I’m no stranger to industrial sites or oil fields, and I’ve invested countless hours researching and discussing shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing. When it comes to complex technical subjects like this, however, no amount of reading or Youtube videos can substitute for seeing the real thing and being able to talk to the people actually doing the job about how it all works.
One example of that is safety. Safety plans, targets and slogans are important, but it carries more weight when the site engineer looks you in the eye and says emphatically in his own words, “The most important thing is that everyone goes home at night,” and then proceeds to explain the stop-work rules, the “red zones” that have to be clear of workers when the fracking pumps are running, and other aspects of onsite safety. We were constantly reminded to watch where we stepped and to make sure we had multiple points of contact with the ground whenever we looked at something or photographed it.
Concern for environmental impacts was similarly thorough. I consider surface spills a much bigger potential risk to groundwater than fracturing a layer of shale thousands of feet below any aquifer. The first thing I noticed at the site, all five wells of which had already been drilled and prepared for fracturing, was the floor. The entire site, or pad, was covered with a three-layer mat of black felt, HDPE plastic and fabric, to isolate any spills from the ground. The pad was also surrounded by a berm to contain any spills, which would promptly be vacuumed up by a waiting truck. They even vacuum up rainwater. Yet the real key to spill control is prevention, which in Anadarko’s case is reinforced by its “Eyes On” program. This requires an extra observer any time a liquid other than fresh water is being handled or transferred. Soil conservation efforts looked similarly scrupulous.