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Please take the time to learn the facts about this looming threat to our water resources.


We have been getting lots of questions about fracking in Kentucky.  We created this page as an informative resource to educate the public on this important issue.  Please feel free to contact us if you have additional questions, concerns, or insights.

What is fracking?


Visual example of horizontal versus vertical drilling.

Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth.  Shales are fine-grained sedimentary rocks formed by the accumulation of sediment and organic matter into a sea.  That sea bed was eventually buried over many thousands of years and compressed to produce an organic rich black shale.  Shale gas is natural gas trapped within tiny pore spaces in shale formations.

In most cases, the gas trapped within the shale had been unreachable with conventional technologies.  However, advancements in three dimensional imaging and drilling technology (such as horizontal drilling) have allowed scientists to access this previously untapped natural resource.

The process begins by drilling deep into the Earth’s surface, often more than a mile underground, to reach the productive shale layer.  The well is then lined with cement to ensure protection for surrounding groundwater, then horizontal drilling  into the shale layer begins.   Often times a company will have a single pad with multiple well heads.  This allows for the company to drill out horizontally (2000-3000 feet) in a wagon wheel pattern to mine the gas from a large underground area with minimal surface disturbance.

Shale is a very solid dense rock and for it to produce gas out of that rock, you have to fracture stimulate, which means pumping high pressure into the shale layer.  This produces cracks in the rock that are then filled with “propping agents,” (often sand) from the fracking fluid.  The proppants fill the small fissures, holding them open to allow the hydrocarbons to flow through the cracks in the rocks and back up the well head to the surface.

This brief video from National Geographic will provide a general understanding of the fracking process.

Fracking has been accomplished using a variety of different compounds.  Two of the most effective substances used in the process have been water and nitrogen.
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What is hydraulic fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing has been getting a lot of media attention lately.  So what exactly is it and why are people so interested?

In short, it is fracking the underground shale layers by using water delivered at high pressure.

For more detail on the hydraulic fracturing process watch this animation created by Marathon Oil.  This video does a fantastic job of explaining the well development and gas extraction process.

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What is nitrogen fracking?

Stimulating underground shale rock to fracture by using nitrogen as a replacement to water. Typically, nitrogen is delivered to the well site as a refrigerated liquid that is gasified prior to injection.  Benefits of nitrogen in the fracking process include being inert, environmentally friendly, non-flammable, and when gasified, exhibiting very low densities with large expansion factors.

Nitrogen can provide fracking benefits by reducing the volume of liquids that are used and the volume requiring disposal.

Carbon dioxide can also be used in this same process.  The general name for using nitrogen or carbon dioxide is known as “foam fracs.”  They often consist of 70-95% condensed atmospheric nitrogen or carbon dioxide, 5-30% water, and the addition of gellant, surfactant or a breaker added to the concoction.

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Why is there fracking in some areas but not others?

Fracking is dependent upon the existence of shale.  This is a map of the geologic shale formations in the United States, and more specifically the Appalachian region.

As seen in the above map, two predominant American shale plays are in the Appalachian Basin and are called the Devonian and Marcellus formations (because that time period in which they originated).

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Is there fracking in Kentucky?

The Devonian shale strata stretches into Eastern Kentucky.  The map below shows that the thickness of this shale layer decreases as it moves west into Kentucky.



But the shale layers in Kentucky are still capable of producing high amounts of natural gas, as indicated below.



The Devonian strata is further divided into sublayers.  The predominant focus area of the Devonian shale layer within Kentucky is the Big Sandy assessment unit.


Located in the Appalachian Basin, the Devonian Big Sandy shale gas play extends through Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.  Big Sandy ranges from 1,600 to 6,000 feet deep and has a thickness of 50 to 300 feet.

Shale gas production was first discovered in Kentucky in 1892 with the drilling of wells along Beaver Creek in Floyd county.  When hydraulic fracturing was introduced in Kentucky in the 1960s, it was used to complete Devonian Ohio shale wells in eastern Kentucky as an alternative to explosive fracturing which had been used since the 1880s. The Devonian Big Sandy shale rock exhibited the following characteristics: sequence of black and gray shales, low permeability, low porosity, high water sensitivity, sufficiently brittle, and high proportion of natural fractures.  The clays in the shale absorbed water and swelled, however, making hydraulic fracturing not a particularly successful technique. Due to these characteristics, nitrogen fracturing became the most commonly used well stimulation method since 1978, and it was being used pretty much exclusively in the shales of eastern Kentucky with the core area being the Big Sandy gas field in Floyd, Knott, Letcher, Martin, and Pike Counties.

A few hydraulic fracture stimulations were still used in the Big Lime reservoirs above the shale. In 2007, when a fracking company began drilling horizontal wells in the Ohio shale in eastern Kentucky, they experimented with foam nitrogen fracs because that type of treatment could transport the sand proppant much better than the straight nitrogen. Small (roughly 120,000 gallons or so) amounts of water with a few hundred gallons of HCl (muriatic acid) are mixed with nitrogen to create a foam.

Though the hydraulic fracturing was deemed difficult in the ’60s, industry recently gave it a second chance.  A few dozen (or less) small volume (up to 250,000 gallons of water) hydraulic fracture stimulations (not foam fracs) are being conducted in horizontal wells in the Berea formation in Lawrence and Greenup Counties. These Berea wells are shallower than the typical Devonian shale well and it’s likely difficult to develop enough pressure downhole with nitrogen to induce fracturing.  And in western Kentucky (Breckinridge and Hancock Counties) smaller volume (up to 20,000 gallons of water) are being used in hydraulic fracs in the New Albany Shale.

Here are where known and/or active gas fields exist throughout state (courtesy of KY Geological Survey Mapper).


Terry Engelder, a geoscientist at Penn State, notes the following:

“Kentucky poses challenges that don’t exist for drilling natural gas from the deep underground Marcellus shale rock in West Virginia or the Utica shale in Ohio…The high pressure of the Marcellus and Utica shales helps in drilling for natural gas because it drives the gas into the wells….Only the shallowest of the gas shale layers are found under the surface in Kentucky. These layers don’t have the pressure found in either the Marcellus or Utica.”

The commonwealth saw an enormous increase in natural gas production in 2009, rising in a single year from 114 billion cubic feet to more than 300 billion cubic feet, according to numbers from the Kentucky Geological Survey. But such growth didn’t continue, and production stood at 298.9 billion cubic feet last year.

Today, there are an estimated 6,000 shale gas wells producing between 50 and 70 billion cubic feet of gas annually in Kentucky.  Many of those wells are located in the Big Sandy gas field.

Terminated (blue) and active (orange) wells, from KGS mapper:

Additionally, KGS has an Permitted Oil and Gas Wells Timeline Query Tool that allows citizens to search for information on recently permitted wells (since 2010).


The price of natural gas has a huge influence on how many wells are drilled and what kinds of shales the oil and gas companies target. Kentucky is likely to see more interest if those prices rise further. The Kentucky Geological Survey is testing whether the New Albany shale in Western Kentucky might yield the profitable liquids that drillers are pursuing in nearby states. (exerpt from article).

KWA also recently became aware through our friends at Kentucky Heartwood that KGS and industry have been testing a deep formation not previously accessed.  It’s in Cambrian-age rock and is called the Rogersville Shale, and it’s beneath much of the known Devonian formation in Eastern Kentucky.


KGS gave a presentation last fall at a conference and this is a slide on the presentation.  We blogged about this possible emerging threat when we found out, and a number of news stories came out as well (here and here and here).  The recap: a deep shale formation (>8,000-10,000 feet) is currently being test drilled to assess the viability, and residents are already being hounded by land man for easements.  As a result, a citizen group, Frack Free Foothills, has been formed to help raise awareness and educate friends and neighbors about the very real dangers associated with fracking operations.


KWA has inquired with the Kentucky Division of Oil and Gas about specifically where nitrogen and hydraulic fracturing occur across the state.  KWA has been told told that the information could be found on the well log and completion report for each well.  However, the KY Division of Oil and Gas does not record the difference between fracking processes when permitting. And neither they nor the Kentucky Geological Survey have the staff or funding to capture that information into an electronic database.

FracTracker is an organization attempting to fill the void of knowledge on fracking executed by oil and gas companies. They have proven to be a phenomenal resource, providing a map of horizontal fracking in Kentucky.

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Why now?

Although throughout the geological world, Marcellus, Utica, and Devonian Shale plays have been identified as potentially rich in fossil fuels, it was not until recently that the industry has invested into exploration. Two factors are clearly present in the ramp up in exploration and production (E&P) activities related to these plays. First, the success of the Barnett Shale play in North Central Texas has allowed companies to transfer the hydrofracturing technology to other areas, such as the Fayetteville Shale play (Arkansas), Haynesville Shale play (Louisiana and Eastern Texas), and the Marcellus, Utica, and Devonian Shale plays. Second, the population centers of Northeastern U.S. are very close in proximity to those three shale plays, which results in lowering the cost of bringing natural gas to the Northeast market. source

As America demands more and more energy, the Devonian shale layer will likely be a key supplier for domestic natural gas.

Natural gas, they note, contains more energy per pound than coal, and when burned it produces almost no mercury, sulfur dioxide and particulates. A horizontal well has a much smaller footprint on the surface of the Earth than multiple vertical wells would, and doesn’t require mountain-top removal or other destructive mining methods. Nor does it require disposal of coal ash residue, an emerging environmental concern. source

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Concerns with fracking

KWA has a number of concerns with fracking that relate to water.  EPA has developed a graphic that initiates this discussion



  • One of the big concerns with fracking is the chemical mixture used.  Many companies claim industry secret and won’t reveal all the chemicals used in their wells.  Chemicals used in fracking?
  • Hydraulic fracturing uses millions of gallons of water.  While chemicals make up a small percentage of the fracking fluid, the immense volume of liquid used leads to concerns about groundwater migration and wastewater disposal.
  • Industry studies show that new fracking wells leak at a rate of 5-7%.  That rate increases dramatically over time, up to 50% over the life of a well, and the wells most prone to leaking are fracking wells.
  • Methane can find its way into groundwater due to bad well casings, spills on the surface, or from vibration from the fracking process.
  • Technology (and industry) is moving quicker than the regulators.
  • The oil and gas industry enjoys numerous exemptions from provisions of federal laws intended to protect human health and the environment, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law), waste management laws (RCRA), and public right-to-know provisions of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Image courtesy of Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

  • To that end, KWA has major concerns about the well pad, and aquifer/groundwater contamination and surface water runoff from the site.  There are many potential transport avenues for the fracking process to result in contamination of aquifers, as the first image conveys.  The second shows a typical well pad site that includes open wastewater storage ponds and very little effort to contain stormwater runoff (since they are exempt from a Stormwater Permit under the Clean Water Act).
aquifer contamination

Image courtesy of Thomas Darrah, Ohio State University



  • Lack of studies on the long-term environmental or adverse human effects from fracking.  There are some studies (onetwo; three; four) and doctors with concerns, but information is limited due to gag orders widely used by industry.
  • Small earthquakes, so-called induced seismicity, result from lubricating fault joints.  This is particularly true of wastewater injection, as the USGS has found, but has also occurred with the fracking process.
  • The hydraulic fracking process, in particular, produces enormous quantities of wastewater.  This wastewater is typically disposed of in “deep underground wells” that are permitted through EPA or specific states.  Kentucky has some of these wells, called “Class II Brine-Disposal Wells” or “Enhanced Recovery Injection” (below, or click here to go to the interactive map).



  • The industry has been selling fracking to government and business as a ‘green’ alternative to renewables.  But fracking is not a renewable source of energy and there are many questions about its impact on property and the environment.
  • France and Bulgaria, countries with the largest shale-gas reserves in Europe, have already banned fracking, as has the state of New York.
  • Methane leaks out of gas wells because casings are not structurally sound.  The leaking methane rates have been measured anywhere from 3-10 percent (study 1; article), with even larger numbers found by NASA.
  • Budget cuts have reduced the number of Division of Oil and Gas inspectors to 14 from 20.  Over 1,100 wells were permitted in Kentucky in 2011.
  • Greenhunter, one of the largest companies offering water management solutions to oil and gas shale operators, has acquired a well head in Kentucky  (source).  It is feared that, if granted permission by the Coast Guard to ship fracking wastewater, this well head will be a new disposal site of fracking waste from other states. The Coast Guard is currently investigating but unsure when they will make a decision.

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What can you do?

Educate yourself on fracking issues near you!

Let your representatives in state and federal government know that you have concerns about the process, and that you want to see fracking companies held to a higher standard that protects human health and our environment.

Most importantly, be an advocate and talk to your friends and neighbors.  Build awareness!

As action items come to the forefront, we’ll bring them to you so that you are able to make your voice heard!

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