Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This, I Gotta See: DEC Uses Twitter to Check Facts on "Fracking Brine" as Road De-Icer

I noticed yesterday that New York's DEC has taken to Twitter in a half-hearted effort to set the record straight on the state's latest crisis du jour — "Fracking Brine!" — which was birthed last week by Politico's new Capital New York media outlet, as part of an ongoing romance between the colorful worlds of persuasion, journalism, and ignorance.

And then, apparently, nursed along by other feverish media outlets.

Close readers may note that the original Capital New York claims are impaired by some fairly well known, internally conflicted knowledge.  On the one hand, high-volume hydraulic fracturing in tight shales — also known as "fracking" — has been widely reported as still-under-ban in New York (and actually never before proposed in this state by industry, at least prior to Feb. 2008). 

According to opponents, when it suits their argument, fracking is a brand-new, dangerous technology that's been wisely put under moratorium in NY, and hasn't yet been given a full environmental review — in fact, something which really can't ever be done, by their reckoning.

However, these "facts" change when it suits a different argument.  Capital New York's Scott Waldman was effortlessly conned by Riverkeeper into reporting this road-deicing "fracking waste" is coming from 6,000 oil and gas wells that have already been drilled and fracked in New York!

So which is it?  Does NY frack or not?  Really, it looks like these Politico guys might have totally missed the really great scoop, hiding in the story, right in plain sight, the whole time:

New York Has Been Fracking for Last 50 Years!  Film at 11!

Of course, it turns out to be true that many of these old-school, mostly vertical wells in New York were completed over many past years by the always-and-still-permissable technology of low-volume hydraulic fracture — also known as "fracking" — a historical fact that proponents of domestic fossil fuels have been trying unsuccessfully to get across to the public for some time now.

So, if you're still confused by any of this, my only remaining advice is to simply get a copy of the latest dictionary of modern persuasion.  Mine shows that all watery waste produced from any oil and gas well — even a 50-year-old vertical that may have never been fracked to stimulate production — has now been helpfully re-defined as "fracking waste."

Or maybe the remaining confusion is because environmentalists and journalists don't know — or don't care to know — the geologic origin of the primary road de-icer known as rock salt,
spread on roads during winter by most northeastern state and local highway departments.

It's deep shit.

For further assistance on the origin of rock salt, I've loaded up top a helpful fact sheet plucked from the DEC Minerals Division's latest (2011!) annual report.  To make this fully legible, you'll have to click it into a new window and zoom around — or you can get the original here.


Lissa Harris said...

Who you calling "feverish"? ;)

Lissa Harris, editor and tweeter at Watershed Post, here. We were skeptical about the Capital Tonight and WAMC stories, which seemed to be implying that waste from hydrofracking -- presumably from Pennsylvania? -- was being spread on NYS roads. We've been told by DEC that brine from conventional wells is allowed under BUD, but not brine from hydraulically fractured wells. Thus, we asked.

Perhaps we misunderstood the nuance there. So spreading of brine from low-volume vertical hydraulically fractured wells is allowed by DEC, but not brine from the high-volume horizontal kind?

The next logical question for us, then, is whether there's a difference in chemical composition between HVHF brine and low-volume vertical "fracking" brine.



Andy Leahy said...

Good to hear from you again, Lissa. Yes, I think those are the right questions. I'm no expert, but let me just try running it down further in my own layman's understanding.

"Flowback" from a gas well after HVHF consists of a portion of the same original water, sand, and chemicals which the fracker briefly pressurized into the previously drilled horizontal wellbore — together with any salt the mixture happens to dissolve out of the shale in the process. NYS DEC, as they tweeted, has already decided it isn't going to let this stuff get spread on roads as a de-icer — probably because it's both good politics and there’s those significant quantities of chemicals mixed in (even at less than 1 percent of the solution).

"Produced water" from a traditional vertical well — whether it was ever low-volume fracked or not — consists largely of natural formation brine seeping in and polluting the fossil fuels. Years later, they have to de-water the oil or natural gas before the product is worthy of sale, and that's where the brine is getting tanked up on the surface as waste. As I said in my post, this stuff used be called "produced water" or "brine," but now the conversation of persuasion in New York has re-defined all of it as "fracking waste."

But notice I used the word "largely."

Your question is very close to the one worthwhile point in all this, in that it zeroes in on whether there is any concern with old-school, low-volume, frack-originated hazards (or natural hazards) that may be, years later, still mixed at low concentrations with this brine, and then are later still getting used as a road de-icer in certain places.

If you're old enough to remember Times Beach — dioxin-laden waste oil spread on roads as a dust preventer — I think that's a legitimate question. And I'm glad there's somebody in the environmental, journalism, or regulatory world that thinks enough to check and see if this has already been considered — so long as they're framing the question toward a realistic impact, and not as a scheme to exploit reader ignorance to attract blog visits, to freak them out, or to build political pressure.

(Just as a for instance, it still just kills me that Capital New York went out of its way to report that the salt in "fracking brine" is "far more concentrated" than the salt in rock salt. This sort of "fact" doesn't make any eighth grade science sense to me, but I guess it does make the papers.)

To my knowledge, the DEC has regularly tested the stuff, and they say it’s just brine, and that this shouldn't be an issue. I don't have the background or the documentary smoking gun to prove these guys have been screwing up these tests, or skewing the interpretation of results in order to help out the impoverished highway departments that use it. One can always question the reliability of the protection the DEC offers, and this is a lot of what Riverkeeper does for a living, but to me it's only sometimes worthwhile.

Even if it is just brine or just salt, I also think it's worth pointing out that there are still environmental issues with de-icing roads — whether your highway department is using either rock salt taken directly from Cargill's Late Silurian aged Salina Formation mine, 2,000 feet deep under Tompkins and Seneca counties (some of it right from under Cayuga Lake!), or waste brine pumped from an Early Silurian aged Medina Sandstone gas well, similarly deep out in Western New York, fracked or not. Salt spread in upland air, soil, surface water, or ground water is without question a pollutant. Anybody, driving the highway, can regularly see evergreens that are in the process of getting killed by road salt, usually on the side facing the road.

Without the use of this road salt, however, many more people will get injured or killed, trying to drive in winter. So we're just back to a trade-off situation, same as it ever was.