Wyoming Commission Considers Hydraulic Fracturing Rules

Published June 14, 2010

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has approved new regulations on the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. The new regulations are raising the hackles of industries employing the technique, as they’re concerned the new rules will require them to divulge proprietary industry formulas.

Longstanding Production Technique
Employed for the past 60 years, hydraulic fracturing—also called “fracking”—uses a pressurized blend of fresh water, sand, and trace amounts of anti-friction chemicals to create cracks in underground rock formations to allow natural gas to rise to the surface. Recent advances in fracking technology have spurred a boom in natural gas production.

Environmental activists claim the trace amounts of anti-friction chemicals may end up polluting the water table, however. Industry analysts respond  by noting the induced fractures are generally several thousand feet underground and do not extend anywhere near surface or ground water zones.

Proven Safety Record
Formulas used for fracking sometimes include diesel fuel, which could introduce benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, collectively known as BTEX compounds, into underground passages. BTEXs are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A 2004 study by EPA found fracking posed little or no harm to drinking water.

A 2009 U. S. Department of Energy study agreed, reporting, “The unrecovered treatment fluids are typically trapped in the fractured formation via various mechanisms such as pore storage and stranding behind healed fractures; thus isolating them from ground water.”

The Ground Water Protection Council—a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of U.S. ground water, made up of state ground water regulatory agencies that oversee hydraulic fracturing technologies and applications—reports no cases of ground water contamination linked to hydraulic fracturing technology.

‘Environmental Saver’
The continuing availability of hydraulic fracturing is key to future U.S. energy production, according to Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, a Washington-based organization of independent energy producers. “Hydraulic fracturing enables us to extract 10 times the energy with one-tenth the number of wells,” Tucker said.

Tucker explained fracking allows the placement of just one well on a 1000-acre site that once would have required 50 wells. “It’s an environmental saver, if anything,” he said.

Governor Proceeds Cautiously
Despite these fracking benefits, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC) exercised an added degree of caution at the behest of Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal (D).

“We needed to bring our rules up to speed,” WOGCC supervisor Thomas Doll said. “The original rules were done in the ’50s and ’60s, and we haven’t revisited them since.”

Doll said the commission had considered leaving the current rules unchanged, but is reconsidering fracking rules at Freudenthal’s request.

“The governor added hydraulic fracturing because it wasn’t delineated in specific detail on how it might impact shallow water supply wells. In order to ensure proper well integrity we addressed in our rules the chemicals injected in wells, which typically don’t cause negative impacts, but we don’t know where it goes,” Doll explained.

Already Highly Regulated
“Fracture stimulation—or hydraulic fracturing—technology has been highly regulated and safely used across the oil and gas industry for 60 years in more than one million wells in the United States,” notes Cathy Mann, director of corporate affairs for the Halliburton oil and gas services company. “Basic elements—sand, water, and pressure—are used to create fractures in the well stimulation process. In fact, sand and water make up more than 99 percent of the fracturing fluids used today.

“The remaining portion involves complex chemistry, much of which has been created through Halliburton’s research and development efforts, and which is managed in accordance with proper industry and governmental procedures,” Mann continued. “We continue to proactively work closely with local, state, and federal agencies regarding necessary disclosures of our products. A recent example of this is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s industry ruling in 2008, which allows for an agency’s right to know in certain circumstances and the industry’s ability to protect its proprietary information,” she said.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a Michigan-based writer and publisher of the Mackinac Center’s MichiganScience magazine.