New tech to trace fracking fluid could mean more accountability


As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comes under fire for abandoning studies that linked contaminated water to hydraulic fracturing, and oil and gas companies consider how to fix their public image around the issue, states are trying to figure out how much transparency to demand from the industry. Meanwhile, researchers are racing to find the most effective tracer to mix with fracking fluid that could dramatically change how the industry works.

This fall, a company founded by scientists from Rice University in Houston will conduct a field test of a tracer made with what chemistry and materials science professor Andrew Barron believes is the key ingredient to success: nano rust. Barron and other researchers hope this tracer will settle once and for all whether oil and gas companies are damaging drinking water, and, in the event of contamination, allow communities to determine who – or what – is at fault.

A hydraulic fracturing site near Platteville, Colorado.

“People (with contaminated wells) usually say (I know it was fracking) ‘because I’ve got methane in my water,’” Barron said. “(But) it’s difficult to discern whether it’s from one source or another.” With new tracer technology to help narrow it down, “It may turn out it was Halliburton that contaminated your water, and in another case, it may turn out it’s the municipal dump that’s dumping into a stream that has groundwater close to it.”

For their field test, Barron’s company will mix nano rust particles into at least two million gallons of fracking fluid before pumping it into the ground for hydraulic fracturing (a process that uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to break up rock and release gas underground). Texas-based Southwestern Energy will host the testing at one of its wells and has also funded some of Barron’s tracer research. When asked if that’s a conflict of interest, Barron asks where else he might be able to test his technology in the field. “It’s not going to be the EPA (to fund us). And I haven’t noticed Matt Damon giving me a research check recently,” he jests, referring to the actor-screenwriter whose so-so 2012 film Promised Land made Damon a target for industry criticism. Barron, and hist company, FracEnsure, anticipate they may publish results from the field test in a Society of Petroleum Engineers journal.

Tracers that can already be used in fracking fluid today usually either dilute too quickly or rely on radioactive material, which isn’t a great way to test for contaminated water without contaminating it in the process. Barron says his nano rust solution is harmless, detectable at low concentrations and also lasts at least several weeks, and possibly more, making it easier to detect a slow-moving problem.

Depending on the results, Barron hopes to have the nano rust tracer on the market within a year. He and his colleagues launched FracEnsure in 2011 to use the nano rust product to provide a service for companies, state governments or individuals, in which they test water for contamination upon request. As far as costs go, that will depend on the market. “It’s not the dollar amount; it’s what percentage of the total cost of the well it is. We’re aiming that (the price for our tracer) should be far less than 10 percent of (the cost of) the chemicals" that the drilling company is already using.

A second tracer company, BaceTrace, which popped up last year, is FracEnsure’s biggest competition so far. BaceTrace began as a research project out of Duke University, with grant money from the school, and also hopes to complete a field test before the end of the year. When CEO Justine Chow combined her biology undergraduate work with her curiosity to find a fracking fluid tracer during her graduate work, she came up with what she says may be the perfect solution: artificial deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Just a thimbleful amount is needed for 7 million gallons, or 11 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of fracking fluid.

BaceTrace Chief Technology Officer Jake Rudulph holds a small amount of DNA tracer. Photo by Jake Rudulph.

Each tracer is a unique sequence, and each well will be assigned its own tracer, which allows a precise accounting of where the contamination came from. If a tracer assigned to well A shows up in an aquifer, that’s evidence that that well or a fracture in the rock linked to it is connected to that aquifer. If multiple DNA-based tracers come up in one sample of flowback water, or one aquifer, that means there’s an underground connection in the fractures between the wells in which the injection fluid for each gets mixed.

“It would be interesting for the company to know that,” Chow says. “They’d probably be more productive if they didn’t spread fractures out so far.” The Duke team has already had several oil and gas companies express interest in the DNA tracer when it’s available. This interest raises the question: If these tracers have the potential to show that a project  is contaminating a community’s drinking water, then why are these companies chomping at the bit to try it out?

“This technology is another way for our industry to add a level of transparency to what we do and gain the public’s trust,” Christina Fowler, a spokesperson for Southwestern Energy writes in an email. Where lawsuits arise over contamination, the tracers will help plaintiffs support claims that their water has in fact been contaminated by local oil and gas development as opposed to other causes, and on the flip side, would help defendants – which Southwestern has been in the past on this issue – prove they’re not the source of the pollution, Fowler says.

In line with improving public trust, the new technology could help regulators sidestep trying to require companies to give away the specific ingredients in their fracking fluid, which the industry often regards as proprietary information. There’s a chance company leaders may be more willing to let an outside party trace their fluid than they are to give away their specific formula for fracking fluid. Yet whether these new technologies will ultimately be useful in holding the oil and gas industry to a higher standard of accountability hinges on whether tracer tests have adequate safeguards to ensure companies do not manipulate results.

Both FracEnsure and BaceTrace are working out the kinks and considering applications outside the oil and gas industry. It takes a couple of days to test water samples in a lab to determine whether they contain a tracer, Chow says; she’s hoping to develop the technology to be instantaneously detectable in the field. And water management and the agriculture industry might also benefit from a reliable tracer technology, in order to better understand how various water sources interact underground.

“If the general public and the states have the information, then you can make a decision,” about whether to continue or begin drilling in certain locations, Barron said. “Irrespective of which direction you come from, the information is important.”

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. Follow her on Twitter @taywiles. Platteville, Colorado photo from Mark Udall Flickr.

Mauri Pelto
Mauri Pelto
Aug 23, 2013 09:03 AM
The Duke University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences already made findings of widespread methane in drinking water wells that has deep source. The that nano rust may certainly be helpful in further validating the potential of fracking fluid migration, but does not address the methane as well. "They found high levels of leaked methane in well water near the drilling and fracking sites. The team analyzed water samples from 68 private shallow groundwater wells across five counties in the two states.

Some homeowners claim they can’t drink their well water any longer and say it wasn’t that way before the fracking began.

The team’s study detected measurable amounts of methane in 85 percent of the collected samples, and levels were 17 times higher on average in wells located within a kilometer of active hydrofracking sites, says geologist Stephen Osborn, a former postdoctoral research associate with Jackson and Vengosh at the Nicholas School and Duke’s Center on Global Change, who was lead author of the study. (Osborn joined the faculty at California Polytechnic State University this summer.)

Tests showed that the methane collected from water wells within a kilometer of active sites had a chemical fingerprint similar to thermogenic methane, which is formed at high temperatures deep underground and is captured in gas wells.

No evidence, however, was found to support two of the most widespread public fears about fracking. Water samples showed no sign of contamination from chemical-laden fracking fluids, which are injected into gas wells to help break up shale deposits, nor did the samples contain “produced water,” the high-saline wastewater that is extracted back out of the wells with the gas after the shale has been fractured.

Thus, the issue was methane not the fracking fluids in the Marcellus.[…]/in-the-midst-of-a-fracking-firestorm
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 25, 2013 06:44 AM
Thanks for the link Mauri, however I disagree with your conclusion ("the issue was not fracking fluids") which is accurate only in the narrowest sense. Methane migration is certainly a problem with drilling, but not the only problem with drilling.

For every well fracked, there are millions of gallons of water contaminated with tons of toxic chemicals. That is an inescapable fact of fracking. That water is somewhere, and all of it must be dealt with sooner or later.

Some of it comes back up to the surface; some of it stays down underground (for the time being perhaps). But all of it - millions of gallons per well - is undeniably contaminated. The water that comes up, also picks up all sorts of naturally-occurring nasties from deep underground, along with the toxic chemicals introduced to frack.

As the article in your link states, the water cannot be effectively treated to decontaminate it, so it is simply re-injected in all of its toxicity back into yet another well deep underground somewhere else.

It takes an incredible amount of eyes-pressed-shut denial to feel comfortable knowing that billions of gallons of highly contaminated water is being injected deep underground in shale wells and waste injection wells - under the ridiculous hope that out of sight is out of mind, and that deep injection means permanent safe disposal.

This is akin to the radioactive waste problem of the nuclear power industry. It is fracking's Yucca Mountain problem. The inescapable reality of the industry is it creates massive volumes of permanently contaminated water; and there is simply no truly safe way to render it harmless, so all we can hope to do it bury it somewhere dark and hope it stays there.

Contaminating billions of gallons of water with introduced toxic chemicals along with released natural toxic substances is prima facie reckless, no matter how deep we stick it in the ground.

While I am skeptical of the independence of the makers of the tracing technology, it is perhaps a step in the right direction - acknowledging that all that contaminated water might go somewhere it isn't supposed to go, and that they are ways to try and track it.

Yet it blurs over an important fact we already know: the water is contaminated, and much of it comes back up to the surface, and even if the rest of it stays down underground, at least in the short term, what makes that okay?
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Aug 27, 2013 02:21 PM
Yes we are addicts, oil , fossil fuels, not only for our needs, but also for export, which compounds the problem. Much like any other addiction, heroine , we will not stop, not being able to drive our car , or heat our house , or power our electric gadgets and devices, even if it was Positively proven fracking or burning coal or whatever was killing us, animals and the planet we would not stop or quit.
Vincent Stewart
Vincent Stewart
Aug 27, 2013 02:23 PM
I think both of the previous comments are spot on. I spent my summers in college testing private wells for contamination but it was limited to looking for thermogenic methane as a possible indication of frac-induced contamination and it was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, yet the most glaring issues were the ancillary impacts. Surface disturbance, water use, waste water storage (open and unlined pits), waste disposal etc. The reason technology like this is so easily embraced by the industry is that they will now be able to soothe public concerns about a relatively minor issue partially hiding other more widespread impacts.
Of the thousands of wells I was part of sampling, we never found frac-related groundwater contamination, yet every single well drilled produced thousands of gallons of under-regulated waste (they get hazardous waste exemptions) and permanently disrupted acres of primarily public land.
Peter Bergel
Peter Bergel
Aug 27, 2013 03:02 PM
Promising though this technology is in terms of bringing greater accountability to the world of fracking,it is the very extraction of more fossil fuels that has to be stopped. We already know that burning more than about a fifth of the fossil fuels we already know about would create unacceptable levels of global warming. Most of it, therefore, will have to be left in the ground if we want to survive as a species.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Aug 27, 2013 04:10 PM
It is never said or spoken, or written. The cause of all we worry about. Which is the most frustrating concern. How will society ever fix the real problem , if we can not talk about it or Acknowledge it? It is us, to many of us, and that seems just to Disconcerting to come to grasps about. It is logical to understand that there are limits, yet we do not address this with people. When I was born there were two Billion people , now there are seven billion, there are now seven billion, how can this continue? Why can we not say that you should not have more then one or two kids? What number , could the earth Sustain living as we do now? One billion? The forests could absorb all our co2.that would be our Sustainable number.i worry our Economic model does not even take this into consideration . Based on On unending growth. Now china is even thinking of ending their one child policy, because the economic model Doesn't work with only having one child, even though the more environmental one does, and Ultimately means whether we survive long term.