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Securing the Natural Gas Boom
Oilfield Service Companies and Hydraulic Fracturing's Regulatory Exemptions
On a busy Thursday morning in April 2008, a gasfield worker walked into Mercy Regional Medical Center's emergency room, complaining of feeling sick and lightheaded. From 20 feet away, the nurse on duty, Cathy Behr, could smell "a sweet kind of alcohol-hydrocarbon" odor. It would be the last thing she smelled for three weeks. Behr put on rubber gloves and a thick paper mask, and went to the worker. She now realizes that she should have told him to wait in the parking lot while she put on more protective gear. "I took him straight to the shower. Mistake. This is the embarrassing part of the story," Cathy said. Another nurse took the materials safety data sheets from the man's supervisor and looked up the non-proprietary chemicals in a computer database. Meanwhile, Cathy noticed the patient's boots were damp. She removed his clothing and boots and double-bagged them in plastic sacks. The other nurse almost vomited while taking the bags outside. But Cathy didn't notice, because she had already lost her sense of smell. At the time, though, she felt fine — just a little headache, which she put down to not eating lunch (Hanel 2008b).
A few days later, after coming down with what she thought was the flu, Cathy experienced liver, heart, and respiratory failure. Her intensive care doctor decided to treat her for chemical exposure but when he called the company they refused to release the information on the proprietary chemicals to which she had been exposed, because the information was a trade secret. The same privacy rules kept Cathy from telling a reporter for the Durango Herald which chemical had made her ill. The rules also prevented Mercy officials from revealing the gasfield worker's employer (Hanel 2008b). The site and scale of the spill on a BP well site on the Southern Ute reservation were not reported to either tribal authorities or regulatory agencies and were unknown until August (Hanel 2008c; Moscou 2008). Cathy spent over 30 hours in intensive care, and after a long recovery she returned to work in July 2008 (Moscou 2008). The oilfield worker reportedly had no further symptoms but was fired (Frankowski 2008).
Why was the chemical information Behr and her doctors desperately needed unavailable? Why does fracking involve chemicals that pose human health hazards? Why was the operator able to refuse to provide information about the proprietary chemicals? Answering these questions requires looking deeper into the role of oilfield services companies in the contemporary U.S. gas boom and particularly asking why sequestrating information on their proprietary chemicals is vital to maintaining their market edge. This chapter describes how a novel public health threat from chemicals used in fracking is related to the corporate structure of the oilfield services industry and its close association with both science-based regulatory agencies and the nation's premier science and technology centers. This health threat is directly related to how the oilfield services companies have developed in order to retain control over their intellectual property and as a result of the technical challenges of extracting gas from unconventional gas reserves. The world's largest oilfield services companies, Schlumberger and Halliburton, made record profits throughout the early twenty-first century's U.S. gas boom (Casselman 2008) in part because their services have been required to stimulate unconventional gas reserves using proprietary fracking techniques (Manama 2010a, 2010b). The process of protecting oilfield services companies' intellectual property around fracking is creating a novel form of petro-violence — widespread public health threats from chemicals that are made structurally impossible to monitor (Peluso and Watts 2001; Watts 2005). Highlighting the role of science-based agencies and the academy in this process generates new opportunities for resistance and transformation and new responsibilities on the part of academics to intervene.
History and Theory of the Oilfield Services Industry
Oil and gas extraction is very much a guessing game, because it is hard to know what lies beneath our feet. Mapping the subsurface has required the technical development of alternatives to and expansion of the human senses, including the development of electromagnetic and acoustic seismic imaging. Except perhaps for the U.S. military or NASA, no industry is more invested in developing alternative means of sensing and mapping than the oil and gas industry, since success in the business depends on identifying and accessing subsurface reserves of oil and gas (Bowker 1987, 1994; D. MacKenzie 1990; Masco 2006). Oilfield services companies are heavily invested in the cultivation of alternative modes of human sensing required for this activity (Bowker 1987, 1994). In his history of the company's early development, Bowker describes how Schlumberger made its market niche by black boxing one mode of sensing, the differential electrical conductivity of geological layers, and linking that with potential fossil-fuel reservoirs (Bowker 1987, 1994). Schlumberger has maintained its position by dramatically expanding its technical sensing ability.
J. Robinson West, the chairman of the energy-consulting firm PFC Energy, remarked in a 2008 news article that characterized Schlumberger as a "stealth oil giant," that Schlumberger is "the indispensable company": "They are involved in every major project in every important producing country" (Reed 2008). Schlumberger has come a long way from being a struggling company founded by two brothers in 1919. It is a colossus that in 2014 made $48.6 billion (Bowker 1994; Schlumberger 2015). Schlumberger works in more than 85 countries and has roughly 120,000 employees of 140 different nationalities. It operates 125 different research and development units worldwide. The company expanded from its initial market niche of downhole oil and gas reservoir analysis to be involved in practically every aspect of fossil-fuel extraction.
Bowker's history of Schlumberger, Science on the Run (1994), analyzes how the company forged its market niche by developing elaborate technical and social protections for its intellectual property, because that property was its most valuable resource. Schlumberger began by using electrodes to map differences in conductivity in order to locate subsurface oil and gas. When it realized that this technique was relatively easily copied, it made its machines overly complex in order to appear hard to follow and removed data analysis from sites of detection (Bowker 1987, 1994). Schlumberger successfully maintained its market niche by protecting these costly investments.
The term costly investments comes from a sentence in Michael Watts's work that is crucial to understanding the relationship between natural gas extraction environments in the United States and those of oil and gas production worldwide. When we examine how federal politics facilitated the present natural gas boom, the United States begins to look like Watts's description of a "petro-state": a state whose economy, society, and governance structure are entangled with the extraction of oil. In petro-states Watts notes, "The security apparatuses of the state (often working in a complementary fashion with the private security forces of the companies) ensure that costly investments are secured" (2005: 9.7–9.8). Watts's use of "security" refers to the physical use of the state's military force. What if the definition of the security apparatus of the state is expanded to account for other means of imposing a state's power? In his lectures titled Territory, Security and Population (2007), Foucault develops an alternative definition of security. For Foucault, security apparatuses seek to produce particular environmental and social structures conducive to sustaining a territory and developing a population. Producing a healthy nation means measuring and optimizing social and environmental conditions that increase the rates of perceived social goods over those of social ills. Foucault argues that security mechanisms rely on the sciences, particularly the science of bureaucracies: statistics, mapping, and databasing. States use these tools to count their populations and measure the rates of particular social issues such as crime or trade. Taking Foucault's equation of security and science into account, the petro-state's work of protecting oilfield services investments could be rewritten: "The [science] apparatuses of the state (often working in a complementary fashion with the private sector [scientific] forces of the companies) ensure that costly investments are secured" (Watts 2005: 9.7–9.8).
The next three sections analyze how the contemporary shale gas boom hinges on the complementary operations of both state and private-industry science apparatuses. I examine fracking's exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 2005, first through industry lobbying and second through influence over the science-based regulatory process. Next I analyze the close relationship between oilfield services companies and the academy. I argue that the practice of securing intellectual property by using the state's scientific and technical apparatus is producing a mode of violence proper to fracking — that is, chemical contamination that is impossible to track.
A Brief History of Hydraulic Fracturing
Fracking was unregulated until the mid-1990s. This method of "well stimulation" was pioneered in the 1940s and patented in 1949 by Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company (Howco) (Montgomery and Smith 2010: 27). In response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, the federal government supported the development of fracking by collaborating on demonstration projects, by offering tax credits on unconventional energy production, and by funding research (Shellenberger et al. 2012). The practice gradually developed in the field through a process of trial and error; explosions during tests in the 1970s "blew the pipe out of the well about 600 feet high" (Begos 2012). Machinery, such as surplus World War II airplane engines, was adapted to pump the fluids (Montgomery and Smith 2010: 28). Fracking has since become technically and chemically complex, requiring the services companies to "furnish several million dollars' worth of equipment" (Montgomery and Smith 2010: 30). In 1977 the Department of Energy first successfully demonstrated massive-scale fracking and the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling in 1986 (Shellenberger et al. 2012). Three-dimensional micro-seismic imaging developed for coal mining via Sandia National Laboratory proved to be vital for identifying shale gas reserves. Fracking for shale gas was not considered financially viable until 1998 when George Mitchell, a Texas oilman, brought the cost of a fracking operation from $300,000 or $250,000 down to $100,000 on his 36th attempt (Begos 2012; Shellenberger et al. 2012). Between 2000 and 2010 the industry spread rapidly with the advent of successful gas shale, coal-bed methane (CBM), and tight sands drilling methods. It facilitated a boom in unconventional natural gas that tripled service company fracking revenues between 1999 and 2007 from $2.8 billion to $13 billion (EPA2004; Wagman 2006; Montgomery and Smith 2010: 35–36). Oilfield services companies fought vigorously to preserve sole control over the processes and chemicals involved in fracking.
Frack fluids were developed to suit the unique challenges of surface to subsurface operations, where temperatures in deep wells can reach over 2,500°F and sheer pressures are intense (Montgomery and Smith 2010). Engineering a substance that remains fluid in such conditions is a challenge (LaGrone, Baumgarther, and Woodroof 1985). Moreover, fracking fluids must be mixed and combined within the chemical and physical environment of the surface, and transferred into very different subsurface conditions, after which they are returned again to the surface. This mixing creates various problems. Surface water is used in very large quantities (see figure 1.1). According to a 2009 report by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), between two to four million gallons of water is used during each frack.
Oxygenated surface water has a bacterial load, much of which will not survive the heat of deep wells. However, a small proportion of the bacterial populations found in this water will thrive in the low-oxygen, high-heat environment "down hole." These surviving bacteria may destabilize the fracking fluids and reduce gas yields by populating the fractures in the form of biofilms that limit gas flow. Biocides are added to kill the bacteria in surface water and prevent the formation of such blockages. Fracking fluid returning to the surface is therefore laced with biocides that are toxic to surface life and hazardous to dispose (Rimassa et al. 2011).
Other chemicals used in fracking create similar engineering, environmental, and public health quandaries. For example, acids are used to clean the well of drilling muds and other debris, as well as serve as a form of well stimulation (Kalfayan 2008; GWPC 2009). After well completion, approximately 5,000 gallons of diluted acetic or hydrochloric acid are pumped down the well at a flow rate of about 500 gallons a minute, enough to simultaneously fill 50 bathtubs with an average volume of 100 gallons within 10 minutes (GWPC 2009: 59). Flowback water containing acids is frequently stored in open-air pits where hydrochloric acid can volatilize and form the precursors to acid rain. Surface storage of acid also poses risks, as seen in Leroy Township, Pennsylvania, where 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked out of its container (Hrin 2012).
Chemical additives like acids also create hazards for well infrastructure and require the addition of counteracting chemicals, such as corrosion inhibitors, to neutralize excess acids. Oxygen scavengers such as ammonium or sodium bisulfite are used to remove oxygen from fracking fluids as oxygen can react with chemicals in the fluid and destabilize the composition of the gel (Walker et al. 1995). Oxygen also rusts the pipes' infrastructure, potentially threatening the wells' integrity under the high pressures used in fracking (GWPC 2009). Oxygen scavengers and corrosion inhibitors are both very reactive and may act as sterilizing agents. Thus the challenges of creating and preserving linkages between the surface and the subsurface create hazards to surface life. Each fracking operation involves 18 different cycles, each cycle requiring changes in the chemistry and composition of fracking fluids (GWPC 2009; McKenzie et al. 2012). Exempting fracking fluids from federal reporting requirements and monitoring makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the risks posed by the chemicals.
High-volume fracking started in the United States in the late 1980s to extract gas from unconventional reserves in Alabama. In 1994, a Florida-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Legal Environmental Assistance Fund (LEAF), petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), arguing that fracking ought to be regulated by the state under theSDWA after numerous families in Alabama experienced contamination of their water wells and strange health effects coincident with fracturing operations. As one report noted, "In June of 1989, the Hocutt family's water well became contaminated with brown, slimy, petroleum smelling fluid that was similar to the discharged hydraulic fracturing fluid that traveled downhill from the USX-Amoco methane well near their house (reportedly killing all plant and animal life in its path). ... Ms. Hocutt and her husband have both experienced a variety of diseases including cancers of unknown etiology. At least 8 more neighbors also have some form of cancer of unknown etiology" (NRDC 2002b: 3).
The SDWA requires states to regulate any threats from underground injection to drinking water. Fracking, LEAF argued, is plainly underground injection and should be regulated by the states (LEAF 1997). In its 1995 response to a LEAF petition, theEPA argued that fracturing was not underground injection because the primary goal of fracturing is not to leave chemicals underground but rather to promote natural gas rising to the surface. LEAF did not believe this argument held up under scrutiny (because it contradicts the SDWA) and so it appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 1997 concluded that fracturing indeed constituted underground injection according to the plain language of the SDWA (LEAF 1997).
Excerpted from "Fractivism"
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Table of ContentsPreface ix
Introduction. An STS Analysis of Natural Gas Development in the United States 1
1. Securing the Natural Gas Boom: Oilfield Service Companies and Hydraulic Fracturing's Regulatory Exemptions 19
2. Methods for Following Chemicals: Seeing a Disruptive System and Forming a Disruptive Science 41
3. HEIRship: TEDX and Collective Inheritance 64
4. Stimulating Debate: Fracking, HEIRship, and TEDX's Generative Database 86
5. Industrial Relations and an Introduction to STS in Practice 115
6. ExtrAct: A Case Study in Methods for STS in Practice 137
7. Landman Report Card: Developing Web Tools for Socially Contentious Issues 165
8. From LRC to WellWatch: Designing Infrastructure for Participatory and Recursive Publics 191
9. WellWatch: Reflections on Designing Digital Media for Multisited Para-ethnography of Industrial Systems 219
10. The Fossil-Fuel Connection (with coauthor Len Albright) 247
Conclusion. Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds: A Call for Industrial Embodiment 279
What People are Saying About This
“Operating at the borderlands of anthropology and science studies, Sara Ann Wylie offers a compelling account of the relations between the production of knowledge and forms of regulatory accountability. She also outlines how alternative modes of scientific practice can yield new and innovative results while giving a rich depiction of the intersection of how forms of participatory democracy enroll the online world. Tackling a hugely important topic from an original angle, Fractivism could very well make a splash.”
“Sara Ann Wylie tells both a sobering story about industry practice and government negligence and an inspiring story of how gas patch residents, artists, civil servants, NGO activists, and health, environmental, and social scientists have responded to fracking. The political implications of this impressive and important book will be far-reaching.”