You can find lots of horror stories about fracking, whether it’s well water catching fire, radiation in stream beds or dangerous air pollution.
On the other hand, industry representatives say properly operated and regulated fracking operations pose little threat to the water table, the environment or human health.
So where does the truth lie? Will fracking for helium in and around Petrified Forest National Park pose a risk to residents? Turns out — even if you talk to the experts, you’ll get different answers.
The Roundup recently interviewed two respected experts on fracking who have done research on the sometimes disastrous impacts of fracking for oil and gas in Pennsylvania. But Kristine Uhlman and Kirk Jalbert came away with two different opinions on the likely impact of fracking around Holbrook.
Uhlman is a research scientist specializing in ground water issues. She retired from the University of Arizona, but is contracted with the University of Texas to continue research. Overall, she suspects helium fracking operations in the Holbrook area will pose only modest risks to the water table and human health.
She cut her research chops in Pennsylvania gathering information on the effects of deep fracking for oil in the shale. “My work in the beginning was to investigate and research fracking in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I was doing all the contact with the public to obtain samples on domestic wells.”
She said she went to the man who set fire to his water. “Parker County, was where the fellow — you may have seen on TV setting fire to his well — was one of the locations that I worked to get samples of his well water,” she said.
“Most of the problems back then were tied to Pennsylvania where the unregulated activity of pouring water into streams and rivers ... screwed up the water supply and got international headlines,” which resulted in regulations. “The rules and regulations (say) you cannot dispose into streams and rivers,” said Uhlman.
Researcher has doubts
On the other hand, Jalbert also worked in Pennsylvania, but came at fracking from a very different angle.
“My area of expertise is in researching how the public comes to understand oil and gas extraction issues, and how communities build the capacity to engage with energy extraction threats through engagements in policy, science, and activism,” he said. “These are topics I have researched for almost 10 years now, from how citizen science groups have dealt with watershed contamination issues, to how communities obtain data on mineral rights leasing to proactively managing zoning, to how large networks of concerned citizens mobilize around oil and gas pipelines to conduct independent risk analysis.”
Jalbert now works at Arizona State University in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and in the School of Computing, Informatics and Systems Engineering.
Both experts have absorbed studies on fracking.
Both experts have looked into the consequences of fracking. But when it comes to the Holbrook Basin helium fracking issue, the two diverge.
Will helium need fracking?
According to research Jalbert has done, the most likely way for companies to extract helium from the Holbrook Basin area will be through a process called acid fracturing.
“Based on documents obtained from ADEQ, AZ OGCC, and various industry reports, to the best of my knowledge, companies will use a process called acid fracturing, which uses a technology called hydra-jet stimulation to hollow out the formation in various directions, essentially creating an open chamber for gas to flow up to the surface,” said Jalbert.
He said unlike the process to remove oil from shale 6,000 to 12,000 feet below ground, the helium in the Holbrook Basin is “scattered in the Coconino and Shinarump sandstone formation, as well as the Supai sandstone and limestone formation.”
“These are roughly 700 to 1,400 feet deep, much softer and porous formations,” he said.
Jalbert said since the early 1950s, industry used water and hydrochloric acid to extract helium. Now industry adds perhaps 200 other chemicals.
“However, the process has become much more industrialized, now using various foams, muds, and other fluids that make for more effective hollowing out of formations and keeping them open,” he said.
“The applicable chemicals are highly toxic to humans and environment,” he said.
Yet Uhlman said the company proposing to do the fracking for helium, won’t need to use the fracking technique to remove the helium. “... the company proposing to do the helium production does not need to frack, and will not frack the wells,” she said. “David Newlin spoke with them directly.”
Newlin works with the Little Colorado River Plateau RC&D.
He lives near the Holbrook Basin and invited Uhlman to speak to a group of concerned citizens, including the No Fracking AZ folks. “When you remove gas, fewer fluids are needed,” she said. “We don’t know the extent, until they drill with their exploratory holes.”
Less damage than oil
In her years of research, however, Uhlman said helium fracking produces less damage than oil fracking. “I do know there is less of an issue dealing with gas, such as helium, than with big oil wells,” she said. “There needs to be science done to quantify the benefit and the risk.”
Uhlman did say that the transport of the product definitely causes more damage. “When we were in Texas, I was following very closely the individuals suing companies for doing environmental harm,” said Uhlman. “There were only two cases.”
She said the first one had to do with the damage done by the trucks on the road. She said the second suit had to do with air quality. “The second thing litigated was based on air pollution from the trucks on the road,” said Uhlman. “Whenever you have heavy industrial activity in a rural area, the No. 1 damage is to the road and exhaust — as well as the inevitable accidents.”
The experts disagree
Is helium fracking dangerous to aquifers and humans?
Jalbert believes yes, and Uhlman says it’s more complicated than that.
Uhlman said in her experience, the problems citizens hear about fracking have more to them than just the surface story.
Uhlman had to deal with that when a young researcher, dissatisfied with the project’s research, went out to perform his own research. He came back with the discovery that fracking put arsenic in the water table. But Uhlman said the area had just suffered a drought. “What happens when you are in a drought and the groundwater table drops — it allows oxygen into the aquifer,” she said. “The oxygen changes the chemicals in the well. It mobilizes arsenic.”
She said Northern Arizona University discovered this phenomenon.
“The first research that discovered that was at NAU when there was the death of a number of horses in Prescott,” said Uhlman. “When they did the autopsy, those horses were poisoned by arsenic.”
Despite all this information, the young researcher didn’t believe Uhlman and her fellow researchers and called a reporter. That story went out and remains in the minds of citizens to this day, said Uhlman.
Effect on water table
“Helium pockets are located at nearly the exact same depths as these aquifers,” Jalbert said. “Given that only a portion of what goes down the well comes up, and given that we know accidents are a given in this industry, residents have good reason to be concerned.”
Jalbert said the aquifers also affect the Little Colorado watershed, spreading the potential for risk farther afield. “It is worth noting that a number of California communities have restricted vertical acid-fracking because of concerns for shallow groundwater contamination.” As for the overall effect of helium fracking on the community, Jalbert sees many problems.
“There are only a few helium processing facilities in the region, so we are also likely to see the build out of a larger infrastructure to support the industry if it really takes off,” he said. “Surface facilities ultimately bring air and noise pollution issues. In terms of what accidents I’ve heard of involving helium fracking, I don’t know that anyone can really answer that question. Helium on its own is not a volatile liquid like natural gas, and spilling helium isn’t like spilling oil. But there are other gases that come up from the ground that will need to be transported, processed (maybe even vented into the atmosphere as we saw in shale plays where methane was the only target gas of interest), in the course of extracting helium. Any industrialized extraction process comes with risks at the wellhead, on the roads, and so on. Highly toxic chemicals remain an integral part of the process.”
Will helium fracking be a benefit to the community?
That is where Jalbert and Uhlman seem to diverge the most.
Jalbert recognizes everything costs something, yet industry often only looks at its bottom line, not the bigger picture.
“One pertinent question is, how do communities benefit financially? Another important question is, are these financial gains overshadowed by risks to groundwaters?”
Uhlman said, “You can’t live in fear,” she said. “You have to have some hope and participation in the process. It is not necessarily that they can stop it. I’ve never seen that, (but) they can be a stakeholder that works within the community and with the permitting process to ensure that protections are in place.”
Jalbert agreed people should get involved.
“I also think everyone is waiting to see if helium fracking in the Holbrook really takes off or not,” he said, “Only time will tell. Either way, we must first understand the risks and then weigh those risks in a transparent way.”
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