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A look at the INL's research on hydraulic fracking

Hydraulic Fracking Research

IDAHO FALLS - Researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory say the IIntermountain West Region has great potential for unconventional energy resources.

Scientists are in their second year of a three-year project on hydraulic fracking in the Bakken Formation region of eastern Montana.

Hydraulic Fracking begins by drilling a well, about one mile deep.

When scientists reach the level where there is natural gas and oil, drilling takes a horizontal turn for another mile. It's at this level where they do hydraulic fracking.

Scientists inject fluids at a high pressure into the well. About 5 million gallons of water are used for one test. The water pressure cracks the rock. Following the fracture, scientists inject what are called proppants. Proppants are sand or sand-like materials which are injected into the cracks to keep them open and allow for the gas and oil to be recovered.

One of the scientists on the team, Earl Mattson, runs tests on actual shale rock recovered from the drilling wells. "We squeeze it, we get the gas moving through it and we get the fundamental studies to say here's what's really going on this deep into the system," said Mattson.

Department manager for the Energy Resource Recovery and Sustainability Division, Robert Podgorney said the INL has a long history of environmental work in the region.

"Basing around the cleanup work around the Snake River Plain Aquifer. It's interesting to note a lot of the snake river plan aquifer is fractured rock. So we have a decades and decades of experience working with fluid flow and contaminate transport and fractured rock from our historical mission here at the site. So we take that knowledge right over to hydraulic fracturing but now we're modeling the fracturing and studying the fracturing aspects of it as well," said Podgorney.

This team is working with another organization at the Bakken Formation to look into unconventional fossil energy in the Intermountain West.

Podgorney said the idea of hydraulic fracking for unconventional gas will be in the works for decades. He added the potential oil and gas resources in the western corridor would exceed those seen in Saudi Arabia.

"The advent of this hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling have revolutionized the oil and gas industry where now you're looking at, the United States could be an energy exporter by 2020 or 2030. So there's a very huge resource there, but along with that there's a lot of consequences that have to be thought out before you go blindly into doing those type of developments," said Podgorney.

The team did research before moving onto this area, especially since fracking at the Bakken Formation is in a region which has historically supported grazing and agriculture.

"At the end of it, we want to provide the decision-makers in in the area with ways to develop the area and minimize impacts to the aquifer," said hydrologist Tom Wood.

"There's a lot of hype on both sides of the story, but we're just doing the science to truly understand what's going on with the system. We provide unbiased research is what it really boils down to," said Podgorney.

A few of the scientists will be participating in a workshop put on by the Environmental Protection Agency next week to discuss the impacts of hydraulic fracking on the environment.

To access the 2012 annual report click on "Project Summaries" at this link. Hydraulic Fracking can be found on page 157.

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