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Graduate Student Ji Yeon Lee peers in to the microscope looking to identify properties in the waste water of hydraulic fracking.

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Science and Technology

Testing the Waters

Pacific SOECS analyzes hydraulic fracking in California
Sep 7, 2015

Hydraulic fracturing has been in the news in recent years, mostly because the public is concerned about environmental impacts, induced seismicity, and other issues. Hydraulic fracturing is not a new technology-it involves formulating fluids (typically water-based) and injecting these fluids into deep geological formations to increase oil and gas production. 

Pacific Professors Stringfellow and Camarillo recently participated in a large-scale study to investigate the environmental hazards of hydraulic fracturing-and other types of well stimulation-in California. The project was sponsored by the California Natural Resources Agency-as part of Senate Bill 4-and managed by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). Dr. Stringfellow led a group of scientists and engineers in studying the hazards posed to water resources as a result of the large quantities of water and industrial chemicals used. One concern is that in California-and elsewhere-hydraulic fracturing is being done in regions experiencing extreme water stress. Also, potential impacts of the large quantities of chemicals used have raised concerns. 

According to Dr. Stringfellow, "Hydraulic fracturing in California is different than what is done in other regions. Differences stem from differences in geology and most production is for oil, not gas." California is the fourth largest oil producer in the U.S. Much of the oil production in California occurs at the southern end of the Central Valley, concentrated in Kern County. Oil/gas production also occurs in other parts of the state, including L.A. and Orange Counties as well as off of the adjacent coastline.

Dr. Stringfellow and Camarillo found that an estimated 340 chemicals were being used for hydraulic fracturing in California-only about 230 of these could be positively identified. The identity of the remaining chemicals was not disclosed. According to Dr. Camarillo, "Treatment of waste streams containing hydraulic fracturing chemicals appears very feasible. We need to demonstrate treatment before implementing it full-scale."Another conclusion of the study is that although hydraulic fracturing uses large quantities of water, water use for hydraulic fracturing is actually lower than for other types of oil production. Water use for energy is also much lower than for other uses (e.g. irrigation). 

Scientists in Dr. Stringfellow's group found that disposal practices for oil/gas waste streams need further review. Impacts on groundwater resources have not been fully studied to verify that these resources are not being impacted. Also, data collection practices for hydraulic fracturing-and other types of oil/gas production-need updating. The study authors provided valuable information to the State of California for reducing risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Dr. Stringfellow stated that it was an eye-opening experience to work on a project that has received so much interest and scrutiny. As a result of the project, he was able to work directly with members of the state government. Dr. Camarillo states, "The most poignant moment for me was when I was reviewing the chapter on offshore oil development. I was about half-way through the document when an oil spill actually occurred off the coast of Santa Barbara. It made me realize how important this work is for ensuring the safety of oil production in California."
"The work on oil/gas production has greatly influenced the work that we are doing as part of the Ecological Engineering Research Program," states Dr. Stringfellow. 

"This is exactly the type of work that we want for involving students. It's timely and relevant. It combines engineering, science, and policy." Currently work in the research group is focused on developing better analytical techniques for hydraulic fracturing chemicals and treatment methods for hydraulic fracturing waste streams. The group also continues to analyze data sets to better characterize the chemicals being used. According to Dr. Camarillo, "Ultimately, we hope that our research results in good engineered solutions to environmental problems, resulting in better protection of human health and the environment."

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