November 17, 2016

Expert to discuss pros, cons of fracking

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An expert in petroleum and environmental geochemistry will visit Southern Illinois University Carbondale next month to give a presentation on the problems and opportunities inherent in using hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and natural gas.

Paul Philp, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Geology and Geophysics, will present “The Fracking Revolution in the Oil and Gas Business” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, in room 240 at the Neckers Building, home of the College of Science at SIU. The program is free and open to the public.

Yuqing Hou, assistant scientist and associate director with the Cal Y. Meyers Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Organic and Medicinal Chemistry, said the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has led to a dramatic increase in natural gas and oil production in the United States, which has in turn lead to an energy price drop.

Despite that trend, however, Hou said the practice of hydraulic fracturing -- also known as “fracking” -- is likely to remain prevalent for some time. Inviting Philp, an expert on such practices, to speak on the subject is an effort to share factual information with the public, Hou said.

“We are holding the seminar on campus, hoping to attract wide audiences, people who are concerned about the environmental impact of fracturing, including SIU faculty and students, as well as a general audience,” Hou said.

Philp he plans to talk about a number controversial aspects of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas exploration.

“In my opinion, there are many aspects of this approach that are misunderstood by the general public and many scientists and experts in the area as well,” he said.

For example, hydraulic fracturing is a practice that dates back well more than 100 years. But the more recent practice of combining horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, however, is what has led to significant increases in domestic oil and gas production.

Philp said many people are concerned about ground water pollution, although the number of fresh water aquifers that have been polluted by such practices has been relatively few. Oil companies have every incentive to avoid doing so, he said, both in terms of preventing pollution and because they yield no oil and gas.

“That is not to say there are not issues here that have to be discussed,” Philp said. Earthquakes in Oklahoma, as well managing large amounts of formation water -- water that is naturally present in oil and gas rock formations that needs to be disposed -- are two such issues.

“It is not the fracking that is directly responsible for the earthquakes, it is the disposal of the saline formation waters,” he said. “Other environmental issues in certain areas are related to the large amounts of equipment that have to be moved into environmentally sensitive areas.”

The large quantities of fresh water needed to conduct hydraulic fracturing, which can lead to shortages, is another environmental concern, Philp said.

“So there are many issues related to hydrofracking that have to be evaluated on both sides on a rational basis,” Philp said. “The purpose of this talk is to try and present a balanced approach to this topic and discuss both sides of the issue.”

Philp’s research interests include the study of organic material as it is deposited in the sedimentary environment and undergoes a number of changes resulting from diagenesis, microbial degradation, and thermal maturation at higher temperatures in older sediments. He is especially interested in studying the fate of individual organic compounds that can be related to specific sources of organic material and used to provide information on the type of hydrocarbon products a source rock will produce. He also looks at such substances’ maturity, whether an oil has been biodegraded and the relative migration distances of oils.

Recently, Philp conducted a study funded by the U.S. Coast Guard in which he and students examined the use of combined gas chromatography-isotope ratio mass spectrometry as a means of correlating oil spills with the source of the spill. He is expanding the study to demonstrate that the same technique can be used to determine the source of oil that may have contaminated birds or other wildlife in the area of a spill.
The Cal Y. Meyers Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Organic and Medicinal Chemistry is funded by a $2.5 million endowment plus a $500,000 annuity trust set up with the Southern Illinois University Foundation in March 2000. Its mission is to carry out basic research in an interdisciplinary fashion.