On February 28, 2013, a joint letter from nine environmental groups in West Virginia was sent to Harris Sherman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, asking that the agency implement a requirement that “tracers” be added to the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of oil and gas wells drilled near the Monongahela National Forest.
While no particular technology was identified in the request, the letter does ask that tracer standards be established by the agency to ensure that the tracers are non-toxic, detectable at small concentrations, have mobility through a wide variety of geomorphic and hydrologic conditions, and have the ability to pinpoint the particular well from whence they came.
The request comes on the heels of some recent publicity about newer innovations in tracer technologies, which offer the potential to individually identify the fluids used in every single gas well drilled. One such technology is being developed by scientists at Rice University. They have developed a “nano-rust,” which is an iron oxide that can be injected into the ground along with the fracking fluid. The particles are designed to be fingerprinted based upon their magnetism. Should groundwater become contaminated, a magnet would collect the particles from the water, and their magnetic fingerprint could be compared to the tracer added to the drilling fluid.
A second technology receiving a lot of attention has been developed by a group of Duke University graduates who founded a company called BaseTrace. Their tracer is made of synthetic DNA that can be added to the fracking fluid, creating the ability to determine whether connectivity exists between a drilling site and ground or drinking water. The DNA provides each well with its own fingerprint that is simple and cheap to identify. Only about a teaspoon, or thimble full, of the tracer is needed per frack site.
However, the market price of these tracers is estimated to be much higher than one might expect. Given that the oil and gas industry has been dogged by fears and accusations of water contamination, as well as moratoriums on fracking in some places and increasing regulatory hurdles for fracking in others, BaseTrace has estimated a retail price of $40,000.00 per small dose of its DNA tracer, plus $5,000.00 per year for monitoring and testing.
Given the lack of conclusive evidence linking hydraulic fracturing to groundwater or drinking water contamination, it seems unlikely that the USDA will saddle the oil and gas industry with an additional regulation and expense. However, considering the current political firestorm surrounding fracking and the increasing technologies in this area, this issue will certainly be one to watch.
This article was authored by Whitney Clegg, Jackson Kelly PLLC. For more information on the author, see here.