Fracking with Acid: Unknown Quantities Injected in Texas

Acid solutions are trucked to drill sites and injected deep underground

courtesy OSHA

Acid solutions are trucked to drill sites and injected deep underground

Read about the history of oil drilling in Texas and you’ll find references to how wildcatters would pour barrels of hydrochloric acid into their wells. The acid would eat through underground rock formations and allow more oil to flow up the well.

That was decades ago. While a lot has changed in the drilling industry since then, using acid has not. It’s only gotten bigger. And in Texas, no one seems to have any idea of just how much hydrochloric, acetic, or hydrofluoric acid is being pumped into the ground.

“During my years with Shell, we did not have to go to the Railroad Commission [the state oil and gas regulator] to get approval for an acid job,” said Joe Dunn Clegg, a retired engineer who now teaches at the University of Houston. In his well drilling class, you’ll learn all about what the oil and gas industry calls acidizing.

Acidizing involves pumping hundreds of gallons of an acid solution down a well to dissolve rock formations blocking the flow of oil. After a number of hours, the solution is then brought back up to the surface and handled as a waste product.

In what’s called matrix acidizing, the solution is injected at a lower pressure so that it dissolves rather than fractures the rock formations, explained Clegg. But he said acidizing is also used in conjunction with high-pressure hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Joe Dunn Clegg was an engieer for Shell and is an expert on acidizing

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Joe Dunn Clegg was an engnieer for Shell and is an expert on acidizing. He lives in Houston.

“I consider it a relatively safe operation. But it does involve handling acid, which you don’t want to spill on yourself,” said Clegg.

In fact, in 2011, a drilling industry group issued a “safety alert” warning of the dangers of pumping acid solutions at drilling sites.

No Statewide Data

Acidizing remains largely unregulated in Texas. According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, drilling operators are required to report the use of acid, but spokesperson Ramona Nye told StateImpact Texas in an email that the commission doesn’t track the data. Therefore, the commission said it couldn’t provide statewide data for how much or what types of acids are injected into wells annually, nor can the commission determine what counties have the highest amounts of acidizing.

Texas lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 that now requires drilling operators to report some chemicals used in the fracking process. But the bill doesn’t mention acidizing, and one of its authors said the technique wasn’t even on their radar.

“Acidizing is not nearly as widely discussed as fracking. It could in fact be as problematic as the fracking,” says Rep. Lon Burnam, a Democrat from Fort Worth. He’s a frequent critic of the drilling operations that have taken off dramatically in his district over the last decade.

New Acidizing Law in California

One place where acidizing has attracted more discussion is California. Though the state ranks fourth for oil production, far behind Texas (which leads the country), it’s got reason to be cautious: California has bigger earthquakes than Texas.

“What happens if there’s another earthquake and you’re injecting acid down into the shale? I just think those are questions no one has answered,” said Kate Gordon, Director of the Energy and Climate Program for Next Generation, a climate change and family advocacy group based in San Francisco.

“It’s hard to hear about acid going into the ground under the state’s major aquifers and not be a little freaked out by it,” Gordon told StateImpact Texas.

Next Generation commissioned a report on acidizing and supported a California law that took effect last month. It regulates fracking and acidizing, requiring drillers to alert adjacent landowners and monitor groundwater.

“Oil is very important to both Texas and California. I get that. It’s a big part of our state GDP. But we should have an honest and fact-based conversation about what it means to be getting at this stuff,” said Gordon.

Gordon couldn’t point to any drilling sites where groundwater has been contaminated by acidizing in California. And in Texas, a statewide inventory of groundwater contamination does not list any instances of acid contamination linked to drilling. Both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission of Texas said they know of no such cases.

A 1979 textbook on acidizing. The technique was first used iin the late 1800s and became more widespread in Texas in the 1930's

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

A 1979 textbook on acidizing. The technique was first used in the late 1800s and became more widespread in Texas in the 1930s

Drilling Industry: It Only Sounds Bad

Halliburton and Baker Hughes are among the big drilling services companies that provide “well stimulation” that includes acidizing. An industry group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said that the term acidizing is a “harsh” sounding word that makes an easy target for critics. But Steve Everly, a spokesperson for Energy In Depth, an industry-funded research and publicity arm of the association, said environmental groups “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“This is a technology that has been used in the oil fields since before we had a federal income tax. According to countless energy professionals across the country, who have been stimulating wells their entire careers, it’s a safe and well-understood process,” Everly wrote in an email to StateImpact Texas.

Comments

  • EyesOfTX

    We have been acidizing wells in Texas for more than 100 years. If, as Rep. Burnham claims, it could be a “big problem”, then why, in more than 100 years, have we heard no complaints from anyone – literally anyone – that such a “big problem” is causing harm somewhere, somehow?
    Next question: When will NPR quit taking its story line cues from anti-oil and gas activists and actually focus on reporting real news?

    • davemundy

      When radicals are your source of funding, your “reporting” tends to side with the radical viewpoint.

    • Feinuo Smith

      Tea, leave our acidified state alone. We love he way it is and never, I repeat NEVEr want to change.

    • sjburkhardt

      Now I know why Texans are the way they are, too much exposure to the chemicals and acids being pumped into the ground. I wonder if Texans know the adage “Every action has an equal opposite reaction”? This will come back and haunt Texas in the future.

    • Eve Moran

      But it’s hard to find a problem if you never look for one. You could go for years drinking heavily before cirrhosis sends you to the hospital, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t have any harm before something catastrophic happened.

  • Feinuo Smith

    People in Texas love to have their drinking water mixes with acid or oil, their prefer drinks. Who need clean water, those are big government that is trying to tell us what we can drink or cannot. We don’t need that. I only we could get some the the chemicals they have in their water in W Virginia, yamm….

  • Steve

    “No one seems to have any idea” of how much hydrochloric acid is dumped into swimming pools which people then jump into, nor how much acetic acid is sitting on the shelves of people’s kitchen’s in vinegar bottles at concentrations of about 8%. Why don’t you start looking into that before you worry about what’s happening a mile below the groundwater?

    • sjburkhardt

      I hope that you are not a chemist because you have no clue about chemistry. Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is a colorless and odorless solution of hydrogen chloride and water. Once commonly referred to as muriatic acid or spirit of salt, this acid
      is a highly corrosive chemical compound with several applications in
      industry. It has a pH of 2.0. It is also found in diluted amounts in the stomach of humans
      and animals as gastric acid. It is not used in swimming pools.

      Vinegar is a liquid consisting mainly of acetic acid (CH3COOH) and water. The acetic acid is produced by the fermentation of ethanol Vinegar is mainly used as a cooking ingredient, but historically, as the most easily available mild acid. Vinegar is typically between pH 4.25 and 5.00 undiluted. The 8% you list is highly diluted.

      Please educate yourself before posting nonsense

      • JRT256

        Perhaps you should visit a swimming pool supply store before you make such comments. They sell it in 1 gallon jugs. I always used it when I had a pool to lower the pH.

        Steve’s facetious remarks certainly make a point about acids.

      • Kyle Pape

        I hope YOU are not a chemist, because even a high school science student can tell you that the resultant products of HCl and carbonate rocks used in acidizing are CO2 and H20, with a dissolved Cl ion… it’s not acidic any longer after in contact with the rocks…. and it is certainly used in swimming pools to neutralize the water. I use it in mine weekly.
        please educate yourself before copy and pasting bullshit from a liberal playbook.

        • sjburkhardt

          I stand corrected. Apparently some do use HCl to lower the pH. However, in my experiences with pools we used granular acid water neutralizer. And no, I am not a chemist, I am a forester. The rocks you speak of best be limestone for the acid to work. But this detours from the original post of worrying about heavily diluted pool chemicals and vinegar as opposed to what and how much chemicals are pumped into the ground, just to recover the last drops of oil from a depleted well. This practice is obscene and short sighted. BTW, what I posted above is not liberal or conservative, looks like information about chemistry to me. What makes it bullshit from a liberal playbook?

    • Suzanne Lander

      When you start drinking pool water and vinegar exclusively, let us know.

      Acidizing may not end up putting anything into our groundwater, but I’d certainly rather we kept track of it to make sure.

  • Susan Wheadon

    Hopefully by now no one listens to the propaganda from Energy in Depth which is funded by the gas and oil companies.

  • JRT256

    Well, it appears that the author needs to read: Chemistry for Dummies” if such a book exists. This probably applies that is greatly concerned about the fact that acids are being pumped into rock in the ground too. People just don’t appear to understand that acids react with things, which is why they are dangerous to start with. I thought that everyone would have seen Hydrochloric Acid dripped onto Limestone at some point in their education. Well, the acid dissolves the rock to form Calcium Chloride and is not acid anymore. The same is true of other acids. They are pumped into the ground to dissolve rock. There is a chemical reaction with the rock which forms what a chemist would call a salt and the acid no longer exists. If some of it should some how get in the drinking water, this is not a large problem, the water treatment plant can simply add Lime or Limestone. to adjust the pH. I have no problem drinking Hydrochloric Acid as long as sufficient Limestone is added to it first to increase the pH to 7.4.

    • Suzanne Lander

      The companies should be responsible for fixing any water they mess up. Why should we pay to test and remediate for problems they made money creating?

      • JRT256

        Well, the water companies test their water all the time. They probably use a meter to test the pH.

        I suppose that you might be correct that they should pay for adjusting the pH of the water. So, please tell me how do we determine that the pH was altered by acidizing and if it was which driller is responsible.

  • Kim Triolo Feil

    In 2011 in Texas, they pumped 93 million lbs of Phenol (a metabolite of benzene) into injection wells and so whats a lil acid?

    • da5650

      Fracking will become this century’s environmental disaster. And the damage to air soil and water will be permanent

  • Kyle Pape

    you would think treehugging liberals would have a better understanding of basic chemistry… like the interaction of carbonate and hydrochloric acid. stick with your starbucks coffee, libtards. it’s pretty clear you can’t get by the “horrible” interaction of carbonate formations and HCl.

    • sjburkhardt

      Such a witty reply Kyle. I would think that you could come up with a better name than libtard. What is a libtard Kyle? I can place money that I will not find it in my dictionary. It isn’t so much that these companies are using acid to frack, it’s the entire fracking process that is leading to environmental problems. Say whatever bs oil field good ole boy response you want, it will not change the fact that wells are being poisoned, water that is used for fracking (in the millions of gallons) will forever be contaminated and taken out of use, and concerns about earthquake activity. Put that whole acid thing on the back burner and let’s address the real issue. How’s that drought thing going on out west? How is the Ogallala Aquifer holding out? You cannot drink oil, or tainted water

      • Kyle Pape

        That’s ok. I know you don’t understand anything you’re talking about…

        • sjburkhardt

          Debate?

          • Kyle Pape

            Debate you? Someone who doesn’t understand basic chemistry, the difference between an acid job and fracking, or even simple swimming pool maintenance…. Yeah, where do I sign up for that

          • sjburkhardt

            No? that is too bad. This “liberal” was looking so forward to it. And here I thought that once called out one has to respond but I guess you are not comfortable with the thought of being soundly humiliated by the likes of me. Good day to you sir

  • Sergio Perez

    Negative for For Hidraulic Fraking. Is a danger for the planet.

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