ACS President-Elect Tom Barton Seeks Input on Fracking

May 8th, 2013

Tom Barton won last year’s ACS national election for President (and was kind enough to answer our questionnaire about important issues facing the society). Yesterday, President-Elect Barton asked that I share this message with the readers of the blog:

In my ACS presidential year of 2014 I’m considering hosting a symposium on fracking with, of course, emphasis on the involvement of chemicals.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone suggestions for particular areas for inclusion, and potential speakers.  I seek a balanced set of presentations from experts in the various aspects, and would certainly be interested in any germane research.  I myself am not an expert in this arena, but I am trying to get smart in it.  In advance, I appreciate your assistance.

Feel free to weigh in using the comments. I will leave the first…


15 Responses to “ACS President-Elect Tom Barton Seeks Input on Fracking”

  1. Paul Says:

    While I don’t know who the individual experts are in the field of fracking, I do have some thoughts on the matter.

    I don’t buy into the notion that the fracking industry should have the right not to disclose what molecules are in the fluid being pumped into the ground to effect the extraction of gas because of intellectual property concerns. If this were a closed system like a plant, I would have no problem with that idea. But fracking is not a closed system, and the fluid is pumped directly into the environment. As a result, I think the public has a right to know at least what is in the mix. The exact formula for Coca-Cola is secret, but we require the company to list the contents (but not the proportions) on the label of every bottle. If there is something absurdly novel about the molecules in the mixture, then maybe a secret commission operating under a non-disclosure agreement could assess the safety of the mixture?

    And if the mixture is truly safe, then companies should have little problem putting a significant portion of money aside in escrow as collateral against environmental damage. Also, the CEOs should have little reluctance to being held personally responsible if the fracturing fluid pollutes any areas or poisons any humans or wildlife. I’d make a trade that the companies can continue keeping their fluid mixture secret if the CEO of the company agrees to a ten-year prison term if the local water supply becomes non-potable.

  2. Org Lett Reader Says:

    “Feel free to weigh-in using the comments.”

    Hyphenated words like “weigh-in” are nouns, as are others that combine certain verbs and prepositions (e.g., shutdown, log-in, setup). It drives me crazy when people misuse these. But I note that this is uncharacteristic for you and thought you’d appreciate the heads-up. : )

  3. Hap Says:

    Our local section had Prof. O Scott Bair give a talk on fracking – he is from OSU. He seemed very skeptical of claims of direct groundwater pollution from fracking but less so for contamination through old oil wells and such. He was relatively skeptical about industry claims of lack of toxicity from fracking agents – since they don’t give expected concentrations of anything, he said, it’s not possible to determine whether fracking chemicals are toxic at the levels used. (The industry arguments he sampled were somewhat specious – “there’s not much in there” and “these things are in lots of other stuff” seemed to be the kernel, with no real data on how much actually is in the water.) The water taken back out from fracking (though it generally doesn’t go anywhere on injection) is also pretty nasty – it’s high in salt and generally not good (he argued that OH’s policy of allowing reinjection of used fracking fluid might not be a good idea).

  4. Paul Says:

    @OLR: Hyphen deleted. Thanks!

  5. Tien Says:

    Just recently I was looking for information about fracking outside of the mainstream media and came across a really nice 2011 PNAS paper (http://bit.ly/10d53Of) by Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke. His lab took samples from private water wells close to the Marcellus shale formation and analyzed them by mass spec for methane and fracking fluids. They found higher levels of methane from wells closer to the gas wells but found no evidence of fracking fluids.

    Paul, you’ve brought up a good point that companies should have to disclose the composition of fracking fluids, because the researchers could only look for compounds they assume might be in the mix. Esp by MS, there is the potential for things to slip through the cracks if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Professor Jackon gives a really great talk, very balanced and informative so I think he’d be a great speaker on this subject.

  6. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I agree that fracking companies should have some mechanism for disclosing the ingredients in their mix since they directly impact the environment. From what I have read I feel positive about fracking on balance; natural gas is certainly cleaner than coal, fracking can allow us to export it and most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions are down 7% in the last few years largely due to fracking. As long as the ingredients are carefully controlled, I think fracking is good for the environment and the economy at least in the short term.

  7. cinnamaldehyde Says:

    Transparency. Not only should there be discussions of what, exactly, is being pumped into the environment and their associated safety studies, but there should be discussions about the ethics of doing so. I believe we’ve gotten much too far away from common sense when it comes to chemistry and the big picture. As industry big shots do a great job burying the safety concerns of the public (and legit health issues cropping up), and using spin and the media to derail the view of the big picture.

    I definitely want to hear about the molecules, and and their impact on other molecules (within the environment, including our habitat and our fellow earthlings), but I’d really like to see some serious discussions about the ethics of these risks being taken by fracking ops.

  8. Kevin Says:

    (+1 on the PNAS paper)

    I actually submitted an ACS PRF new directions proposal on trying to study components of fracking liquids. They are amazingly complex heterogeneous mixtures largely consisting of water, some emulsifier (usually guar, a polysaccharide), and a proppant material (usually sand). From the perspective of modern physical chemistry (i.e. ultrafast spectroscopy, etc.) I could find no real work published. As for the other components, they are listed on several websites, but, of course, not with amounts (http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used).

    I have been trying to find specific calls for proposals to do basic research on fracking fluids, and I can’t find any. Most of the research seems to be funded by the petroleum/gas companies.

    One aspect that is pretty interesting is that the water that comes back out (after making the cracks and leaving behind the sand to keep the cracks open) is very salty. Pressures of fracking liquids are about 100 MPa, so within reach of typical high pressure spectroscopy cells. Lots of work can be done on these things completely separate from the potential environmental impact, which, if you have ever seen a coal mine, we don’t really care about very much anyway, apparently.

  9. andre Says:

    Paul: I like your suggestions… in theory. Consider what it would take to “prove” that a water supply was contaminated by fracking. Right now, companies argue that changes to groundwater that occur at/near fracking sites are due to unrelated geological events. How does one tell the difference? How does one prove a cause and effect? As to the mixture being “safe”, wasn’t there some publicity stunt where CEOs and politicians drank a small amount of fracking fluid to demonstrate it’s safety? There are varying definitions of safety that are difficult to pin down. Consider the country’s relationship to things like asbestos.

    Disclosure is good, but I imagine the type of liability you talk about is a pipe dream (see: coal industry, entire). As long as natural gas is supplanting coal, even some environmental damage might be okay (mining is not without its own environmental concerns), but we should try to understand it. A study of industry fracking (by some non-industry party) that provides some level of immunity for current practices but could be used to develop regulation as we move forward might be useful.

    We are at the relative beginning of our use of fracking. What happens when we start to go after more difficult (deeper, more complicated geology, etc) stores of natural gas and start using more extreme methods? Fracking may be relatively safe now, but what happens as the technology evolves is important to stay ahead of.

  10. Nick Says:

    The components of the fracking fluid may be the least of our worries. While I was preparing for a cumulative exam on the subject, I found 2 articles that brought to light other aspects of the process that people are not considering. In the first article published in Nature (Nature 477, 271-275. (15 Sept 2011) which offered 2 opposing viewpoints on the question should fracking stop, Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea mention the disposal of the fracking fluids needs further scrutiny because they contain salts, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and radioactive isotopes. This waste water must be treated like other wastes we generate in the lab due to the concentration of the toxic components, yet the industry will only dispose of the waste water based on government regulations which are not designed to handle waste fracking fluids. The second article is from C&EN ( Johnson, J. C&EN. 90, 16, 2012. p 34-37). This article focuses on the leakage of methane into the atmosphere and its effect on enhancing global warming. The release of methane falls more into the realm of engineering as they develop and optimize a system that minimizes the release of methane from the well.

  11. steady teddy Says:

    Don Siegel at Syracuse University has spoken many times on this topic. He seems to favor hydrofracking. His website is at http://environmentalscience.syr.edu/siegelbio.html

  12. Virgil Says:

    On the same lines as Paul espouses, it would be a relatively simple matter to insert a “tracer” compound, presumably isotope based, into the fracturing fluid. Different one for each well, like a fingerprint. If it shows up in the drinking water, bingo there’s the source. If the companies are unwilling to do this, no deal.

    BTW a similar thing was proposed for doping years ago… A single amino acid substitution would allow distinction of real EPO from the genetically engineered stuff, but Roche had the better lawyers so it never happened, and look at the mess we have now.

  13. Lee Adama Says:

    Fracking is a lot of fun.

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