to release the water to plant roots at a later time.  Hydrogels are rapidly becoming one of the most exciting environmental education topics in classrooms worldwide.  Today, superabsorbent polymers are widely used in such applications as forestry, gardening, and landscaping as a means of conserving water. Imagine using a substance that could store water in the soil and then release it as the plant’s roots need it.  While we may consider water-absorbing polymers to be a modern convenience, imagine the impact that such technology is having on parts of the world that are plagued by drought.

Steve Spangler coined the name “Water Jelly Crystals,” but the real name of the chemical used in this activity is cross-linked polyacrylamide copolymer gel. This chemical is biodegradable and is not considered to be a health hazard.  In other words, Water Jelly Crystals are safe to touch, to squeeze through your fingers, and to use in your garden.  Consult our safety section for additional information.

And, here’s some more, from Green Living Tips:

These special crystals can absorb up to 50 times their own weight in water according to manufacturers (some claim 500x), forming a gel and then slowly releasing water as the plant requires it. This can reduce watering frequency by up to 50%, improve soil aeration and reduce the leaching of nutrients and fertilizers.

The crystals have a useable life of up to 5 years and are biodegradable; eventually breaking down into water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen – all of which can be used by the plant. During their useful life-cycle they can be dried out and be rehydrated many times.

The Green Living Tips web page says it’s all about “sustainable living advice – reduce your impact on the environment” so, presumably, there isn’t much to worry about here either.

What we have, then, are two constituents that are routinely used in all sorts of applications considered safe for human beings and are even described as “green” because they save water.  This fits into the pattern of most proprietary ingredients; they represent the latest in technological advances designed to make products ever more efficient and safe, which is precisely what is desired by everyone involved.  Companies able to develop such new products naturally want to capture the economic returns attendant with their investments in this research.  This is what it’s all about and it means, ironically, the proprietary ingredients are likely to be the safest of all.

Such is the reality of hydraulic fracturing fluid disclosures.  Will natural gas opponents accept it?  It’s unlikely because fear is their stock in trade, but for those who want to know, hydraulic fracturing is an open book and it’s becoming a better read with every new page.


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