Nebraska organizations debate fracking rules and regulations


Frackfocus.org has two fracking wells in Nebraska, both in the panhandle.

By Kim Buckley, NewsNetNebraska

Many people think of Texas when they think of oil and gas. Not Nebraska.

But every day, wells in Nebraska are pumping gas and oil that are used to heat homes and fuel cars.

Drillers use a process called hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

“(Fracking) isn’t a new technology,” said Stan Belieu from the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission. “It’s decades old.”

Fracking is a procedure where workers drill fluid into the ground to break reservoir rock and release gas or oil.

In Nebraska, workers use the fracking process to release gas more often than oil, Belieu said. He estimated that about 90 percent of all gas formations go through the fracking process compared to about 5 to 10 percent of oil formations.

The Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission has registered more than 20,000 wells, some of which are expired. Big companies like Halliburton oversee the fracking process. Most of the fracking occurs in western Nebraska in the panhandle.

Despite the number of wells, not a lot of fracking takes place in Nebraska. Most of the gas and oil in the state can be reached through the regular drilling process, Belieu said.

Duane Hovorka from the Nebraska Wildlife Federation said he thinks many Nebraskans are unaware that fracking happens in the state. When they hear fracking on the news, they think of other places, he said.

“It’s an issue that not a lot of people have talked about in the past,” Hovorka said. “I think people assumed it isn’t happening in Nebraska so we shouldn’t be concerned.”

THE FRACKING PROCESS

Matthew Hoffman, from Fort Morgan, Colo., has worked in the oil and gas industry for 32 years. For the past 20 years, he has done fracking work on wells.

The design process for the fracking procedure can take a couple of weeks, Hoffman said. The actual fracking, for the most part, takes about a day.

First, workers build piping and casing before the process can begin.

Then they drive to the location and assemble the trucks needed.

To start fracking, workers pump fluid into the piping of the well three times during the whole process. First, they put a fluid like water under pressure into the pipe. Then they pump water mixed with chemicals into the piping without sand. This creates a fracture in the rock, according to Hoffman.

Workers then pump water into the pipes a second time. The water contains sand to help hold the fracture open, Hoffman said.

The last step is to pump water into the piping a third time. This flushes the sand out of the pipe or the casing.

The process can make the wells produce oil or gas anywhere from five to 20 years,” he said.

ENVIRONMENTAL AND SAFETY CONCERNS

Several environmental groups voiced concerns about the process, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation.

The Nebraska Wildlife Federation is working to find out about the potential dangers that come with the fracking process, Hovorka said.

In particular, the federation is concerned about whether pipes in the fracking process can leak contaminated water.

The National Academy of Sciences has published several studies that have cited environmental problems with the fracking process. One of the case studies found that some of the methane used in the process leaked into local ground water in Pennsylvania.

Hovorka said the federation is learning more about hydraulics and the geology of the area to find whether a similar situation could occur in Nebraska.

“The differences is that Nebraska oil and gas wells are fairly deep wells, so the fracking that (companies) are doing is fairly deep underground,” he said. “So it is a different situation.”

Hoffman called the fracking procedure environmentally safe. He said that the government regulates the way the wells are drilled. They set pressure limits on the pipes and run tests to make sure that the casing can handle the pressure, he said.

Builders fill the pipes in the well with cement to keep it open. Hoffman said the cement also stops the spread of chemicals from getting into drinking water. Workers also run tubing and packers in the well to keep high pressure from damages the casing. Packers are mechanical devices with rubber elements on it.

The Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission is working on making the process transparent. Belieu said he is working on making it mandatory for gas and oil companies to disclose the chemicals they use when they use the fracking process.

Oil and gas companies would have to give the public information about the chemcials they use through the website fracfocus.org, which is part of a national project.

FRACKING LEGISLATION

State Sen. Norman Wallman is working toward the same goal.

This year, he introduced LB 635. The bill would require oil and gas companies that use fracking to report how much water was used, where the water came from and how much fracturing fluid was recovered.

Wallman said he sponsored the bill because he thought there should be rules and regulations for groundwater. He said he also wanted guidelines to take care of underground water because it’s a precious resource.

“I’m not against the fracking people at all,” Wallman said. “I think it’s another tool. I want it done as safe as we can make it.”

Both the Nebraska Sierra Club and the Nebraska Wildlife Federation testified at a hearing in support of LB 635. Hovorka said the bill gave the commission the authority to look into the fracking process and put into place any necessary protections.

“Anytime we can put into place common sense rules to prevent contamination ahead of time is the best way to do it,” Hovorka said.

William Sydow, the director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission, testified against the bill. He said the registry used to track the chemicals used in the fracking process doesn’t have the ability to tracking water amounts or sources.

Wallman sponsored the bill in part because he had concerns about the chemicals used in the fracking process.

“We don’t want (unsafe chemicals) in the aquifer because it’s hard to get rid of,” he said.

Hovorka agreed.

“There’s always a concern when you’re injecting it down in underwater aquifers that the stuff could leak,” he said, adding that “it looks like the industry does a lot to prevent that.”

As part of the bill, Wallman researched the fracking process and Nebraska geology. He said he has some concerns about the limestone formations in eastern Nebraska, where his district is.

The fracking process dissolves the limestone into a natural gas, which has the potential to cause earthquakes.

The bill is currently stuck in committee.

Wallman said the bill might be voted on next year. The state senator is will watching it carefully, especially since the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission said they would have rules and regulations in place next year.

Hovorka said it’s good that organizations are addressing concerns about the fracking process now.

“Nebraskans will see more of it in the future,” he said.

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