Just Add Water

For those studying or covering the always-newsmaking topic of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the word “unknown” has become frustratingly redundant. Even when there is seemingly conclusive news, it always comes with a disclaimer signifying an element of the unknown. In July, for instance, the U.S. Department of Energy released preliminary results from its study on fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation, and found that fracking chemicals do not cause water pollution, according to the Associated Press. The news stirred both skeptics and optimists alike, but it’s important to note that the study was not final; it was based on just a year of acquifer monitoring. (Apologies for the disclaimer that is necessary right there.)

In other words, the jury is still out in terms of conclusively stating one way or another exactly how fracking affects water quality. While we might not know the true extent of fracking’s effect on groundwater for quite some time, there are steps being taken to help researchers better understand the chemicals in fracking fluids. There still are so many unknowns, but it turns out that there is at least some access to the “secret ingredients” contained in fracking fluids.

Since 2011, FracFocus.com, an online chemical disclosure registry, has been collecting information on the ingredients present in fracking fluids from more than 52,000 U.S. wells. FracFocus.com is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

According to FracFocus.com, water and sand can make up more than 99.5% of the fluid used to hydraulically fracture a well. The remainder of that fluid are the “secret ingredients” that once were guarded by companies involved in fracking operations. As a result of growing concerns over water pollution, many U.S. states have adopted mandatory disclosure rules for the mixtures. 

FracFocus.com, which recently improved its search function, is not intended to provide a scientific analysis of risk associated with hydraulic fracturing, but researchers can study the frac chemicals disclosed to help companies select “greener” chemicals that would minimize the risk of water contamination. While the site has its critics, it will be interesting to follow its evolution and learn more about the data being garnered, and it could prove to be a valuable tool promoting greener chemistry.

Elisabeth Lisican is managing editor of Water & Wastes Digest. Lisican can be reached at elisican@sgcmail.com or 847.391.1012.

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