How the Frick Fracking Works

Oil Pump, iStockphoto

Fracking, the process of breaking trapped resources like natural gas and oil from shale, has led to a revolution in energy production in the U.S. It's also given rise to increasing worries that the process can have sweeping environmental impacts.

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Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant. And this is Stuff You Should Know, a very serious edition. So don't even laugh once throughout the whole episode.

Chuck: We're just a couple of fracking podcasters. We can't do that the whole time.

Josh: I wasn't going to do it at all.

Chuck: Well, you know I would.

Josh: I find it distasteful to substitute -

Chuck: I like fracking puns.

Josh: - something for the F word.

Chuck: Yeah, sure.

Josh: Even the F word, I can barely get that out, calling it the F word.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, yeah, right, you just want to say it.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Don't say fudging.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: I hate those people, fudging.

Josh: Yeah, Midwesterners?

Chuck: Yeah, just don't even say anything at all.

Josh: Yeah, just glower.

Chuck: Yeah, or say something entirely unrelated, but all it does is make people think of the real F word, which is like - loses the spirit of your intent, which is to not curse.

Josh: Well, yeah, that's definitely a way to put it. That's one problem with it.

Chuck: All right. What's your intro? What's your fracking intro?

Josh: Well, you know, we did that episode on peak oil.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And it was really funny that we recorded it when we did because like two days after, we're talking about the US running out of oil. A report was released that basically said the United States is predicted to be energy independent by like 2030 at this rate. And we actually are. We probably are never going to achieve true energy independence that's just - I mean 100 percent of our supplies of oil and fossil fuels and all that stuff, created here, it's just - it's never gonna happen. But we're gonna get closer and closer and closer. And in fact, in 2010, John Kerry, famous senator, possibly a future Secretary of State.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, is he being bandied about?

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: He said that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, and definitely natural gas is one of the reasons - one of the ways that US has suddenly experienced this huge boom in oil production.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Oil production, gas production, fuel production.

Chuck: Clean burning natural gas, but we will learn. That doesn't necessarily make it clean over its life cycle. It's a big difference.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Some say it's as dirty as coal over its life cycle.

Josh: Especially people who love coal.

Chuck: Yeah, that is one problem I had with this fracking article is - and not just the article, but the whole topic. Everybody has a slant, depending on who they're working for, like if you're an environmentalist, you're gonna have your slant. If you're working with the big oil companies, you're gonna have your slant, and they all say like these are the facts. It's really annoying.

Josh: Yeah, well, one of the reasons why everybody's able to get away with saying these are the facts is because this stuff is so new, and so unstudied, I guess to this point, as far as published purviewed studies are concerned.

Chuck: And as far as massive amounts of fracking. Like it's been around for a while, but not like it's going on today.

Josh: Right, exactly. Apparently, there's - in some form or fashion, it's been around since the 19th "Century, the concept of fracking, but the fracking, like you just described massive fracking operations, carried out by huge energy concerns, that's probably decades old.

Chuck: Yeah, I think Halliburton started it in 1949.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: They invented it.

Josh: Did they?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Really, Dick Cheney?

Chuck: I don't think Dick Cheney invented it.

Josh: He's like give me that pipe. I'm gonna try something new.

Chuck: Yeah, so they developed the process at least.

Josh: But it's really started to take off in the last few years. In the last decade or two is when you've started to see real concerns about what's going on here. Wait a minute, what are you guys doing?

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And that's where this idea that oh, it's perfectly safe - oh, it's gonna cause a catastrophe has come about. And that's why we should probably say like we - this isn't going to settle the issue, but you should keep your eyes - I hope this raises people's awareness of this.

Chuck: Well, yeah, just on that note, I saw a study today that 35 percent of Americans have never heard of fracking, and about 28 percent said they've heard of it, but don't know what it is.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: So that's a lot.

Josh: Well, let's teach a few people.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: Fracking, a.k.a, hydraulic fracturing, or if you're a total square, hydro-fracking, you know, like that's the kid who thinks he's cool, but he's really kind of out of the loop, so he's calling it hydro-fracking still. But really you just call it fracking. It's a technique that's used to get to incredibly deep deposits of fossil fuels.

Chuck: Yeah, not always natural gas, but most of our discussion will be on that.

Josh: Right, and I shouldn't even say fossil fuels because you can use fracking to get to incredibly deep deposits of water if you wanted to. But the one thing in common that all of this - all of these techniques have is that you go down in a vertical line, and then all of a sudden, you just cut to the right or cut to the left, anywhere between 6000 to 13,000 feet down, to get after shale.

Chuck: Get after it.

Josh: And shale is this type of porous rock.

Chuck: Yeah, we did oil shale, right?

Josh: A long time ago, years ago. Maybe like 2008, we did oil shale. And it's a type of rock - it may contain oil. It may contain gas. It can contain water. But the stuff is trapped in it because of the tremendous pressure at these depths. And with a fracking operation, you go down there and break it up, get it out, and it comes back up.

Chuck: Yep, and here in the US, we have a lot of the shale, specifically the Marcellus shale is one of the main fracking grounds in the country. And what does it cover, Pennsylvania, Ohio, parts of New York.

Josh: Virginia, Maryland - West Virginia, Maryland.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It's huge.

Chuck: So that's where a lot of this stuff is taking place right now, and many more states and Europe are hot on the scene here, to get into fracking.

Josh: They think that there's about 2552 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the United States, and about 500 trillion of that is in the Marcellus region on, so it's a big deal.

Chuck: Yeah, New York just - they were letting it through, and then the government kyboshed it for now, and said, wait, maybe we should study this some more.

Josh: Yeah, because a lot of municipalities were taking it on their own to outlaw fracking in one form or fashion, and this has caused like a huge problem because there's a lot of people out there who are saying well, wait a minute. I own land. I'm kind of happy with this idea, and I want to get incredibly rich overnight, like Jed Clampett did, you know, where's my bubbling crude?

Chuck: Well, yeah, you've got to - you do have two sides. You have some farmers that are like this is contaminating our land, and you have some farmers saying I haven't been able to farm and make money in years, so I would love to sell my land off, or lease my land, and make some serious money. So it's not like every farmer's like, no, I don't want this. A lot of them do.

Josh: No, it's very much divided, and this is playing out in like town halls.

Chuck: Creates jobs.

Josh: Around New York and around the country, wherever fracking is possible, I guess, and it is definitely dividing communities. All right, so let's go a little more in-depth about the process of fracking.

Chuck: In depth?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: It's really pretty simple. It starts off like a conventional well, so you drill deep. I think you said between six and thirteen. They said the average is about 7700 feet down.

Josh: That's for I think Chesapeake Energy's wells.

Chuck: Oh, okay, and so - well, they go to wherever the deposits are, so it just sort of depends. How do they find that out I wonder? Like what's a good site?

Josh: They detect radioactivity, I believe, because this stuff is slightly radioactive.

Chuck: Yeah, we'll get to that, too.

Josh: But I think that's one of the techniques they use is they analyze the radioactivity and say, oh, there's a bunch right here.

Chuck: Interesting. Okay, so you've got your regular well, and like you said, at what's called the kick-off point, it's gonna take a left or a right, and become a horizontal line, and that can span anywhere from 1000 to 6000 feet. Then they stick something called a well bore - it's just basically a steel casing, like a big steel pipe. And they stick that down in there, and then they shoot a bunch of cement down, and it comes out the bottom and goes back and fills it up on the outside, further encasing it.

Josh: Then they clear it out of the mill of the well bore.

Chuck: Then they clear that out, so you've got a pipeline, I guess. And then the actual fracking part takes place. So I'm setting you up for that part.

Josh: Oh, you were.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: You'd think after all these years, I would have noticed that. Well, so you've got the well bore completely cemented and in place, and it's going down about a mile off from the kick-off point, and it's right there in the middle of this shale deposit. And they send down a little tool. It's like a little cable scrambler, you know what I'm talking about? It looks kind of like that. And it's an explosive device. And it blows a hole into - well, little holes - a bunch of little holes through the well bore, through the cement, and into the surrounding rock.

Chuck: Yeah, just a few inches. Each one will be two or three inches of - a little mini-shaft, I guess.

Josh: Right, so you've got the horizontal well bore, and the cracks are then vertical - perpendicular to it.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: Right, and then they plug that up, and then move on and do it again, all the way down the line of this - the horizontal kick-off point - in the horizontal kick-off point - and they blow them up and blow them up and blow them up, and you've got all these perforations into the rock. And then all of a sudden now, you are prepared to frack.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And I was setting you up.

Chuck: At this point, they pump water - well, the pump a lot of stuff.

Josh: It's mostly water though.

Chuck: It's mostly water and sand, and then what they call other chemicals. And although, sometimes diesel fuel's a part of this.

Josh: Apparently, they stopped doing that in 2003.

Chuck: That's not true.

Josh: Well, they were supposed to stop it. The EPA came up with something that sounds like it has a lot of teeth. It's called a Memorandum of Agreement. And they asked the oil companies to sign it, and say that they won't use diesel as part of their fracking fluid any longer. I didn't realize that people were still doing it.

Chuck: Yeah, a recent congressional investigation found that 32 million gallons of diesel fuel has been injected in 19 different states, between 2005 and 2009. So it's still going on.

Josh: Well, that flies in the face of the Memorandum of Understanding.

Chuck: Yeah, the Memorandum of Understanding, yeah, it didn't have teeth, did it. But you can get a permit to do it.

Josh: That's messed up.

Chuck: Apparently, you can get a permit, but there is no office to process the permit at the EPA, so it's an effective ban, but they're still doing it.

Josh: Okay, so you've got your fracking ready. You pump you - you start actually the process of fracking. What you've just done, everything we talked about up to the water is preparing for fracking. Once you start pumping this water down at an incredibly pressurized state, like 9000 PSI - by contrast, you know, an air compressor for your air tools in your garage. It's like 90 PSI. At 9000 PSI is just an incredibly pressurized state.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: The water rushes down, and when it hits those perforated areas, it cracks the shale even further. And eventually, the - it also - that particulate matter, the sand or whatever else that they added, goes into those cracks, and then keeps it open - keeps the cracks open after think water recedes.

Chuck: Yeah, these must be tiny little cracks.

Josh: They are, but it's enough because what you're talking about is - like you're getting gas out of rock, rather than - yeah, just a little bit.

Chuck: Yeah, exactly, it just needs a leak.

Josh: And then once you stop pumping the water, the pressure pushes it back up, and eventually, the water's done. The water that you sent back down there comes back up, and then it's followed by gas or whatever else.

Chuck: Yeah, and that water is waste water that is - and we will get into this - it's one of the controversies, how that waste water is handled is kind of a - one of the things at the center point of the controversy.

Josh: Yeah, so that's fracking. It's complex engineering-wise, but it's actually kind of simple as a concept, and then the whole thing lasts from preparation - I guess the first drilling to the end of fracking, about four months, but then this well that's just been developed can produce natural gas for decades, possibly years or decades.

Chuck: Yeah, I saw up to like 40 years even sometimes. Okay, so that's fracking/

Josh: That's fracking, and that's where the story ends.

Chuck: That's where the story ends. So we're gonna present both sides of the argument like we try to do, sometimes more successfully than others at other times.

Josh: Yeah, because if you're an environmentalist, you probably just noticed eight things that we said that are driving you crazy right now because it's like, well, what about this, what about that? We're gonna address that.

Chuck: Well, let's take the pro-fracking side first of all, which right now, you know, includes President Obama. You know, it's not like we're not dividing this politically, as best we can. Like he's in favor of it right now, and we also need to point out that we had a listener mail that pointed out that there's an EPA study that was commissioned in 2011, that's really the most comprehensive study ever. And it'll be done in 2014, and I think it - by the time this comes out, some preliminary notes should be in. So we'll learn a lot more soon, and maybe the Obama Administration will come out against it after that. But as of now, there's not a lot of hard science.

Josh: Yeah, which is problematic.

Chuck: Yeah, which is problematic.

Josh: It is problematic.

Chuck: So on the pro side, you're gonna say, you know what, we can - these horizontal wells are really sort of efficient, in that you're not going to have above ground hundreds and hundreds of wells. This one well can go horizontally for 6000 feet, and do most of the work out of site.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Of course, counter that with there are like tens of thousands - hundreds of thousands of these wells, fracking wells, and there's still a lot going on above ground.

Josh: There is because the whole operation, while once they finish drilling, they remove the drill rig, but now you have pump trucks coming in. It takes about 200 trucks to deliver a million gallons of water.

Chuck: Yeah, man, I saw this one mini-documentary on this small town of Pennsylvania, and they're like on Main Street. And the guy was like yeah, we used to sit out here at the Sidewalk Café and literally, while they were filming this, it's like every other - every third car that passed was a huge tanker truck.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Through like the middle of this little quaint town.

Josh: Carrying water to the site.

Chuck: And removing waste water, and whatever else.

Josh: Right, so if it takes 200 trucks to carry one million gallons of water, some of these operations use ten million gallons, so 2000 trucks, just to carry it there. Then you've got pump trucks and - I mean it is an operation, even though, compared to oil drilling, above ground, it's less. It's more innocuous.

Chuck: That's right. So another pro is that natural gas is pretty great, and you're not going to find a lot of people to argue with that. It burns very cleanly, it's a good solution, but it's the - like we said, over its lifetime, some contend that because of the practices, it's not any cleaner than coal in the end.

Josh: Yeah, like if you burn it itself, in a perfect world, as it emits one-third the nitrogen oxides of coal, half of the CO2, and just one percent of the sulfur oxides, so it is like a lot cleaner. beautiful than again, as part of the fracking process, you have like all these trucks that are using all this diesel that are coming to and from the site, right?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Another problem with it is methane release associated with tapping natural gas. Apparently, as much as eight percent of the methane in a natural gas well is lost, and methane is bad. It's a really serious greenhouse gas. It's worse than CO2, as far as creating the greenhouse effect is concerned. It's just there's typically less of it. And we usually produce less than we produce CO2. So there's an air pollution factor to it as well.

Chuck: Yeah, that's true. We should probably point out, if anyone's seen the documentary, Gas Land, from 2010, there was the famous scene where the guy lights his tap water on fire. It's very impactful.

Josh: Yeah, did you see it?

Chuck: Yeah, and you know, you can't see that and not go, holy crap, like they're letting this happen? As it turns out, in fairness, the officials determined that it was a naturally occurring methane reserve at this particular homeowner's well, and it was not due to fracking.

Josh: Right, his well had hit like a methane reserve.

Chuck: Yeah, so -

Josh: That would explain his flaming water.

Chuck: Exactly.

Josh: But before that came out, I think Truth Land, which was, I guess, and answer to Gas Land, came out. Did you hear about that?

Chuck: No.

Josh: Truth Land was released by Energy In-Depth, which is a pro-fracking group, which if you go into SourceWatch, is funded by frack - by oil companies. But they released this documentary that said nothing about the oil companies funding it, and called it Truth Land, and it was exposed as propaganda, like right out of the gate. But there's definitely this propaganda war going on -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: - between pro and con sides. Speaking of pro and cons, you got anymore pros?

Chuck: I do, but quickly, just because that guy in Gas Land, it turned out to be a different thing, the companies have been fined for negligence with methane reaching the water supplies. Like that has happened.

Josh: Right, which is not supposed to happen because if you're talking about like a - the Marcellus region, this - that's the typically very deep, deep shale, like 7000, 10,000 feet deep. That's how far you have to drill down before you hit that kick-off point, right. Your ground water reserves, your aquifers are going to be a few hundred to 1000 feet. So if you pass through them, and then you use your steel well bore and encase it in cement correctly, you're not - you're not going to get any release into that ground water, and the cracks that you're making, the fractures, are so deep and small enough, that they're not gonna travel all the way up, thousands and thousands of feet up to the aquifer.

Just the pressure won't allow it, supposedly. That's like the - that's the logic behind it now. But there are things like coal bed methane fields that are typically much more shallow. And they're closer to aquifers. And those are the ones, if you're tapping those using fracking, you run a tremendous risk of methane getting into the water supply, big time. But if you're doing deep shale stuff, as it stands now, all the evidence suggests that no, it's - if you seal your well bore correctly, you should be fine.

Chuck: Right, well, that's the listener mail pointed out that most of the issues - the problems have been because of bad concrete or incorrect well, this and that, not the fracking itself. But it's the same people doing that, so it still counts as part of the problem with fracking. You can't say like, oh, the fracking segment of this operation went well. But of course, we had cracks all up and down that ruined everything. So come on, it's semantics. All right. Some of the more - last couple of pro arguments here Josh, are revenue.

Josh: It's a big one.

Chuck: 17,600 jobs would be created, and $125 million in tax revenue, if New York State lifted their fracking ban, and that's just in New York.

Josh: In their state alone.

Chuck: Yeah, so a lot of jobs - a lot of these are former farming communities that are somewhat depressed, and a lot of people want those jobs. And anytime you're reducing our dependence on foreign oil, that's a good thing, in a worldview. So those are some of the pro arguments.

Josh: Sure. And they're good ones. So - and again, we should say like the jury is still very much out, but there is a lot of common sense criticism of fracking operations. Some have already been discarded, like a lot of people are worried about that radioactivity. And the wastewater that does come back up is slightly more radioactive than it was when it went down, but not any - as one professor put it, that's like the least of your worries with fracking.

Chuck: Is the radioactivity?

Josh: Yeah, another one is that it causes earthquakes, which is sensible, you know, you're down there, you're drilling, you're blowing holes into the shale, thousands of feet down. How can you not cause an earthquake. Apparently, earthquakes are associated with fracking, but it's not the actual fracking. It's when you store wastewater in a retention pond, reservoir-induced seismicity.

Chuck: Oh, is that where it's coming from?

Josh: Yeah, so there are a couple of earthquakes that were associated with fracking, but not from the fracking process - from storing the wastewater.

Chuck: Again, semantics, if you ask me.

Josh: But the wastewater is probably the single most - I guess if you're an environmentalist, that's the smoking gun, like that's the one that you can't get around, if you're an energy company because fracking uses tons of water, lots and lots of water. I mean millions of gallons of water to get to these, and recovers maybe between 15 and 50 percent of that water. And then the water that is recovered is now way more toxic than it was before, so you're taking water from a municipal water supply, drinking water, people - water people need, sending it down in the earth, and then getting maybe 15 to 50 percent back. And then the stuff you do get back is like, what are we gonna do with this?

Chuck: Yeah, well, they - the oil companies will say that they dispose of it in ways that adequately match state regulations.

Josh: Which may or may not be adequate.

Chuck: Yeah, it may or may not be, and depending on the state, the regulations are a little more lax in others. I know a lot of the wastewater from Pennsylvania is deposited in surrounding states because I think they have one of the more aggressive wastewater policies, so they'll just say - ironically, New York, even though they banned fracking for now, allows Pennsylvania wastewater to be dumped there.

Josh: Okay, so there's at least one municipality that has banned fracking fluids, like you can't buy or sell them or possess them in the city, and you aren't allowed to introduce any used fracking fluid into their waste treatment plants, like their city water isn't allowed to treat fracking fluid.

Chuck: Yeah, and some of this water, like the wastewater, some of it is reused for other fracking operations. Some of it is just treated.

Josh: Which makes sense. Economically, it just makes sense to get as much back as you can, and then use it again - use the same water as much as possible.

Chuck: Yeah, that'd be a good idea.

Josh: Some is treated, you were gonna say, in like a wastewater plant.

Chuck: Yeah, sure.

Josh: Others, like a lot of the stuff that comes back up includes like ancient salt beds - salt from ancient sea beds.

Chuck: Oh, really?

Josh: Yeah, and they use those on the - to clear off snow and ice on roadways, but they're starting to outlaw that as well. It's basically like the fracking industry went unregulated for a very long time. It was unregulated, in that it was a drilling technique, as far as the EPA was concerned. And it wasn't until this environmental group, LEAF, sued I guess the EPA over some fracking techniques in the late '90s in Alabama, before the EPA finally started to regulate fracking. I'm sorry.

Chuck: What?

Josh: I got a little into it for a second.

Chuck: No, I love it. We were talking about wastewater. Some of that water also spills. In June, 2011, there was a well blow-out in Clearwater County Pennsylvania. It was a gas explosion, 16 hours of uncontrolled spill, about a million gallons of toxic waste, in to a creek in Moshannon State Park. I saw this one documentary where they interviewed a guy that used to - one of the blue collar guys who used to work at the operation, and he was like, yeah, you know, some of them are heavily regulated and get visited by inspectors. And he went, but many thousands are not, and he said I worked at one of those. And he said in the - at the frack pad, it was on top of like a mountain area.

Josh: That's where the bar is.

Chuck: Yeah, I guess so. But he said you would look at this mountain on the side of it, and he said it looked like it was bleeding, like this red, oozy water, just tumbling down into like the forest below. And he said but yeah, some of them are regulated, some of them aren't - or inspected. And I think it's probably one of the same issues as the mountaintop coal removal, is that you've got like a handful of inspectors for these like thousands and thousands of operations, which is not good.

Josh: No. Wasn't there a spill of just - not even wastewater, but it was straight up fracking fluid, like all the additives? Which, by the way, are - for a very long time, energy companies said that their fracking fluid mixtures were proprietary, and they wouldn't reveal what was in there. The EPA finally said no, you have to. We need 100 percent transparency. So now -

Chuck: Well, not 100 percent though, because there's still some - that is true, and dude, I saw that, too, and I was like great, finally. Release the chemicals that you're putting in there. And then they said that there's a bit of a loophole in that some of them can be - still be listed as trade secrets.

Josh: Well, it's like trans fat, like you can list - you can put trans fats in your food still, and say that has zero grams of trans fat, as long as it has half a gram or less per serving of trans fats, but you can still put that big zero on there.

Chuck: It's very tricky, so some of the states outlawed - or some of the states said all right, you have to tell us at least what your little trade secrets are, and we won't release them, and then some states, like Colorado, believe it or not, just said you don't even have to tell us what your trade secret is.

Josh: So, well, the ones that have been released, it's very - there's some unusual stuff in there - walnut hulls, table salt.

Chuck: That doesn't sound harmless.

Josh: Lemon juice.

Chuck: That sounds great.

Josh: Laundry detergent, antifreeze.

Chuck: Oh, okay, it's getting worse.

Josh: Emulsifiers - apparently, the price of this - what is it called? I want to say guar, but it's not guar - you know, Gwar the band. But it's like guar. It is like guar, but instead of a W, it's just a single U. It's an emulsifier used in ice cream, and apparently, fracking operations have driven the price of this up so much that the ice cream industry is like what the heck man? Like we - you just lowered our profit margin significantly.

Chuck: Is that why Ben and Jerry's is so expensive?

Josh: No, Ben and Jerry's is expensive because -

Chuck: It's so delicious?

Josh: It is delicious.

Chuck: Chubby Hubby.

Josh: That's a good one.

Chuck: That's my favorite one.

Josh: New York Super Fudge Chunk, that white chocolate in there?

Chuck: I like the offerings, the seasonal offerings, too, like I had some pumpkin cheesecake the other day that was really good.

Josh: I have not tried that one yet.

Chuck: It's delicious.

Josh: You know what else is good is their - it's a blueberry graham Greek yogurt, frozen yogurt.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, Emily had that. Is it good?

Josh: It's very good, too.

Chuck: Boy, we can get sidetracked on food at the drop of a hat.

Josh: We've been doing good in this one. We've been talking about nothing but fracking.

Chuck: That's true. So they will - depending on what website you go to, you will - if you're worried about chemical additives, you will see stats from people like Halliburton that say it only makes up like point-five percent of this mixture. But what they don't say is that can still equal like 300 million - I'm sorry, 300 tons of chemical additives. Is that for a single operation?

Josh: That's four million gallons of water used in a fracking operation would equal about 300 tons of these additives.

Chuck: Chemical additives.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: So, there's a lot of this stuff. It may be only point-five percent to two percent, but there's still a lot of - like many tons of harmful chemicals.

Josh: And again, what are you doing with it? I mean like what do you do with it afterwards? If you could reuse it, awesome. I have very few problems with it. But it's taking water from a water supply, and it's - in Texas, fracking operations have been shown to actually have exacerbated droughts in the area.

Chuck: Oh, yeah?

Josh: Yeah, around the Marcellus region, there's apparently plenty of water, like for example, in Pennsylvania, in a single day, the whole state uses about 9.5 billion gallons of water every day. Natural gas development, fracking, uses about 1.9 million gallons of the 9.5 billion every day - 1.9 million to 9.5 billion, so it's insignificant, but in an area that's already water stressed, that's a problem, taking all that water and using it for fracking, wasting it, and then what do you do with it afterwards?

Chuck: Yeah, well, at least Texas has - apparently, it's like the leading state, as far as having capabilities. They have many more disposal wells, is what they're called there. But in places like Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus shale is, they don't have nearly the kind of disposal wells at this point yet, which leads to more retreatment - or treatment of the water, and dumping it in places like New York. I don't want to say they're dumping it - I mean I don't think they're like putting a big tube out in the middle of a field in New York, and just letting it run out everywhere. They'd better not be doing that.

Josh: They probably aren't.

Chuck: I saw one stat where there is one serious environmental concern for every 150 wells.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: Which if you multiply that over hundreds of thousands of wells, the reason a lot of people point out and say it's not so dangerous is like where - where's the hard science on the effect right now? And this guy was like, well, we're not seeing it quite yet, like come back in ten years. At the rate that we're going - and you'll see some problems.

Josh: Sure. One for every 150 operations, huh?

Chuck: One serious environmental concern. It could be a spill, it could be leaching into the soil, it kind of depends. And my whole thing is if it's really no big deal, and it's totally safe, and it's just not gonna impact anyone in any way, then why do you exclude it from the Safe Water Drinking Act in 2005? Like why do you take congressional measures to have the language of what a pollutant is changed? Which is what happened in 2005.

Josh: Tell me about it.

Chuck: Well, the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 - and this is not political - this happened. You can go look it up.

Josh: Just settle down.

Chuck: Dick Cheney did push for these measures to go through. They went through.

Josh: The Cheney loophole.

Chuck: The Halliburton loophole is what it's called. And I'll even give you the section. If you go to page 102, section 322, it covers hydraulic fracturing, and it excludes in the Safe Water Drinking Act, the underground injection of fluids or propping agents, other than diesel fuels. That's the one that they still said like you can't do - pursuant to hydraulic fracturing related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activity. So basically, you need to keep your water safe, unless it's hydraulic fracturing. Frackling?

Josh: Hydro-fracking.

Chuck: Furthermore, in the Clean Water Act, they changed the definition of pollutant to not include water, gas, or other material, which is injected into a well, to facilitate production of oil or gas. So if it's so clean and no big deal, why are they going in and changing the term for pollutant, and saying exclude fracking from Safe Water Drinking Act?

Josh: Yeah, it's a great question.

Chuck: And why was the guy -

Josh: Erin Brockovich.

Chuck: Why was the guy behind pushing this, a former Halliburton executive? It's like I'm no smart guy, but I'm no dummy either.

Josh: Yeah. Well, I think you know, check - the jury's still out, as we said ,on this, and we're waiting for this hard science to come in, but I feel like you should always be wary of any group or industry, or anyone on either side, that engages in a disinformation campaign, that tries to sway the public using underhanded tactics. That should always raise red flags to you.

Chuck: And they're both doing it right now, which is what's maddening.

Josh: For sure, for sure. And anytime somebody's selling you something, and you find out that they're being underhanded, you should wonder about everything they're doing across the board, like with the Energy and Development, releasing Truth Land. That was misinformation. That was a misinformation campaign. They didn't say who released it.

Chuck: And they called it Truth Land.

Josh: Yeah, exactly. And if you go onto the Energy and Development website in particular, it reads really defensive - real defensive, like the text of it does. I can't believe that they let whatever PR company put that together release it like that because it's like why are you asking? Like I'll be you didn't know that. I'll bet you didn't know that natural gas could blow up your whole family if we wanted it to.

Chuck: Well, that did happen, too.

Josh: Well, tell them first about the studies. This month represents the third month in a row, where a major public university has taken a real black eye from being exposed for being in bed with the fracking community.

Chuck: Yeah, University of Texas study said that fracking is safe, and it's really no big deal. Well, I don't know if they said that. They said it was safe. I don't want to paraphrase. And then they got some independent reviews of Professor Grote's study, and they said, oh, you know what, he's on the board of a natural gas drilling company, and received more than a million and a half dollars in compensation.

Josh: And he didn't mention that anywhere in his study.

Chuck: No.

Josh: Nowhere.

Chuck: But what he did do is quit his job at the University of Texas afterward, and kind of retreat quietly into his corner full of money.

Josh: And the department head over him was forced to resign, too. But the thing was, it wasn't just that he didn't report that conflict of interest, he said that there was like flaws in the science. It was a bad article. It was a bad study, and they retracted it. And that's a big deal to retract a scientific study. They're saying like we want that back. Pretend we never said anything. Penn State tried to open a shale development school, I guess, and they couldn't because all of the professors wouldn't join. They couldn't get anybody to be a part of it. And then there was one more, I think that was part of this little three-month sweep that our buddy Wade Goodwin over at NPR was reporting.

Chuck: Oh, yeah?

Josh: Yeah, the Shale Resources Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo was closed after people wanted to know who was funding its work, and whether its work was truly independent, into studying fracking. So they closed this whole school down because they found out that it was basically funded by energy companies, and the people were working for them, rather than the public good.

Chuck: Wow, so there are plenty more anecdotal stories that we could not get to. If you type in fracking timeline, there's a great timeline, oddly enough, of incidences and accidents, and you know, I realize that there's no way to get oil and petroleum out of the earth without there being accidents at some point. It's just one of the dangers and unfortunate side effects. It's gonna happen. But there are a lot of them out there. Wells exploding - 2009, a fracking wastewater impoundment caught fire, exploded in Avella, Pennsylvania. A soil test conducted at the site found arsenic at 6000 times the permissible level. November to December of 2007, 22 water wells in Bainbridge, Ohio, contaminated with drilling chemicals. One explodes - a lot of methane explosions. One family was killed.

Josh: Yeah, it's pretty flammable.

Chuck: Like when they lit their pilot light in their house.

Josh: Oh, my gosh.

Chuck: Killed the family, so -

Josh: And what was it doing to their brains leading up to that, just huffing it all the time/

Chuck: Yeah, who knows?

Josh: If the levels were so high, it blew up their house, I mean how long was it accumulating?

Chuck: Well, anecdotally, you'll see interviews with people talking - it's just like Erin Brockovich, like I went to drink my water, after they started this operation, and it had a little petroleum-like residue on top, and it tasted awful. And like they say don't even bathe in it. And like this is what I'm supposed to drink.

Josh: I want to say - I want to really make sure everyone gets this. If you ask me, natural gas is a really great fuel, like it really does - Chuck, if we could convert the nation's transportation sector to natural gas only, cars and trucks, we would reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent. No, I'm sorry, we would reduce CO, carbon monoxide emissions, which makes smog, by 90 percent; CO2 by 25 percent; and nitrous oxides by 60 percent. It really is a good idea. And it probably will be this excellent bridge fuel between coal and oil, and whatever renewable we come up with, wind, solar, in the future. And we could become energy independent thanks to natural gas.

And if fracking is the best way to do it, that's awesome, but we have to hold the people who are doing this, feet to the fire, to do it as safely as possible, to cut down on these incidents that you're talking about, to not pollute water, but to get it out as reasonably and efficiently as possible, but also as safely as possible because if we don't say you have to do this smartly and safely, they're going to do it as cheaply as possible because it's a mandate of their corporate charters, to maximize profits, not maximize public safety, which is why it's important for people to be talking about this. It's not inherently bad, it just has to be done correctly it seems like to me, after researching this.

Chuck: Right, agreed. And didn't you find a new fracking method that does not use the chemicals at all?

Josh: Yeah, it's called gelled fracking. It uses a liquid propane, and it - when you pump it down in there, it doesn't come back up. It turns into vapor, which escapes back up as a vapor, which you can capture, and reuse, resell, or burn as fuel for - to power the site.

Chuck: That sounds pretty good. No wastewater.

Josh: Gelled fracking doesn't need water at all.

Chuck: And are people using this yet, or is it -

Josh: It's - they're patenting it. It's been used about 1000 times since 2008. I should probably say I invented, so I have an enormous financial stake in this. See, I admit my financial interests.

Chuck: Josh Gel is what it's called.

Josh: Right, but yeah, I ran across that today. It seemed like a pretty good jam - gelled fracking.

Chuck: Yeah, I bet one of the issues with that though is like it probably requires some sort of redoing of your current systems, which probably would incur costs that companies don't want. I'm just guessing.

Josh: Plus you have to sacrifice like 8000 cats, just to get the machine to start working.

Chuck: Who cares?

Josh: It is inhabited by a god that loves cat sacrifice.

Chuck: Just leave my cats alone and you can have the rest.

Josh: You got anything else?

Chuck: No.

Josh: Fracking has been done .

Chuck: Yeah, we've been asked about this one for a while.

Josh: If you want to learn more about fracking, you can type that word, F-R-A-C-K-I-N-G, into the search bar at, and I said search bar, so it's time for listener mail.

Chuck: Josh, before we do listener mail, our TV show is going on. It debuted last week. Hopefully, to great numbers. And we would like to remind everyone to watch each and every week on Science Channel at 10 p.m., following Idiot Abroad, which is our lead-in, which is great. And it's on Science Channel on Saturdays.

Josh: Ten p.m., what else are you doing on a Saturday night at 10 p.m.?

Chuck: Nothing.

Josh: That's why you should watch our show because you'll like it.

Chuck: Yeah, if you're out, DVR it, and if you don't have a DVR and you don't have TV or cable, you can get these on iTunes for I think a buck-99.

Josh: Yeah, the day after the premiere, so Sundays.

Chuck: That's right. So go to iTunes and search for Stuff You Should Know on the television side of things, and we'll thank you for your support.

Josh: Yes, hats off to you guys.

Chuck: All right. Listener mail?

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: I'm going to call this Caving Sucks. This is from Michelle [inaudible]. Guys, I'm a Canadian speech pathologist currently living in Manhattan. Last month I went on my honeymoon in Belize and decided to go on a guided cave tour. I imagined a large opening in a rock, a beautiful sparkling waterfall and lights, and rainbows coming from the ceiling, kind of like you were talking about, Chuck, but what it really turned out to be was five hours of total darkness, except for the headlight of course; high pressure water rushing over jagged moving rocks. I swam, stumbled, crabbed, walked, for two and a half hours to reach a series of seven waterfalls that I then climbed.

Someday I'll look back and laugh, but at the time, I was screaming to Jesus to save me. Luckily, my group thought I was hilarious and enjoyed my jokes. But I kept my tears on the inside. They guys were very well trained, also very relaxed. And I never felt like we were in too much danger. At first, I tried really hard not to touch the precious centuries-old stalactites, as I stumbled through, but by hour four, I was grabbing at anything I could as I was going down, trying not to have my eyes stabbed out by jagged rocks. I can't believe they let random tourists through these caves with no special training or a fitness test.

Living in New York City, I've had some crazy experiences, such as inadvertently getting caught in the middle of a shoot-out and being quasi-attacked by a gentleman on PCP, but caving was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me. Had I listened to this podcast before my honeymoon, I never would have gone and disaster would have been avoided. Thank you for the delightful podcast, much love, Michelle [inaudible].

Josh: Thanks a lot, Michelle. Sorry about the PCP guy. That's really something. Maybe that requires its own email as well, don't you think?

Chuck: It's always PCP. I wonder how many times it really is. Everyone's always like they were crazed out on PCP.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Maybe it was just the Ambien.

Josh: They were eating a stick of butter and coming for me. Let's see, if you have a commentary about how something that we thought was awesome actually sucks in real life, we want to hear about that. And if you have any kind of fracking operation in your neighborhood, we'd love to hear about that as well, pro, con, whatever. You can Tweet to us at SYSKpodcast. You can join us on, and you can send us an email to

Female Speaker: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit

[End of Audio]

Duration: 46 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: oil, energy, environment, howstuffworks, josh,, Chuck