Looking at another soft-focus fracking story from the gas patch
The Fort Collins Coloradoan published a “fracking fluid 101” story on Sunday. It’s the latest addition to a wide-eyed soft genre of Colorado gas-patch newspaper stories that surely paints smiles on the faces of drilling industry executives in Denver.
Reporter Sarah Jane Kyle told me she wrote the story in response to local long-running concerns about fracking fluid and concerns raising in the wake of news drilling operations are set to begin near an elementary school in the city.
“I was just trying to bring a rational voice to the topic,” she said, adding that information can be biased on all sides of the issue. “I guess, yes, I was trying to respond to those kinds of fears, which I think are often based on misconceptions.”
In college town Fort Collins, there are misconceptions and fears and tensions around drilling — and for good reason.
Voters in the city passed a moratorium on fracking in 2013. They wanted to pause boom-time drilling for five years in order to commission health studies, but the drilling industry sued and the ban was overturned by a county court. Now the industry seems determined not to let the residents get the upper hand again. In the last few weeks, oil-and-gas groups spent tens of thousands of dollars to promote and place preferred candidates in key spots on the city council.
“Analysis: What’s in Larimer County fracking fluid,” reads the headline on Kyle’s story. But she doesn’t fully report the makeup of fracking fluid, because she encountered the same roadblock that has met reporters and activists and concerned residents for years.
She acknowledges that fact, albeit in a roundabout way: “State regulations require full disclosure of fracking ingredients, with an exception for trade secrets.”
In other words, the trade secret exemption means there is no real “full disclosure” about the chemicals being used in the rough 53,400 wells being fracked in Colorado today.
Kyle takes a similar roundabout way to convey other key information in the story.
“Missing from 80 percent of Larimer Country fracking jobs was an oft-cited cause for health and safety concerns: benzene, a known carcinogenic,” she writes. “The chemical was also absent in nearly 40 percent of reported fracks in Weld County this year….
“Chemicals make up less than 1 percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid, which is approximately 90 percent water (or anywhere from 3 to 7 million gallons) and 9 percent sand (or anywhere from 2 to 5 million pounds).”
As readers of the story are pointing out online, that’s a funny way to structure those sentences.
“Isn’t it a more direct and far less passive way to state the fact to say that over half, or 60 percent, of fracking jobs in Weld County included benezene a highly toxic and known carcinogen?” wrote Pete Kolbenschlag.
Yes it is. Another way of reporting that information is to say benzene was present in 20 percent of Larimer County frack jobs and at least 60 percent of Weld County jobs. That’s a large percentage, not a small percentage. It means 40 percent of all frack jobs in the two counties use benzene.
Kyle said it was hard to pin down an accurate average percentage of the chemicals in fracking fluid. But, if we go with 1 percent, it would mean that in each 7 million-gallon frack job, 70,000 gallons of chemicals are shot into the ground — 70,000 gallons that the industry has worked to avoid having to mark with identifier chemical tags so that the path the chemicals take through the earth can be traced by health officials.
For reference, a small hotel swimming pool — 40 feet by 20 feet and 15 feet deep at the diving end — holds 60,000 gallons of water. That’s “less than 1 percent” of 7 millions gallons, or the rough amount of chemicals used in a single frack job in Colorado, according to the article — a swimming pool’s worth of chemicals.
Again, there are thousands of wells being fracked in Larimer and Weld counties around Fort Collins.
Kyle quotes Ken Carlson, professor of environmental engineering at Colorado State University, who warns readers that “there’s no question about it: Frack fluid is hazardous.”
But it’s not just the fluid being shot down into the wells that has been a concern. Frack fluid returns to the surface as so-called produced water, which is contaminated with deep-earth mineral toxins, including uranium. Produced water is not only toxic, it’s often radioactive. There is no way to filter or clean up or ever make that water useable again. And until recently, it often had been stored in open pits lined with plastic, hundreds of thousands of gallons worth of produced water. A more popular alternative now is to recycle it for additional frack jobs or to “inject” it into deep wells, a practice that also happens to cause earthquakes — another concern for many residents of the area.
“Water is injected through a steel pipe that’s reinforced to prevent leaks,” reports Kyle. She left off the part about how cementing around the pipe for reinforcement is a big problem, because it is sometimes botched, which leads to leaks that are difficult to contain and clean up.
It’s worth noting that concerns around “urban fracking” don’t only have to do with fracking fluid. Major concerns have to do with the air and noise pollution generated at drilling sites. It has traditionally taken a team of semi-trailer trucks running their engines together to provide the power to inject fracking fluid down into wells fast enough to crack rock and release oil and gas. Sometimes it takes up to twelve trucks running their engines for long hours.
A little more than a year ago, the Greeley Tribune published a primer article written by reporter Sharon Dunn. It was sourced entirely with industry representatives, including oil and gas company CEOs, and it includes palliative quotes and observations like these about fracking fluid:
“You put a lot worse stuff in your food, your yard, or your garden. A lot of the chemicals are used to clean your counters, and put in your make-up,” said [a drilling company CEO],” writes Dunn.
“Many involved in the process describe frac fluid as ‘slime,’ like the stuff kids play with from the local toy store.”
Full disclosure, reinforced steel pipes, food, gardens, kids, toy stores. Why all the concern?
*Correction: The original version of this article reported that Sarah Kyle said it was “hard to pin industry reps down when asking for an accurate average percentage of the chemicals in fracking fluid.” She didn’t say that. She said it was simply hard to pin down the percentage of the chemicals and that CSU Prof. Ken Carlson agreed it was difficult. She said industry reps were very helpful throughout the reporting for the story.
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