BISMARCK, N.D. — The curtain is finally being opened on what’s being injected into the ground when oil companies fracture-treat wells in the Bakken and associated formations.
Some companies make that information available on a nationally used website called “FracFocus,” detailing how much water, sand and which chemicals go into each well they’re drilling.
For now, companies like XTO Energy, ExxonMobil and a few others voluntarily make the disclosure on North Dakota wells because it’s good business practice.
“We believe this is an excellent step forward,” said XTOExxon spokesman Jeff Neu. “Our intention is to provide the public ... objective information on hydraulic fracturing.”
Under a new rule proposed by the Department of Mineral Resources, disclosure on the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry by all companies for all wells would be required starting in April. The State Industrial Commission will decide whether to adopt the rule at its Dec. 20 meeting.
In the meantime, some oil companies are already seeing to it that North Dakotans have information about what’s going into those very deep, high-pressure injections that crack open dense rock so the light sweet crude can be pumped to the surface.
The website is a joint project of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which started it eight months ago to give companies a consistent and available format for disclosing what’s in the fracking mix.
Mike Nickolaus, who manages the Chemical Disclosure Registry, said the response has been a surprise.
“We had no concept how big this was going to be. We have 7,000 wells registered now, and we’re planning some updates to make it easier and more accurate,” Nickolaus said.
Some states like Montana and Louisiana require fracking disclosure. Others, like North Dakota and Texas, are moving in that direction, he said.
The site is already easy to use, and anyone with a computer can look up individual wells by county, pull up a spreadsheet and see how much water by gallons and how much sand and specific chemicals by percent of the total were injected. In general terms, fracking consists of about 97 percent water — anywhere from 2 million to 5 million gallons per well — and sand, and 3 percent chemicals that hold the sand or ceramic beads in suspension, release the suspension and prevent scaling on the well pipe.
It might help to have a calculator and a high school chemistry book nearby.
The registry also shows the depth of the well where fracking occurs, generally 10,000 feet, or two miles down, at least 8,000 feet below groundwater in North Dakota. In some instances, companies will list a chemical description like “oxyalkylated alkyl alcohol” but withhold its precise characteristics as proprietary information.
That’s allowed under federal trade secret rules that help companies protect themselves against competitive poaching, Nickolaus said.
“The chemical is there, just not the specific one they use,” he said.
Eventually, he said he’d like to see disclosure become a standard for all wells in all states with fewer proprietary exemptions.
While some might think the “devil is in the proprietary information,” Nickolaus said almost all of it is some form of petroleum, a “hydrocarbon just like everything else in the well.”
ConocoPhillips spokesman Davy Kong said his company is voluntarily disclosing its North Dakota wells on the registry as a way to be open with state and federal regulators and communities.
“ConocoPhillips supports disclosure of the chemical ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing fluids in a way that informs the public and protects proprietary industry information,” Kong said.
Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, has not been an advocate of fracking disclosure and still isn’t, even though he’s proposing the new disclosure rule for North Dakota.
“I still feel it’s not necessary, but people seem to want it, so we’re willing to do it and the industry is willing to do it,” Helms said. “I don’t see how that information will be useful to the general public.”
He said the most important aspect in fracking safety is in well construction, now requiring four layers of pipe steel and concrete, with yet a fifth layer proposed for State Industrial Commission action sometime in December.
“That’s the right place is getting that (fracking) failure rate as close to zero as possible,” Helms said.
Nickolaus said he isn’t worried about groundwater contamination from fracking.
“There’s no pathway to get back up. If it caused groundwater contamination, we would have had thousands and thousands of cases by now,” he said.
Helms said he has yet to see results from a micro-seismic operation that show frac fluid getting out of the target formation, 10,000 feet below the surface.
“They all show that frack fluid staying within 1,000 feet (of the horizontal well bore where fracking takes place). There are multiple layers of salts that seal off those deep zones. Nothing migrates through those,” Helms said.