Fear and Loathing with Frac Fluids

There is considerable handwringing over hydraulic fracturing fluids and their potential effects on “the environment”. I use quotes in ironic fashion because I see very little parsing of the issue into relevant components. The chemical insult to the environment is highly dependent on both the substances and the extent of dispersion. But I state the obvious.

There are surface effects at the drill site and there are subsurface effects. A spill on the surface is going to be relatively small due to the limited size of the available tankage on site. I drive by these sites almost daily and can see with my own eyes the scale of the project. A surface spill of materials will be limited in scope.

The subsurface effects are complex, however, and the magnitude of consequences will depend on both the extent of the fluid penetration into aquifers and the nature of the materials in the fluid. Much criticism has been dealt, rightfully I think, over the secrecy claims on the composition of these fluids. The default reply from drillers has rested on trade secrecy. To be sure, the matter of government forcing a company to reveal its art is a serious matter. But the distribution of chemical substances into the environment requires some oversight. Especially when substances are injected into locations where they cannt be readily remediated. The remediation of an aquifer is a serious undertaking which may or may not be effective.

If you want to see what is potentially in frac fluids, go to Google Patents and search “hydraulic fracturing fluid”. A great many patents will be found. This will give the length and breadth of the compositions patented. Of this large list only a few are used in current practice. The potential carrier fluids vary from water to LPG (!). Water is a common component, but brine is said to be preferred. Additives include hydrochloric acid and surfactants. The MSDS documents may be a good source of info. Consider that a substantial threat to ground water may be that it is rendered non-potable rather than outright  toxic.

About gaussling

Gaussling is a senior scientist in the chemical business. He occasionally breaks glassware and has been known to generate new forms of hazmats. Gaussling also digs aerospace, geology, and community theatre. View all posts by gaussling

5 responses to “Fear and Loathing with Frac Fluids

  • Old Chem Prof

    Thank you, gaussling. A well thought through analysis. I wish our political leaders could have the benefit of this kind of thinking. Then maybe we would have an intelligent debate of the subject.

  • Uncle Al

    The simple inexpensive answer is to add 10 ppm of sodium fluorescein (uranine) to frac fluid itself, 10 grams/tonne liquid net. Fluorescein is not scavanged by clays, it is not naturally occuring, it is non-toxic, and it is detectable to 10 parts-per-trillion by unremarkable commercial analysis – millionfold dilution of frac fluid into groundwater,


    Stop the whining – both sides, all sides.

    • gaussling

      Imagine the stink drillers like Haliburton and others would pitch if required to put a marker in their drilling fluid. It would be epic. Even Cecil B. DeMille would be unable to capture the drama.

      I can see Anthony Hopkins playing the CEO of Haliburtion and the role of Uncle Al played by Jeff Goldblum. The movie begins with Goldblum stalking at night through the rolling farmland of western Pennsylvania wearing an Oakland Raiders cap, a Pink Floyd t-shirt, and well worn rust colored corduroy cutoffs. In one hand is a flask of green fluorescein concentrate and a tool bag in the other. Carefully, he crawls behind a bulk water tank at the perimeter of the drill site. With crickets chirping and a quarter moon for light, he climbs on to the top of the tank and quietly begins to unlatch the fill port of the tank.

      Goldblum carefully and quietly swings open the cap and sets it down. Then he reaches around for the flask. He carefully begins to pour the contents into the tank when suddenly his cell phone explodes with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” at top volume! His mission has been blown by a call from his first ex-wife. As Goldblum fumbles for the phone, bright lights sweep past him and the sound of dogs barking furiously quicken the pace of his heart. He knows he is in for a rough night.


      • Uncle Al

        Justin Long rather than Jeff Goldblum. He tosses a kilogram poly(vinyl alcohol) bag of uranine through the access hatch, forgetting that PVA requires warm water to dissolve. Homeland Severity recovers the bag, isolates a shed single cell of dermis, spends $40 million isolating, PCR amplifying, IDing DNA (plus business lunches in Monaco and spa confabs in Cancun)… then Black Ops executes, er, immediately incapacitates an undocumented worker on a Wisconsin packing line for interfering with an Eric Holder-privileged company. Literary fiction – a harmless flight of fancy. “8^>)

        Phthalic anhydride plus resorcinol with methanesulfonic acid catalyst gives fluorescein. All applications but fracking would be mandated to use 100% Green uranine made from renewable agrcultural sources, in the interests of national security. Its carbon isotope distribution and C-14 content differentiates it from the inexpensive petroleum-derived product to be used by fracking. Add hydrogen peroxide as a harmless microbiocide, spill in a little ground horseradish during worker roast beef Fridays, pump that fracking fluid, and zero signals are assured.

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