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Business, STEM

Fracking: What’s in Fracking Fluid?

Fracking Process (graphic by Laurie Barr)

Fracking Process (graphic by Laurie Barr)

Cover Photo Credit: San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge (Esther Heller, photographer)

The U.S. continues to enjoy the oil and gas boom from fracking and directional drilling. Crude oil prices have been on the rebound the past three months. This is a good sign for this sector. Lower crude oil prices forced some drillers into bankruptcy earlier this year. More obvious is noting. with every visit to the service station, a steady increase in the per gallon cost for all grades of gasoline. Currently, the average price of regular unleaded petro across the U.S. is $2.775 per gallon (source: GasBuddy.com).

The process and technology behind fracking have been covered in earlier posts. The last post, Fracking: Environmental Impacts – Water Usage, highlighted the large volume of water that is needed to complete the process for each individual well. This post asks the question: “What’s in that fracking fluid?”

There are some who would argue that fracking liquid is mostly water and not harmful to health. According to a USA Today article [Ref 1], “Fracking fluid used to help boost oil well production contains many of the same chemicals found in toothpaste, laundry detergent and laxatives.” Guess how good that makes me feel?

These findings come from a study done by scientists at the University of Colorado – Boulders. They obtained and tested fracking fluid samples from five states. The Colorado study didn’t examine all components of fracking fluid, and researchers cautioned that the makeup of the fluid can change from well to well, as drillers use different recipes depending on the underlying rock. Fracking fluid is usually mixed with water and sand, pumped into a well under pressure, then pumped back out a few hours later, allowing oil and gas to flow back out.

The primary purpose of the Colorado study was to investigate the use of surfactants, a chemical mix that reduces surface tension between water and oil, allowing the mixture to flow more smoothly. Surfactants have also been used for years in detergents to dissolve clothing stains.

Interestingly, as information was being researched for this post, EPA issued its draft report: EPA’s Study of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources on June 4, 2015. [Ref 2] A discussion of risks associated with the fracking process will be discussed in a later post.

EPA used FracFocus, a publicly accessible website (www.fracfocus.org) managed by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC). [Ref 3] Oil and gas production well operators use FracFocus to disclose information about ingredients and water used in hydraulic fracturing fluids at individual wells. The GWPC and IOGCC provided the EPA with over 39,000 PDF disclosures submitted by well operators to FracFocus 1.0 before March 1, 2013. The disclosures identified 20 states with reported well locations that were hydraulically fractured during the study period.

Hydraulic fracturing fluids were generally found to contain 88% (by mass) water, 10% quartz used as proppant, and <1% additive ingredients. More interesting, 698 unique ingredients (i.e., chemicals) were reported by 428 operators in 20 states. The median number of additive ingredients per disclosure was 14. Hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydro-treated light petroleum distillates were reported in more than 65% of all disclosures analyzed. Seventy percent of the disclosures analyzed included at least one ingredient that was claimed to be confidential business information (CBI), and 11% of the ingredient records were identified as CBI. [Ref 3]

To restate the above, 698 different chemicals were found in the FracFocus database, however, the average number of additive ingredients per disclosure is 14. This is important because some previous news stories have reported that drilling companies are using as many as 700 chemicals to extract natural gas and oil from their wells. The latter is a misunderstanding of the data.

In more than 93% of the disclosures, water was used as the base fluid, with reported volumes ranging from 30,000 to 7.2 million gallons per disclosure.

Research on the composition of fracking fluids was and continues to be conducted by a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of the Pacific. According to the study director, Richard Stringfellow, PhD, the focus was to get some real and more meaningful data on the composition and make-up of fracking fluid and not the anecdotal responses that have been building on both sides of the fracking debate. [Ref 4]

As Stringfellow notes, “The industrial side was saying: We’re just using food additives, basically making ice cream here. On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?’”

Stringfellow’s team identified about 200 chemicals in fracking fluids from several databases that include [Ref 5]:  FrackFocus, DOGGR, SCAQMD, and California Notice of Intent Forms.  They can be classified as:

  • Gelling agents, foaming agents, friction reducers and surfactants
  • Crosslinkers and breakers
  • Biocides and corrosion inhibitors
  • Scale inhibitors and iron control
  • Iron control
  • Clay stabilizers
  • Solvents
  • pH adjusters and acidizing reagents
  • Impurities

The team’s analysis revealed some truth on both sides of the fracking debate – with big caveats. “Fracking fluids do contain many non-toxic and food-grade materials,” says Stringfellow.  “However, if something is edible or biodegradable, it doesn’t automatically mean it can be easily disposed of,” he notes.

Perhaps the water quality example I like the best from Dr. Stringfellow is this one: “You can’t take a truckload of ice cream and dump it down the storm drain,” he says, building on the industry’s analogy. “Even ice cream manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down rather than releasing them directly into the environment.”

EPA notes in their Executive Summary that, in general, chemicals comprise a small percentage (typically 2% or less) of the overall injected fluid volume. However, because over one million gallons of fluids are typically injected per well, thousands of gallons of chemicals can be potentially stored on-site and used during hydraulic fracturing activities.

The next post on hydraulic fracking will discuss some of the risks associated with the process.


  1. Study: Many common chemicals found in fracking fluid, Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY, November 12, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/12/study-many-common-chemicals-found-in-fracking-fluid/18945461/
  2. Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources Executive Summary, External Review Draft | EPA/600/R-15/047c | June 2015 | www.epa.gov/hfstudy
  3. Fact Sheet: Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry 1.0, http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-03/documents/fact_sheet_analysis_of_hydraulic_fracturing_fluid_data_from_the_fracfocu.pdf
  4. American Chemical Society News Release: A New Look at What’s In Fracking Fluids Raises Red Flags,  August 2014, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2014/august/a-new-look-at-whats-in-fracking-fluids-raises-red-flags.html
  5. Characterizing Compounds Used in Hydraulic Fracturing:  Necessary Step for Understanding Environmental Impacts, A presentation by William T. Stringfellow, Ph.D. of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), San Francisco, CA, August 13, 2014.

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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