Myth 3 – Fracking Fluids Are Harmless

The potential for fracking to endanger our environment, and indeed our lives, is one of the most contentious issues we face here. The most likely culprit here is the fracking fluid that they use and the flowback fluid that either returns to the surface or gets left underground.

To do “slickwater” fracking the industry needs to add chemicals which improve the gas-flow. Different type and quantities of chemicals will be used depending on local geological conditions, and how much they need to improve productivity. To put it simply, if they want more gas they can use greater quantities of nastier chemicals. For development fracking it is likely that a fairly anodyne cocktails will be used to gain public acceptance

One of the standard means by which the industry tries to rubbish those who raise concerns is to say that their fracking fluid contains the same chemicals as washing up water or contact lens solutions and that the chemicals used only make up a small percentage of the total volume of fracking fluid.

Leaving aside the question as to whether my contact lens fluid or my washing up liquid really contain things like hydrochloric acid (maybe that’s why my hands are so red and my eyes get so sore?), this ignores the fact that the chemicals need to be transported to the wells (there will be at least 200 40 well pads here on the Fylde if they really plan to extract the 200Tcf they claim is there) in a far more concentrated form giving plenty of opportunity for severe contamination in case of an accident. (HCl typically gets transported at about 30% – 35% concentration.)

So what do they use and how harmless is it?

We are lucky in the UK that it is unlikely that we will have a situation like they have in the USA where the fracking companies’ fluid composition, their “secret sauce” recipes, are allowed to be hidden from the public (including medical staff), on the basis that they are trade secrets.

Cuadrilla even publish a list of chemicals they say they might use saying

None of Cuadrilla’s fracturing fluid contains hazardous or toxic components.

So what chemicals do Cuadrilla use?

Before hydraulic fracturing takes place, the EA must approve the proposed composition of Cuadrilla’s fracturing fluid, which along with fresh water and sand includes:

Polyacrylamide friction reducer
Hydrochloric acid
Sodium salt

OK – we are going to have to admit that we are stumped by this. They are admitting that their fluid contains Hydrochloric Acid and Biocide and yet they also say “None of Cuadrilla’s fracturing fluid contains hazardous or toxic components”.

[Please note that this list does not preclude them, or anyone they sell on to, from using any other chemicals. They will have to get Environment Agancy permission of course. If Cuadrilla can say they haven’t used any other chemicals this is perhaps more of a reflection of their lack of experience and the infancy of the industry here in the UK than anything else]

Are these things hazardous or not?

Well salt is probably OK unless it is ingested in huge quantities so we’ll let them get away with that one, polyacrylimide is held to be non-hazardous (although acrylimides are possibly carcinogenic) but the other two are pretty contentious.


Are described as hazardous by the UK government here where it states that “Pesticides and biocides are likely to be classed as hazardous waste. You will have to separate this from other waste.” By definition any chemical that kills things can only be described as toxic. The word “biocide” literally means “lifekiller” (In Greek “Bio” = “life”. In Latin “Caedere” = “Kill” giving us -cide)

Hydrochloric Acid

The Health Protection agencies Toxicology data sheet on Hydrochloric Acid makes it eminently clear that it is both hazardous and corrosive. Is it toxic? I guess that depends on whether you take a strict definition (it is not strictly poisonous but it is corrosive) or use a generally accepted one (very bad, unpleasant, or harmful). Take your pick – it is hazardous though.

So – 2 out of the 4 components, which Cuadrilla categorically state are not either hazardous or toxic, definitely are.

How are we supposed to take what they say seriously when they present information like that?

Is their list comprehensive?

It may well be that they have accurately listed all of the chemicals that they have used to date. However it would be wrong to deduce from this that no other chemicals would be used in future. Don’t forget that at the time of writing (January 2012) Cuadrilla have not yet successfully horizontally fracked a single well anywhere in the world so they haven’t needed to use any of the other chemicals yet.

If you want to get an idea of the types of chemicals used as standard this article is about as unbiased as it gets They pointed out that there are over 750 additives in use in the industry. We think on the basis of that that it would be naive to assume that production fracking in the UK would restrict itself to those listed on Cuadrilla’s website today.

That article concludes:

Fortunately, most of the chemicals used are harmless, but some are known contaminants or carcinogenic. The problem is that many companies do not disclose the list of chemicals used, and therefore it is difficult to fully assess health and environmental impact of this type of gas extraction.

As we have already stated they WILL have to disclose the chemicals used to the Environment Agency, but we don’t know what the EA would allow, so we have to trust them, which takes us back around to the question of why they lied about HCl and Biocide.

Low Volumes

Another defence that is put forward is that the volumes of chemicals used only make up a small percent of the liquid. This may be so but we are talking massive total volumes. The fracking operation at the development well at  PNR will use up to 31,000 m3 of fluid. If a chemical only made up 0.5% of the fluid you would still need to transport 156m3 (that’s  34,315 gallons) of chemicals in concentrated form to the site over public roads and store it safely before use. And that is just for one short (753m lateral) well. We are talking about thousands of  much longer wells with multi-stage fracks here.

So where are the principal risks

The main risk is obviously contamination.

There are several possible ways by which we could suffer a contamination event including

  • An accident transporting the chemicals to the site
  • An accident storing the chemicals
  • An accident whilst using the chemicals
  • Loss of well integrity during a fracking operation (fracking fluid and flowback water)
  • Loss of well integrity after a well has been abandoned. (flowback water)

The first 3 are pretty self explanatory – the image of an overturned tanker blocking the M55 or a quiet lane in Inskip, and causing severe contamination to the surrounding fields (or heaven forbid, houses) is easy enough to grasp.

The last two though require an understanding of what happens to the fluid during fracking. If the relatively weak solutions of hazardous materials don’t cause you over-much concern you need to be aware that on it’s subterranean journey the fluid picks up a host of unpleasant and noxious substances.

It is now called “flowback water” or “produced water”. Produced water is a euphemism for contaminated, hazardous, toxic and possibly radioactive water which has come up from the well after the fracking process has been completed . It can contain a lethal cocktail of up to 596 chemicals many of which, like benzene, are highly carcinogenic, some of which are just deadly if consumed. If the drilling process encounters an area of NORMs (naturally occurring radioactive materials) such as radon gas it can leech into the flow back water and be pumped to the surface. Measurements by the Environment Agency on the water produced by Cuadrilla’s initial exploratory drilling showed levels of radioactivity at 90 times the permitted level for disposal without a permit.

Cuadrilla’s website states that:

Between 20-40% of the water used during the fracturing process flows back to the surface – this is known as returned waters, or ‘flowback fluid’. The rest remains underground, though much of it returns to the surface, up the bore with the gas, over the lifetime of the well.

This last statement should also give us cause for concern as it means that 60%-80% of the toxic soup will remain underground and the only thing defending our aquifer from contamination is the integrity of the well.

Given the fact that the industry’s own data shows that between 18% and 45% of wells worldwide were found to have integrity issues, this should give us all serious grounds for concern. Cuadrilla do dispute this number and say it is less than 1% and yet a study by the REFINE Group in 2016 showed that of 106 onshore gas well studied in the UK , at 31 of the sites,  “methane levels found at the soil surface were significantly higher than those found in control samples taken from nearby fields” suggesting that there was gas leakage.

The fact that, at the time of writing, there is absolutely and definitively no regulation in the UK which compels Cuadrilla to run cement bond log tests to verify well integrity at any stage of operations, means that our only protection from this toxic soup is in the hands of those who will be making economic and not human centric decisions.

To summarise, we do not believe fracking fluids are harmless and neither should you.

The Advertising Standards Authority evidently agrees with us
as they ruled that Cuadrilla’s claim in their community newsletter that “Cuadrilla’s fracturing fluid does not contain hazardous or toxic components” breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation).

In spite of this Cuadrilla continued to display the same claim on their website until late May 2013, resulting in the ASA having no choice but to pass on this continued clear breach of the Code to their Compliance Team.