Hydraulic fracturing, natural gas, shale oil and environmental concerns

As drilling technology improves, we are able to access new sources of natural gas and oil in shale formations. The U.S. has abundant resources of oil and natural gas in shale deposits. According to the U.S. Geological Survey the U.S. holds more than half of the world’s oil shale resources. The largest known deposits of oil shale are located in a 16,000-square mile area in the Green River formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The USGS’s most recent estimates (April, 2009) show the region may hold more than 1.5 trillion barrels of oil – six times Saudi Arabia’s proven resources, and enough to provide the United States with energy for the next 200 years. For a map of U.S. shale oil and natural gas deposits see here.


But there are environmental concerns. Most of those concerns are about possible contamination of groundwater from the drilling fluids. The Department of Energy has announced “Breakthrough Water Cleaning Technology Could Lessen Environmental Impacts from Shale Production.”

A private company, ABSMaterial, developed its Osorb® technology, which uses swelling silica material to remove impurities from the flow back water and produced water from hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells. Tests show that the silica removes “more than 99 percent of oil and grease, more than 90 percent of dissolved BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes), and significant amounts of production chemicals.” Testing has shown that total petroleum hydrocarbon levels in the water were slashed from 227 milligrams per liter to 0.1 milligrams per liter. The silica material “a hybrid organic-inorganic nano-engineered structure, is a breakthrough in hydrocarbon removal technology that rapidly swells up to eight times its dried volume upon exposure to non-polar liquids. The swelling process is completely reversible—with no loss in swelling behavior even after repeated use—when absorbed species are evaporated by heating the material.”

Still, some media hypes anti-energy propaganda. Typical is the headline from an April 10 story in the Arizona Daily Star which read: “Water wells show contamination near gas-drilling sites.”

The story mentions “potentially dangerous concentrations of methane gas in water from wells near drilling sites in northeastern Pennsylvania…” Methane is non-toxic but can produce a fire hazard if concentrated. The Star story says that researchers from Duke University did not find any trace of chemicals used in the hydro-fracturing process.

Upon further reading we find, “The authors admit they have no baseline data at all, which makes it impossible to characterize the state of those water wells prior to recent development.” So we don’t know if nearby drilling caused “contamination” or if the presence of methane there is a natural phenomenon. The headline does not match the story.

The Arizona Daily Star has so far not mentioned the water cleaning technology. Does the Star practice content bias?

Update from a reader:

The chemist who first discovered Osorb and its unique properties, Dr. Paul Edmiston, grew up in Tucson. He is an a graduate of Salpointe High School, went to college at Pepperdine in California and returned to the U of A for his PhD.  He is now at College of Wooster in Ohio, He and his partner, Steve Spoonamore, are the founders of ABSMaterials.


One comment

  1. Shale oil (i.e. the Bakken)  and oil shale (i.e. the Green River Formation in UT, CO, WY) are not at all the same resource, or even equivalent.  Current shale plays are exploitable with existing drilling technologies; oil shale is not.  Oil shale is neither shale nor oil–its an organic marlstone that contains Kerogen, an immature petroleum precursor.  It is in no way equivalent to the oil reserves of wither Saudi Arabia or the shale plays.

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