CU researchers: fracking chemicals studied for first time

Groundbreaking study looks at chemicals used

BOULDER - The "surfactant" chemicals found in samples of fracking fluid collected in five states were no more toxic than those commonly found in homes, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Fracking fluid is largely comprised of water and sand, but oil and gas companies also add a variety of other chemicals, including anti-bacterial agents, corrosion inhibitors and surfactants. Surfactants reduce the surface tension between water and oil, allowing for more oil to be extracted from porous rock underground.

In a new study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the research team identified the surfactants found in fracking fluid samples from Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. The results showed that the chemicals found in the fluid samples were also commonly found in everyday products, from toothpaste to laxatives to detergent to ice cream.

"This is the first published paper that identifies some of the organic fracking chemicals going down the well that companies use," said Michael Thurman, lead author of the paper and a co-founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry in CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. "We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home."

Imma Ferrer, chief scientist at the mass spectrometry laboratory and co-author of the paper said, "Our unique instrumentation with accurate mass and intimate knowledge of ion chemistry was used to identify these chemicals."  The mass spectrometry laboratory is sponsored by Agilent Technologies, Inc., which provides state-of-the art instrumentation and support.

The fluid samples analyzed for the study were provided through partnerships with Colorado State University and colleagues at CU-Boulder.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is a technique used to increase the amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from the ground by forcing fluid down the well. Fracking has allowed for an explosion of oil and gas operations across the country. In the U.S. the number of natural gas wells has increased by 200,000 in the last two decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Among the concerns raised by the fracking boom is that the chemicals used in the fracking fluid might contaminate ground and surface water supplies. But determining the risk of contamination—or proving that any contamination has occurred in the past -- has been difficult because oil and gas companies have been reluctant to share exactly what’s in their proprietary fluid mixtures, citing stiff competition within the industry.

Statement from Doug Flanders, Director of Policy and External Affairs, Colorado Oil & Gas Association regarding the University of Colorado study:

“We welcome and embrace sound science, thorough studies, and continued transparency.   For Colorado families, this should again give comfort that oil and gas development is being conducted responsibly.  It’s critical to note that in Colorado any concerned resident can already learn exactly what’s in fracking fluid, thanks to the state’s first-of-its-kind disclosure rules.  This is another example of how Colorado’s tough regulations on oil and gas development are working.”

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