WHEELING - Most natural gas companies note that between 98 and 99 percent of the 5 million gallons of fluid used to hydraulically fracture a Marcellus Shale natural gas well consists of water and sand.
However, what concerns some residents - and even state agencies - when it comes to the fracking process are the chemicals that make up that remaining 1 to 2 percent of the mixture.
Think of it this way: if 1.5 percent of a fracking mixture is something other than water and sand, then 75,000 gallons of chemicals found in products such as antifreeze, laundry detergent and deodorant are being pumped deep into the ground. Some are concerned that these chemicals will contaminate the water supply, while the natural gas companies say each of the chemicals has a role in ensuring the fracking process goes as planned.
According to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, "hydraulic fracturing has been effectively used to safely stimulate job-creating domestic energy resources over 1.1 million times."
A typical Marcellus Shale well can be fracked numerous times during its production life. The wells travel thousands of feet into the earth before turning horizontally to reach gas pockets. After the wells are drilled and the protective casing put in place, the fracking process begins.
Petroleum services titan the Halliburton Co. pioneered the fracking process in 1947, and company officials note the firm has performed work in both West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
In fact, fracking has been a common occurrence in Wetzel and Tyler counties for years - with no reported incidents of groundwater contamination.
According to Halliburton, 98.47 percent of the material its workers use for fracking consists of water and sand, leaving just 1.53 percent for other materials. Some of the chemicals found in Halliburton's fluid mixture include formaldehyde, ammonium chloride, acetic anhydride, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and propargyl alcohol.
Halliburton officials note that almost 90 percent of onshore gas wells require fracking. The company notes the fracking technique "starts with a good bit of water and a lot of sand. Mix those two together, apply a couple thousand pounds of pressure, and introduce them to a reservoir several thousand feet below (ground), often with the help of a small percentage of additives that aid in delivering that solution down the hatch."
Halliburton notes that the force of the water being pumped into the earth - which can be as high as 10,000 pounds per square inch - creates tiny fissures in the Marcellus Shale formation. The sand portion of the mixture then flows into these fissures and keeps them open. This creates pathways for the previously trapped natural gas to escape. The entire fracking process takes, on average, three to 10 days to complete.
The role of chemicals in the fracking process varies. According to Chesapeake Energy, which says its most common fracking solution contains 0.5 percent worth of chemicals, the chemicals and their roles in the process include:
However, not every company uses the same fracking formula, emphasized Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Jamie Legenos. She said her agency maintains a list of every chemical ever used by a company that has performed fracking in the Keystone State.
In addition to the materials used by Chesapeake, some of the 85 fracking chemicals listed by the Pennsylvania DEP are xylene, toluene and tetramethylammonium chloride - chemicals that can lead, with prolonged exposure, to liver damage in humans and can even be fatal.
None of these chemicals appear to be used in fracking in West Virginia.
Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Travis Windle said of the fracking formulations, "The small amount of other additives, used to kill bacteria and reduce friction, are all listed on the (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's) website. This long and clear record of environmental safety is testament to the common-sense regulations in place coupled with the industry's unwavering commitment to protect the environment."
Much of the concern with fracking is that the chemicals are being pumped underground, and that they could contaminate the water supply. Drilling companies contend that they take adequate safety precautions to ensure that doesn't happen, and note that the aquifer is at about 1,200 feet below the Earth's surface while fracking takes place a minimum of 5,000 feet below that 1,200-foot depth.
Chesapeake, for example, notes workers install the following layers of protection in each well to prevent chemical leaks:
To date, it appears that most problems encountered with drilling seem to come from inadequate casing during the initial phases of the operation.
Ken Weir, spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based group marcellusprotest.org, advised residents to look at the full picture when considering any drilling proposal.
"If they tell me, 'If we don't drill this hole here, you won't have any heat in your house next year,' that is ridiculous," he said.
"With all the problems (coal) mining has caused in this area, are we willing to repeat that for a dollar bill?" Weir added.