You are on page 1of 22

Reducing the Impact of Hydraulic Shale Fracturing and Natural Gas Drilling on

Environments: Development of Green Fracturing Fluids and Sustainable Remediation and

Containment Technologies

Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology,

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, April 19-20, 2015

Session 2: Understanding and prediction of motion and fate of fracturing fluids

Motion of Fracturing Fluid and Associated Environmental Impact

Subhash Shah, Ph.D., P.E., Harshkumar Patel, and Soham Pandya
Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering,
The University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019

Fracturing fluid is the key to a successful hydraulic fracturing job. The main function of this fluid is to
create and condition a fracture, effectively carry proppants into the formation and flow back to the surface
once the desired proppant placement is achieved. To enable fracturing fluid perform these tasks
efficiently, various chemical additives are mixed to the base fluid. Some of the additives that govern the
properties of the fracturing fluid are viscosifiers, crosslinkers, clay stabilizers, friction reducers, biocide,
breakers, corrosion inhibitors and scale inhibitors. Storage and handling of these chemicals, and the
disposal of flow back fluid are one of the major reasons why hydraulic fracturing has raised
environmental concerns.

To understand the environmental risk associated with hydraulic fracturing, it is imperative to monitor the
motion of fracturing fluid during an entire hydraulic fracturing job. This paper will discuss the path taken
by fracturing fluid beginning from its on-site preparation, followed by pumping it down the well-bore,
flow into the fracture and finally to the fluid disposal once it is recovered back during flowback.
Environmental risks associated with each stage are analyzed in this paper. Additionally, the importance of
fracturing fluid management and monitoring its flow in minimizing the associated risks is emphasized.
From the engineering perspective, oil companies select fracturing fluids based on site-specific
characteristics such as formation geology, production characteristics, and economics. Different fluids
provide varying degree of potential threat to the environment based on its constituents. Assessing the
potential effects of these constituents is the first line of safety with respect to environmental impacts. It is
also necessary to handle these fluids with utmost care so that the risk of pollution is minimized.

It has been observed that about one-third of fracturing fluid that is injected is expected to remain in the
formation. Hence, it becomes essential to understand what happens to the fracturing fluid once it is
pumped down the wellbore. This paper aims at studying each of these components separately and the
degree of impact they pose on the environment.
Finally, the common causes of environmental pollution pertaining to fracturing fluids will be studied and
current industry practices to minimize these environmental risks will be discussed.

1. Introduction

Hydraulic fracturing is a process of creating a conductive path within a formation by pumping thousands
of gallons of engineered fluids and proppants into the formation at a pressure higher than the fracture
pressure of formation. This is a proven stimulation technique and has been in use for more than four
decades. This technique along with the development of horizontal well drilling has enabled us to exploit
vast gas resources lying in unconventional low permeability reservoirs like shale and tight sand.

1.1 Hydraulic fracturing

The entire process of hydraulic fracturing can be divided into four stages:
During pre-pad stage only water and low concentration of friction reducer and clay stabilizer are injected
to initiate a fracture. Second stage is pad stage, in which viscous fluid is injected to condition the created
fracture and achieve its desired fracture dimensions. Pad stage is followed by a proppant laden stage, in
which a mixture of clean fluid and proppant known as slurry is injected in order to transport and distribute
proppants within the formation and prevent fracture closure once the pumping has ceased. The last stage
is flush stage wherein, clean fluid displaces all the remaining proppant in the wellbore into the fracture.
The surface pumps are shut down once the desired amount of proppant is placed within the fracture. This
results in closing of fracture on the proppant. It is a recommended to allow the well to flow for few days
before putting the well on production. This helps flow back of the fracturing fluid that was leaked off into
the matrix. This process is termed as flow back. The schematic of entire hydraulic fracturing process is
presented in Fig. 1. Figure 2 displays trend of pressures, sand concentration and flow rates associated
with each stage of a common fracturing process.

1.2 Fracturing fluids

Fracturing fluid is the key to a successful hydraulic fracturing job. The main function of this fluid is to
create and condition a fracture, effectively carry proppants into the formation and flow back to the surface
once desired proppant placement is achieved. To perform this task efficiently, fracturing fluid should be
tailored to attain desired characteristics such as sufficiently high viscosity in order to carry proppant, low
fluid loss, compatibility with reservoir rock and formation fluid, low environmental impact, easy clean up,
cost effectiveness etc. Various chemicals are added to the base fluid to achieve these properties. Some of
the common additives are viscosifiers, crosslinkers, clay stabilizers, friction reducers, biocides, breakers,
corrosion inhibitors and scale inhibitors.

Fracturing fluid are classified as per the type of base-fluid used. Various types of fracturing fluids are
available in the market, selection of which depends on lithology and mineralogy of formation to be
fractured, pressure and temperature conditions and economics.

1.2.1 Types of fracturing fluids

Table 1 enlists all major types of fracturing fluids being used in the industry. Each of this fluid type has
specific applications. Water based fluids are the most widely used because of their low cost but are
limited to the formations that do not have water sensitive clays. Foam based fluids are mainly used in gas
formations with low reservoir pressure. They are limited by lack of foam quality control. Oil based fluids
have good fluid loss characteristics and do not swell clays. However, they are limited by their
environmental impact and safety issues. Acid based fluids are exclusively used for carbonates formation
to dissolve calcite minerals.

1.2.2 Constituents of fracturing fluids

Figure 3 presents a typical composition of a water based fracturing fluid. However, the composite
distribution of most of the fracturing fluids is similar irrespective of the base fluid used. Base fluid makes
up the 99.2% of total fluid volume while other additives are present in minuscule amounts. As discussed
earlier chemical additives play very important role in achieving desirable quality of fracturing fluid.
Proper designing of a fracturing fluid is the key to a successful job.

The most common chemical additives used in the industry are as follows:
• Dilute acid solution: To dissolve scales and pre-flush the wellbore.

• Friction reducing agents: These are used to reduce turbulent friction and consequently, reduce the
horsepower required for pumping. These additives may reduce tubular friction by up to 70 to 80%.
• Viscosifiers or gelling agents: Polymers such as guar gum, may be used in small amounts to thicken
the water-based solution to help suspend and transport proppant.
• Cross-linkers: These agents combine linear polymer chains and create a cross-linking structure which
increases the apparent viscosity to very high levels. This may be required when very high proppant
concentrations or large particle-size proppants need to be delivered, especially in case of wells with
greater depths.
• Activators: These chemicals ensure that the cross linking of the gel occurs only at the desired depth.
Activators are generally temperature sensitive and are triggered only when they encounter the
activating temperature.
• Breakers: The desired viscosity of the flow back fluid is 10 cP or less. This helps in better cleanup of
the formation and ensures minimum proppant flow back. Breakers are added in order to reduce the
viscosity of the fracturing fluid during the flow back. Such chemicals are generally time dependent
and will trigger themselves only after the required amount of time. This helps ensure that breakers do
not activate before all the proppant is distributed within the fracture.
• Stabilizing agents: These chemicals are used to inhibit precipitation of iron compounds by keeping
them in solution - typically citric or hydrochloric acid.
• Scale inhibitor: They are used to control the precipitation of carbonates and sulphates.
• Biocide/Disinfectant: These additives prevent the cultivation of bacteria in the fracturing fluid at any
point. Bacterial growth can cause a number of problems such as plugging of pore throats due to
bacterial precipitates or the bacteria themselves, souring of formation, etc.
• Oxygen scavengers and corrosion inhibitors: These are used to prevent corrosion of downhole steel
equipment and tubular.

Each of the above mentioned additives has different effects when they reach downhole. Table 2 enlists
these effects.

2. Motion of fracturing fluid

To understand the environmental risk associated with hydraulic fracturing, it is imperative to monitor the
motion of fracturing fluid during an entire hydraulic fracturing job beginning from its on-site preparation,
down hole pumping, flow into the fracture and finally to the fluid disposal once it is recovered. Figure 1
describes the path taken by fracturing fluid during a fracturing job. The complete path can be divided into
six major stages. Following is the description of each of these stages.

1. Storage: As discussed earlier, for a fracturing job thousands of gallons of fluids are prepared. Storage
of these prepared fluids and their constituent chemicals are the very first task performed on site.
Earlier, excavated pits in the ground were used for storing the chemicals depending on the hazard
rating of the fluid. Recently, closed loop fluid handling system is more common in which the base
fluid is stored in the storage tanks.

2. Fluid preparation: During this stage, additives are blended with the base fluid (usually water) at
certain concentrations. Various additives are mixed with the base fluid only a certain period of time
prior to the pumping of fracturing fluid so that the contact of the same with the environment is for a
minimum duration. This process is carried out in hydration units which are basically a mixing tanks
with large volumes, mounted on a truck. The proppant is added gradually at pre-designed rates. Truck
mounted high capacity blenders are used for this purpose. The prepared fluid is now termed as

3. Pumping the fluid down the wellbore into the formation: Prepared slurry is pumped into the desired
formation through the surface manifold lines and down the wellbore tubular. The injection rates
usually are very high and restricted by the pressures encountered during a fracturing job. In many
cases, the injection process can continue for several hours. The fracturing fluid generally enters the
formation through perforations (except for the open-hole completion). This perforation tunnel is the
initiation point of the fracture.

4. Fluid leak-off: Since the pressure at which the fluid is injected is higher than the formation pressure,
some amount of fluid is lost to the formation and does not contribute in fracture generation. It is cited
in many publications that about one-third of fracturing fluid that is injected is expected to remain in
the formation. Hence, it becomes essential to understand what happens to the fracturing fluid once it
is pumped down the wellbore.

5. Flow back: Once the injection is stopped, fracture tends to close on the proppant pack. Breakers
added into the fluid activate and reduce the viscosity of the fluid. This helps the fluid flow back to the
surface. The flow-back rates can be controlled from the surface using a choke manifold. But usually
flow back is carried out at very low rates (3 bbl/min to 6 bbl/min) in order to avoid proppant flow
back from the fracture. The flow-back period may extend up to two to three weeks (King, 2012).

6. Fluid disposal / recycling: The recovered fluid is stored into the excavated pits for it to degrade
completely. These pits are usually lined with sheets of tarpaulin to prevent its seepage into the
ground. Once the major components of this fluid are broken, it is treated to meet disposal standards.

Recently, technologies have been developed to reuse the fracturing fluid for subsequent fracturing

3. Associated environmental risks

Environmental risks are associated with each stage of fracturing fluid movement described in the previous
section. These potential environmental risks can be classified into surface and downhole risks based on
the location of their impact.

3.1 Surface risks

Environmental risk associated with fluid transportation, storage and handling can be categorized under
surface risks. The potential polluting events associated with these ‘non-fracturing’ activities are:

• Spill of water with or without chemicals during transportation

• Spill of concentrated chemical additives
• Leakage from surface pipe manifold or storage tanks
• Seepage of waste water or flow-back fluid from waste pits into the ground
• Air borne dust of dry powdered chemical additives

These events are likely to have following impacts:

• Water contamination
• Contamination of subsurface fresh water aquifers
• Soil pollution
• Air pollution
• Health hazards to workers
• Impact on local wildlife

The above mentioned events have low probability of occurrence when stringent monitoring measures are
undertaken. However, even a small spillage can have a significant impact especially on surface water and
soil fertility.

A number of arguments have been made with respect to the environmental impacts due to the highly
complex chemicals used in the fracturing process. With time, and advanced technology, this has led the
industry to develop chemicals that are more environmental friendly. It is undeniable that even though the
industry has been trying to reduce the environmental impact of fracturing fluids, certain additives can still

be classified as harmful. The chemical compositions of main additives used in fracturing fluid are shown
in Fig. 4a and 4b. Some of these components are toxic and can lead to serious health issues. As described
in Table 3, these chemicals can affect sensory organs, respiratory, immune and nervous systems. A few
of them have been found to be carcinogenic as well.

At times, the flow back or the waste water generated from fracturing operation can be more harmful than
the fluid that was originally injected. Many fracturing jobs require monitoring of the fracture growth with
the help of tracers. These tracers are radioactive materials injected into the fluid that help monitor the
flow of fracturing fluid. During flow back, the fluid recovered may bring along with it additional
contaminants including these radioactive materials. This fluid has to be treated before it can be disposed
of safely. Spill of this waste water during storage and transportation, or a leak during processing can have
direct effects on surrounding environment.

3.2 Downhole risks

Environmental risks associated with pumping of fracturing fluid down the well bore and into the
formation can be categorized under downhole risks. During this motion, fracturing fluid may pose
environmental threat via following two major events:

• Upward migration of fracturing fluid though leak in shallow casing or channeling through improper
cementing job
• Migration of fracturing fluid through natural fractures or faults

Well construction is one of the major aspects that should be monitored to the smallest of the detail. Well
construction basically consists of generating a means of communication for the hydrocarbons to flow
from the zone of interest to the surface. From a broader perspective, well construction involves drilling
the well, installing and cementing the casing sections and lowering a series of connected tubing to provide
the flow path for produced fluid up to the surface. Contamination of groundwater at shallow depths is
likely to occur if proper well construction is not ensured. Generally, the major source of such
contaminations is leaks within the casing string, poor quality of cement used during the cementation of
the casing, or an overall ineffective cementation job that might have resulted in formation of void
channels behind the casing. These causes provide a cross flow path for the fracturing fluid to enter the
zones which are not intended to be infiltrated by the fracturing fluids. A severe environmental concern
arises when such leaks are within the zone of aquifer.

If induced fractures have uncontrolled upward growth or intersects a natural fault, it can also lead to
fracturing fluid migration towards shallow aquifers.

Another source of contamination within the reservoir is due to the degradation of fracturing fluid. Larger
volumes of leak off result in longer residence time for the gel within the reservoir. If the fluid is
efficiently recovered during the flow back, it tends to degrade within the formation. Degradation of these
gels may result in cultivation of Sulphur reducing bacteria within the reservoir. Formation of hydrogen
sulfide within the reservoir and consequent production of the same on the surface can be fatal.

4. Fracturing fluid and environmental effects: Myths vs Reality

Based on the potential environmental impacts discussed in previous section, one may be tempted to judge
fracturing fluid as ‘guilty’. However, one should rationally analyze reality of these impacts and
likelihood of their occurrence before jumping to any conclusions.

An environmentalist would argue that fracturing fluids have contaminated the ground water. An engineer
would completely deny that argument. Both of these arguments may seem contradictory but they both are
correct. George King (2012) beautifully describes this issue as ‘Language barrier’ or a mismatch in
definition in debate of hydraulic fracturing. For an engineer, fracturing means a specific activity of well
stimulation while for many concerned citizens and environmentalists fracturing involves each and every
activity involved with well development.

Table 4 summarizes results of study carried out in Texas and Ohio. This study investigated the causes of
different environmental events related to the oil & gas industry. It can be seen that the most of them were
related to well construction, transportation and waste disposal activities. None of them were caused by
actual fracturing job. It is not a surprising result.

Potential surface events discussed in previous section are the only likely ways a fracturing fluid can affect
environment. Most of the incidents recorded in the past have either caused by spills or improper treatment
and disposal activities. These events have very less probability of occurrence with odds of 1 in 10,000 to
1 in 100,000 (King, 2012).

A subsurface event such as upward migration of fracturing fluid to shallower depth aquifers is highly
unlikely. There is no denying that improper well construction can lead to upward migration of methane. It
can contaminate fresh water and many such incidents have been documented. However, it is highly
unlikely for fracturing fluid to migrate up to the surface because of its high density. Fracturing fluid can
be a threat only if there is a casing leak just opposite to an aquifer in a well that is very shallow i.e. less

than 200 ft. This is a very rare case. Statistically calculated odds for casing leak to occur has been found
to be 200,000 to 1 and that too for only the shallow wells (King, 2012). Another interesting observation is
presented in Fig. 5 in which target shale depth in all major basins have been compared with the depth of
fresh water aquifer. It can be seen from the figure that the zone of interest for shale gas extraction is way
below the underground water.

The fractures growth in the vertical direction is usually limited. Height of fractures can only be several
hundred feet. Usually the fracture growth would stop as soon as it reaches boundary of the overlying
formation. Therefore, migration of fracturing fluid through fractures is also highly unlikely event. The
trapping mechanism which prevents upward migration of hydrocarbons will also trap the motion of
fracturing fluid. It is as simple as that.

5. Preventive measures

This section is aimed at describing the industry practices that are currently employed in order to reduce
the environmental impact of fracturing fluids.

Spillage of fracturing fluids or any of its additives due to any reason is the major concern when it comes
to transportation, storage and handling of these. Prevention is always better than the cure. The surface
lines are pressure tested with water for any leaks that may result in spillage on the ground. All the
equipment used for transportation, storage or mixing are cleaned up thoroughly and tested for any kind of
leaks before they are utilized on the fracturing site. This also prevents the contamination of fracturing
fluids due to undesirable outside bodies such as bacteria. Furthermore, biocides are added to the base fluid
in the storage tanks for the same purpose. Availability of proper protective equipment on the site is
ensured for safe handling of these chemicals in order to prevent any harm to the crew, especially when
handling acid solutions. Most of the companies have a very stringent standard operating procedures
developed for mixing of fluids. It should be emphasized that these companies prioritize the environmental
regulations ahead of anything else; so much so that the crew is instructed to stop all the operations in case
of any potential risk of spills or unexpected spills. The spills are usually either contained by sheets of
tarpaulin or the impact of the spills is negated by use of neutralizers.

Proper well construction and its integrity are greatly dependent on the experience and knowledge of the
crew handling these operations. However, major oil and gas companies take certain necessary steps to
minimize the risks of underground leaks into unwanted zones. Each section of casing is hermetically
tested for the leaks prior to its installation. A similar pressurized seal test is carried out for all tubular
sections on the site prior to their installation. The cement being used for the cementation of the well

should only be considered if it passes the quality standards as regulated by the environmental agencies.
The quality check for each batch of cement is generally carried out as on-site inspection procedure to
ensure the desired compressive strength required. Once the cement is pumped behind the casing, it is
allowed to set for calculated duration and is then tested for any kind of leaks. Such tests are carried out by
filling up the drilled section with fluids under pressure. The pressure drop is monitored for certain
duration to evaluate the quality of the job. Such tests are often termed as pressure test or green cement
test. Secondary cementing is carried out in case any leaks are observed. Remedial operations are generally
carried out by squeezing the proper amount of cement in the zone of leaks.

A properly designed fracturing fluid is a one that contains itself within the fracture without leaking off
into the formation. The hundred percent efficiency of fracturing fluid is only theoretically possible.
However, in order to maximize this efficiency, fluid loss additives are blended into the fluid. These form
a very thin layer of impermeable membrane on fracture faces that minimize the flow of fracturing fluid in
the formation matrix. Once the pumping is stopped, the fracture tends to close on the proppant pack due
to the stresses induced in the formation while fracturing. In order to produce hydrocarbons effectively
from such fractured formations, it becomes essential to clean the fracture and make it free of the
fracturing fluid as much as possible. Flow back is carried out at very low rates for this purpose.

The recovered fluid is contained within lined pits on the surface. The flow back water is monitored
quantitatively as well as qualitatively for the volume of fluid recovered and the extent of gel damage. The
gel is allowed to degrade in these pits after which the remaining fluid is transported to treatment plants to
meet the minimum standard required for either the disposal of theses fluids or recycle. Table 5
summarizes the common waste water disposal methods employed in different shale gas plays.

Recently, recycling the flow back water for fracturing is an emerging practice. The advancement in
technology has allowed the industry to mobilize truck mounted filtration units that can be mobilized to
the fracturing sites. These filtration systems are effective enough to clean the fluid to the quality almost
similar to that of the original fluid.

There are certain unavoidable and unpredicted circumstances that can lead to the causes of environmental
impacts due to fracturing fluids even though all the measures are taken. It is, hence, essential to train the
personnel on site to overcome these problems as quickly as possible. In addition to the trained crew
members and engineers, it is common for companies to employ personnel specifically trained towards
health and safety on the fracturing site.

Many researchers are working toward developing greener fluids with minimum or no environmental
impact. Usage of mechanical options instead of chemicals is another way of minimizing environmental
risks. Many companies have initiated separate programs to fund these types of research.

6. Regulations

Oil and gas industry is not exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations. All oil-field wastes
including wastes generated from fracturing are subjected to several levels of state and federal laws (EPA,
2002). In fact, unused fracturing fluids, chemical additives and radioactive tracers are one of the most
stringently regulated wastes.

Additionally, many organizations are working toward strengthening legislature and regulations. Some of
the famous groups are: STRONGER (State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations,
GWPC (Ground Water Protection Council) and IOGCC (Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission).
Chemical disclosure registry like FracFocus has also helped in increasing the transparency in use of
chemicals. As of 02/01/2015, chemical disclosure is mandatory in 26 states and 16 of them are using
FracFocus as their official medium of disclosure. A total of 94,716 well sites are registered on this
website and more and more companies are joining this initiative.

7. Conclusions
• Path of fracturing fluid during a typical hydraulic fracturing job has been described and
environmental risks associated with each stage is discussed.
• Surface spill during storage or transportation is the dominant and most likely cause of environmental
pollution from fracturing fluids.
• Scientific proofs have been presented to support the argument that upward motion of fracturing fluid
up to shallow aquifers is highly unlikely. It is also pointed out that the risk of subsurface water
contamination from fracturing fluid is negligible for a properly constructed well.
• Preventive measures taken by the industry to minimize environmental risks arising from use of
fracturing fluid have been examined.
• In summary, current government regulations and role of various organizations in reforming
legislature and strengthening the issue of environment protection is described.


1. King, G. E. 2012. Hydraulic Fracturing 101: What Every Representative, Environmentalist,

Regulator, Reporter, Investor, University Researcher, Neighbor, and Engineer Should Know About
Hydraulic Fracturing Risk. Society of Petroleum Engineers. doi:10.2118/0412-0034-JPT
2. Carter, K. E., Hammack, R. W., & Hakala, J. A. 2013. Hydraulic Fracturing and Organic Compounds
- Uses, Disposal and Challenges. Society of Petroleum Engineers. doi:10.2118/165692-MS
3. U.S. Department of Energy. 2009. Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer.
7. Daneshy, A. 2010. Hydraulic Fracturing To Improve Production. Daneshy Consultants International.
Accessed from:

Appendix – A: Tables

Table 1: Types of fracturing fluids and conditions they are used for [6]

Table 2: Common additives used in a fracturing fluid and their downhole effects [5]

Table 3: Health impacts of chemicals used in fracturing fluids [4]

Table 4: Actual causes of environmental events occurred in Texas and Ohio (Kell, 2011) [1]
Orphan Waste
Study # wells # cases Site D&C Frac Production P&A
State Well Disposal Unknown
Period producing investigated related related related Related related
Related Related
Ohio 26 years 65,000 185 0 74 0 39 41 26 5 0
Texas 16 years 250,000 211 0 10 0 56 30 75 1 39

Table 5: Current waste water management techniques employed in various shale plays [3]

Water Management
Shale Gas Basin Availability Comments
Disposal into the
Commercial and non-
Class II injection wells Barnett and underlying
Barnett Shale Ellenberger Group
On-site treatment and For reuse in subsequent
recycling fracturing jobs
Water is transported to
two injection wells
Class II injection wells Non-commercial owned and operated by
Fayetteville Shale a single producing
For reuse in subsequent
Recycling On-site recycling
fracturing jobs
Commercial and non-
Haynesville Shale Class II injection wells
Commercial and non- Limited use of Class II
Class II injection wells
commercial injection wells
Municipal waste water
treatment facilities, Primarily in
Marcellus Shale Treatment and discharge
commercial facilities Pennsylvania
reportedly contemplated
For reuse in subsequent
Recycling On-site recycling
fracturing jobs
Disposal into multiple
Class II injection wells Commercial
confining formations
Permit required through
Land Application Oklahoma Corporation
Woodford Shale
Water recycling and
Recycling Non-commercial storage facilities at a
central location
Commercial and non-
Antrim Shale Class II injection wells
Commercial and non-
New Albany Shale Class II injection wells

Appendix – B: Figures

Figure 1: Hydraulic fracturing process [8]

Figure 2: Injection pressures and flow rates associated with different stages of a typical fracturing process [7]

Figure 3: Chemical composition of a typical water –based fracturing fluid [5]

Figure 4a: Chemical components of four major chemical additives used in fracturing fluid [2]

Figure 4b: Chemical components of four major chemical additives used in fracturing fluid [2]

Figure 5: Comparison of target shale depths and level of fresh water aquifers [3]