LPBF: Fracking on the north shore could lead to thousands of wells
In an LSU laboratory, geologist Juan Lorenzo simulates hydraulic fracturing, applying pressure to a chunk of acrylic to learn more about how to create tiny cracks in rock thousands of feet deep in the earth.
"We're trying to force the crack to move in a certain direction," Lorenzo explained.
Used for over 60 years, the process commonly called "fracking," involves injecting fluid under high pressure into shale rock.
Sometimes, a couple of miles below the surface, oil and gas is squeezed into tiny pores in the shale.
"The pores are so tiny that you cannot see them," said Arash Dahi, assistant professor in the LSU Petroleum Engineering Department. "The gas is inside these pores."
Widely used only in recent years, fracking has created boom towns from North Dakota to Pennsylvania to Northern Louisiana. The American Petroleum Institute estimates hydraulic fracturing supported 2.1 million jobs in 2012.
A permit application for a fracking site in St. Tammany Parish near Abita Springs has sparked concerns about air and noise pollution, and especially about ground water contamination. The proposed site sits not far from a huge aquifer that provides drinking water for much of St. Tammany's population.
Last week, fracking opponents won at least a partial victory when state and federal regulators agreed to make the Helis Oil permit application public and to extend the citizen comment period to June 16.
The agreement, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, followed a lawsuit challenging the permit process.
Supporters of fracking note that it has been widely used elsewhere in Louisiana in recent years, and that oil and gas companies have been drilling through aquifers for decades.
A video on an API website paints fracking as safe. The video notes that the drilling continues well past the aquifer and that "steel casings and cement in the well create protective barriers for any underground fresh water reservoir."
In hydraulic fracturing, the drill pipe curves until it runs horizontally, penetrating the rock formation that contains the oil and gas.
Oil and gas drillers then insert a special tool, creating holes in the shale and pumping in fracking fluid to open tiny fractures. Sand in the fluid keeps the fractures from closing, providing a network of avenues for the oil and gas trapped in the rock.
While the industry points out over 95 percent of the fluid is a mix of water and sand, critics see in the remaining 5 percent a deadly cocktail that they blame for hundreds of cases of ground water contamination.
LSU's Dahi says he is unfamiliar with the details of the proposed Helis site, but notes shale rock in Louisiana generally lies a couple of miles from an aquifer, separated by solid rock.
"It's very deep," Dahi said. "It's much deeper than it can affect (an) aquifer under normal conditions unless something was seriously bad."
Helis maintains it has conducted fracking operations in 60 other sites with no damage to aquifers.
Others see a larger issue than simply one oil and gas permit.
This week, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation called for the Army Corps to put a hold on hydraulic fracturing in St. Tammany Parish.
"This first well could trigger a firestorm of activity," said LPBF Executive Director John Lopez.
Lopez points out that fracking plays have often attracted other oil companies, and he sees the potential for hundreds - if not thousands - of oil and gas wells changing the landscape of St. Tammany.
Lopez argues fracking is, "so consistent, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone wants to go out and get their fish and drill lots of wells very quickly."
In addition, he fears the huge amounts of water required in fracking could siphon away rainwater that normally flows into Bayou Cane, Bayou Lacombe and other north shore waterways.
Communities rely on those waters to dilute pollution and meet government requirements.
"In this particular case, we think it warrants a closer look to determine if we're going to regret this," Lopez said.
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