Frac fluid fears show capacity for inconsistency

Bob Tippee

Controversy over hydraulic fracturing fluids and their possible effect on drinking water demonstrates the boundless human capacity for inconsistency.

Although chances are low that injected frac fluid will find its way down anyone’s throat, fear persists in parts of the US about contamination of subsurface drinking water.

It persists despite the tens of thousands of frac jobs producers have performed over 60 years without fouling groundwater.

And it persists despite explanations about vertical separation between injection targets and freshwater aquifers, about mechanical controls that keep injectants from entering sensitive strata, and about regulations in place to ensure safe work.

A reason the fear persists is that people don’t know what’s in the small fraction of most frac fluid that isn’t sand and water. The ingredients, in many cases, are commercial secrets.

Companies compete on the basis of the performance of the frac fluids they sell or use—how well they carry proppant, transmit pressure, and clean out fractures, for example. The companies don’t want competitors to know what they put into the fluids to make them work as they do.

So an activity mysterious to people unfamiliar with it contains something unknown, which opponents of the activity spin into fear.

The fear is of tiny constituents of a fluid that probably never will come anywhere close to drinking water.

And it’s enough to threaten with federal regulation an operation essential to development of gas shales—and thus of a potentially enormous supply of clean, secure energy.

Yet Americans deliberately drink an average of 3,296 oz/year each of a liquid the formula for which is a notorious secret.

They drink it knowing full well, if they read labels, that each ounce delivers 12 calories, 3.3 g of sugar, and virtually no nutrition.

In other words, what people already know about this liquid should stir worry. And if reaction to frac fluid in the US Northeast followed a pattern for consummately reasonable behavior, what people don’t know about this other liquid’s “natural flavors” long ago would have inspired calls for federal regulation.

But people like how Coca-Cola tastes, so consistency doesn’t matter.

(Online Feb. 26, 2010; author’s e-mail:

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