Drink fracturing fluid

From Wikimarcellus

Jump to: navigation, search

Shale Environmental Technology Review A weblog reviewing environmental technologies used in shale gas and oil exploration and production with special emphasis on applications in the northeastern U.S. « Back to posts

   Viewed times

December 4, 2011 Can you safely drink fracturing fluid?

Important Question: If something isn't hazardous, why try to make it any safer?

Filmmaker Josh Fox, in his documentary film, Gasland, famously asked then Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection head, John Hanger, to drink some frack-fluid-tainted-well water from a bottle brought along to the interview. Mr. Hanger respectfully declined.

Seemingly, to answer the question about the safety of drinking facturing fluid, Halliburton Co. CEO Dave Lesar, at a keynote luncheon speech in August, 2011, challenged one of his fellow executives to chug a glass of Halliburton's new 'green" fracturing fluid, known as CleanStim. It is made of materials sourced from the food industry. The executive at first feigned reluctance, but then proceeded to take a "healthy" swig of this concoction. His present condition is unknown, but presumably he is quite well. In any event, Halliburton has stated the product shouldn't be considered potable. (Kids, don't try this at home.)

Hydro-fracturing (aka hydraulic fracturing), or simply "fracking" as it is popularly referred to in the media, has become something of a pariah due to unfavorable publicity about it hyped by opponents of natural gas drilling, who often have been concerned about environmental risks of this technology, particularly to ground water and stream and river ways. As natural gas exploration of shale plays has grown, so has opposition to drilling on these environmental grounds.

Is hydro-fracturing polluting? The arguments are complex, both for and against. However, there can be little disagreement that the introduction of new technology in the form of so called green, biodegradable and non-toxic fluids can do little but alleviate at least some concerns of the critics, while removing at least a modicum of risk from the decision making of industry investors and executives regarding environmental issues, the cost of mitigating these concerns, and any ensuing unfavorable publicity.

There have been many reports, whether justified or exaggerated, of people living near well sites that have been sickened. The cause is something of a paradox, as drilling takes place thousands of feet below ground water reservoirs. Even highly toxic fracking fluids, at least in theory, should never come in contact with ground water. When it does occur, it may suggest a mechanical problem with the well, such as a casing that ruptureed under pressure.

Readers unfamiliar with the drilling industry often are confused by the different types of fluids that are in use on a natural-gas drilling site. There is drilling fluid that is used during the actual drilling process, and then there is "fracturing," or "completion fluid" that is used after a well is drilled and when it is hydro-fractured. Each of the two serve a completely different purpose.

Drilling fluid, also called drilling "mud," is a viscus solution that has the consistency and appearance of a chocolate milk shake. It lubricates the drill head as it bores down into the rock to drill the well. It also provides hydrostatic pressure to keep formation water out of the drill hole, and helps to transport the drill cuttings, broken rock, etc., away from the drill head while it cuts the hole.

In contrast, fracturing fluid is used as part of the hydro-fracturing process that takes place after drilling. Fracturing is considered to be a well-completion activity. After drilling, the well must be fracked in order for it to become productive. Hydro-fracturing is used in both oil and natural gas drilling. Fracturing fluid typically is made up almost entirely of water, with some sand and a proportionately small amount of chemicals.

Composition of fracking fluids (Source: U.S. Dept. of Energy)

In fact, fracturing that takes place in North American shales tends to use the simplest and least harmful of fracturing fluids compared to other types of drilling. Most shale wells use slickwater fracs that use chemicals to provide friction reduction. Biodegradable substitutions can be made for most of the contents used in slickwater fracs.

Drilling fluid or mud, has a very different composition, and frequently with a base of diesel or synthetic oil. It is only comparatively recently that field service companies such as Halliburton and BJ Services have started to provide more environmentally friendly water-based drilling fluids. In the fluids market, the biggest market segment is for drilling, and not fracturing.

How can you make a fracking fluid "greener"?

To become greener, all of the hydrocarbons need to be removed from the fluid, and it should become water-based. It needs to incorporate biodegradable and non-bio-accumulating substances such as guars and starch-based chemicals. Starches and organic polymers grow naturally. Synthetic polymers are not biodegradable. Biocides also need to be made non-toxic. Organic polymers that are frequently found in the food products we eat should not be cause for any concern.

A few companies active in the "green" completion fluid market include:

Baker Hughes In 2011, the company launched its BJ SmartCare family of "environmentally preferred" fracturing fluids and additives. Their products have been qualified in four different fracturing systems: slickwater, linear gel, crosslinked, and viscoelastic. Their fluid is made up of substances commonly used in such household products as toothpaste and condiments.

Flowtek Industries, Inc. This company specializes, among other things, in complex nano-fluids (microemulsifiers). These are considered to be environmentally friendly, and are picking up industry interest. Flowtek states that these fluids also enhance production and improve reservoir integrity. They have also been getting positive results with slickwater fracs. The company has been testing its fluids in the Barnett Shale and Green River Basin and claims good results there. Its biodegradable chemicals utilize citrus products.

Halliburton Co. The company markets CleanStim, the aforementioned cocktail downed by the Halliburton executive, It contains enzyme, exthoxylated-sugar-based-fatty-acid ester, inorganic and organic acids, inorganic salt, maltodextrin, organic ester, partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysaccharide polymer, and sulfonated alcohol. These chemicals evidently are environmentally-friendly enough for a human to drink, yet naturally not exactly recommended for that purpose.

Trican Well Services This Calgary, Alberta-based company does "microtox" testing, which is very stringent. If a fluid passes, you can drink it, and they have fluids like that. The company markets a high-performance-slickwater fracturing fluid and additives that are non-toxic, biodegradable, and non-bioaccumulative. Trican also states that the product helps reduce formation damage and contamination risks.


The question remains open whether it is safe for humans to drink fracturing fluid, even the newer, greener ones. To a large extent it seems a battle of perceptions. Those who oppose development of natural gas shale resources portray fracturing fluid as harmful and scary. Proponents of development often trivialize any dangers. Should congress decide to regulate the chemical contents of fracturing fluids, whether it is necessary or not, those companies with the best portfolios of green fracturing fluids stand to benefit from any such legislation.


"Environmentally Friendly Exploration and Production" by The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), Texas A&M University and TerraPlatforms, L.L.C., Accessed November 4, 2011.

Schaefer, Keith. 'Industry Insider Explains "Green" Fracking Technology', Self Directed Investor, Accessed November 4, 2011.

Tsai, Catherine, "Halliburton Executive Drinks Fracking Fluid At Conference", The Huffington Post, August 22, 2011, Accessed November 4, 2011,

Estes, Brent, "Technoogy Focus: Drilling and Completion Fluids', (PDF) The Journal of Petroleum Technology, November, 2009, pp. 62-71, online version accessed November 4, 2011.

   0 responses
Personal tools