To frack or not to frack? Safety concerns, impact on infrastructure complicate debate on drilling method

January 12, 2013 8:17:40 PM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


It is easy to make the argument that a hunger for land and an insatiable appetite for the resources it contained were largely responsible for the settling of the North American continent.  


These movements have not always been proud chapters in American history, when the treatment of Native American peoples or the ravaging of land for the extraction of natural resources are considered. 


The quest for riches from the earth and surrounding waters is part of the American fabric. 


In recent decades Americans have come to realize that resources are not limitless and the effects of this unquenchable thirst for energy has a price, made painfully evident by the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and ongoing entanglements in the Middle East. 


This environmental degradation has brought more government oversight, tighter regulations and increased environmental awareness by the public. 


Recently, with the decision of the Caledonia Board of Alderman to allow fracking within the town's city limits, what has been a national issue is now a local one.  




The questions emerge: Is it safe? If so, what would fracking mean to the small town?  


There is no true consensus on either question. 


Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial practice that pumps water and chemicals into the ground at a high pressure to fracture the rock and release previously inaccessible oil and natural gas. To access the shale containing the gas or oil, a vertical well is drilled that turns horizontal when it reaches the strata bordering the shale. The drilling often passes through aquifers to reach the deeper layers where the fracking takes place. 


Though fracking has been around for more than 60 years, the practice has only recently become a hot button topic. Documentaries such as "Gasland" and "Truthland" offer distinctly different perspectives on the practice. Hollywood has weighing in with "Promised Land," the fictional story of a small town's struggle with the issue.  


Proponents laud fracking as a means of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Opponents say fracking can wreak havoc on the environment, contaminating the water supply.  


In January, Caledonia signed a lease with Fairhope, Ala.-based Fletcher Petroleum giving it access to less than 1/10 acres of the town's land. For $100 the company will have three years access to a plot of land about the size of a four-bedroom house. Located behind the Shop and Save, the gravel covered scrap of earth supports a water meter and sewer pipe. 


Board attorney Jeff Smith says the lease does not necessarily mean the company will drill. Smith said Fletcher has been leasing land all over Mississippi at the same $100 rate.  


The safety implications of fracking is a debate that has been raging all over the country. Opposition groups have been vocal in their concerns about the impact of fracking on the water supply in areas where fracking is used. 


The website, created by the company that produced the anti-fracking documentary, "Gasland," claims the chemicals used to create the fracturing of the rock contaminate groundwater.  


In Dimock, Pa., reports of flammable tap water have been reported as a result of methane gas that has leaked into the groundwater as a result of fracking.  


According to the website, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out from the system and contaminate nearby groundwater during fracking. Methane concentrations are 17 times higher in drinking water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells, it said.  


Ed Hollingsworth, a geologist with Fletcher Petroleum who has been in the industry since 1981, said he has yet to see drinking water contaminated by fracking. 


"I think they're way over zealous," he said. "I think they're taking situations from New York, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma and they've based all their opinions on that," he said. 


"I've been involved with probably 100 or so wells in the water basin, probably 90, 99 percent of them have been fracked, and I'm not aware of one complaint from any surface owner that we damaged city, town or individual water wells," he said.  


"I think that's a pretty good record." 




Close to home 


Hollingsworth noted his company has a working well in Maple Branch, two miles west of Caledonia. Maple Branch was originally drilled in the late 1970s. It was the first horizontal well in the state of Mississippi.  


Thanks to state regulation, he doesn't feel water contamination is a valid concern. 


"I can't speak for all over the world but right there at Maple Branch we are operating under all the regulatory rules of the state oil and gas board." 


"No, I don't think there is any danger in the Maple Branch area of contaminating fresh water or the air. If there was I think we would have seen it after about 40 years of it." 


"All the fresh water is protected and has been protected ever since we first drilled. These fracks are in sandstone that are several thousand feet deep," he said. "You have 4,000 feet of hard rock between you and the reservoirs which are very shallow in that area." 


Benny Coleman, head of the water department for the town of Caledonia, said there are five water wells in Caledonia, ranging from 300 feet to 818 feet below ground.  


Coleman agreed with Hollingsworth, saying there's at least 4,000 feet between where the fracking is taking place and the town's aquifers. He doesn't see contamination as a likelihood.  


Coleman owns a piece of land where a well was fracked with no result. The well was closed.  


A working well can be seen in the middle of a field on Cal-Kolola Road between the town of Caledonia and Kolola Springs. The steady hum of the well can be heard from a home about 1,000 yards away.  


The imposing well stands in stark contrast to a child's swing set and trampoline in the house's backyard. 


The homeowners, who asked that their names not be used, said they were not worried about possible water contamination.  


"It's been here all my life," the home owner said with a shrug.  




Miss. regulations 


Ray Lewis, an environmental administrator with the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board said fracking is nothing new.  


"Fracking has been around since time immemorial," he said. "It's part of the well process. 


"As technology developed, we have direction drilling and horizontal drilling. It has been around for a long time." 


Lewis said Mississippi has not had instances like flammable gas because diesel and hazardous chemicals are not allowed in fracking operations.  


"In Mississippi, salt water is the majority of these fluids. Non-hazardous and organic chemicals are added to assist in the fracking process." 


However, Lewis said that the state oil and gas board is in the process of changing their regulations to require companies to list each chemical used in the fracking process.  


"We know we don't use diesel in this state but we really have no paper trail. Right now, providing the chemicals is optional," he said. "It's better for everybody if we have it at our fingertips." 


Lewis noted a website where companies can list which chemicals they use. Inexplicably, no wells were listed in Lowndes County.  




Soft rocks 


Lewis added that in addition to the chemical mixture, the density of the rock plays a huge part in the amount of pressure needed to fracture the shale and release oil or natural gas.  


"The northern states have a tighter formation than the South because we're closer to the water," he said. 


"We're more sandstone and sand. There is a lot of concern up there because they're doing a lot of horizontal drilling into Marcellus shale -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, the Rocky Mountains area."  


"Here, we're Tuscaloosa Maritime shale." 


Lewis said fracking is going on in Amite, Wilkinson and Adams counties.  


Hollingsworth said there are several horizontal wells throughout the state, adding that even though the horizontal wells are different from the vertical wells used in days past, they only differ in the amount of oil and gas collected. 


"The fracking process is just a stimulation during the completion of the well to make it produce a little better than it would on it's own," he said. "It's nothing new." 


"The fracks are essentially just the same as they've always been," he said.  


Lewis said he is glad that attention has been brought to the fracking process.  


"It's gone on forever but it's wonderful that people understand what is going on so they can be calm and have the knowledge that its OK and don't get hyped up that it's something bad," he said. 


Still, those opposing the practice warn the dangers of the process could be catastrophic.  


Bill Vest, a former resident of Caledonia and a safety consultant in the oil and gas industry, is not opposed to fracking but he is vocal about safety concerns. He said an improperly drilled well could be deadly. 


"If it hits, the jobs are great, the money is good and it gives some people a foot in the door to a career. But at what cost?" 


"I don't want places that I love to hunt and fish screwed up because somebody didn't do their job," he said.  


"You need good people, you need good health, safety and environmental professionals out there on the job. If you don't have a solid health, safety and environmental culture, bad things will happen," he warned.  


"It's not the industry, it's the people behind it. There will be a special place in hell for those people who do the underhanded and dirty things they do in the name of money." 


"We can all make money in whatever shape or form, I just don't want to see it done the wrong way." 


The possibility of catastrophic breach in safety is something that lead Caledonia mayor George Gerhart to oppose the fracking lease that was approved unanimously by the town's board of aldermen. 


Gerhart refused to sign the lease agreement permitting fracking on the town-owned parcel. 


"Caledonia is probably the most wanted area in Lowndes County for people to move here because of the school system and a wonderful place to raise a family," Gerhart said. "As far as I am concerned, if there was one mistake in this fracking process, this community would be ruined for years to come." 


Alderman Brenda Willis does not share Gerhart's concerns, though. Her family is benefiting from several wells on lands it owns. She feels the process is completely safe.  


"It's not like there are going to be 900 trucks on the streets of Caledonia," she said.  




High cost of success 


That raises other questions: What if an abundance of natural gas are found in Caledonia and what would it mean to the quality of life in the small town? 


Vest vehemently disagrees with Willis's assertion that a successful fracking operation would have little impact on the town. 


Vest estimated he has worked on over 100 wells in his career and works for EMAS, a Houston, Texas-based company that offers well services to the offshore energy sector.  


Vest says if natural gas is found in Caledonia, people from around the world will be flocking to the small town. 


"God forbid if Caledonia ends up like western North Dakota, it's going to be a rude damn awakening, and that's putting it nicely," he said. "For starters, the infrastructure in a place like Lowndes County could not even handle a tenth of what's going on in western North Dakota or eastern Wyoming. Lowndes County will get raped. That's the nicest term I can use," Vest said. 




Dakota boom 


North Dakota is going through a boom reminiscent of the Gold Rush of the 1800s. More than two billion barrels of oil are extracted from fracked wells, primarily in the northwest part of the state. Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, told National Public Radio her department intended to oversee drilling in that part of the state for years to come. 


"We are planning over the next two decades to drill and hydraulically fracture every square mile of that area," she said.  


Before the current oil boom, New Town was a small town similar to Caledonia, with a population of 1,500. Now, the town is reminiscent of San Francisco in the late 1840s when hundreds of thousands of people descended to the area looking to strike it rich.  


Vest, who once lived in New Town, said he fears the same will happen to Caledonia.  


"Say they test the well and it's plentiful and productive and 'Oh God, there's gold in them there hills,'" he said.  


"Everybody and their brother is going to be coming to Lowndes County looking for work, a place to stay and food to eat. They're going to be in your bars and on your streets. 


"When you've got 18-wheelers with loads in excess of 100,000 pounds going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, truck after truck after truck, you're going to end up with some pretty screwed up roads. Traffic is going to be horrendous," he said.  


"If you hit as much oil as they did (in New Town), I wouldn't be surprised if they had trucks all the way up to Amory."

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.