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Know the West

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.