The Promised Land: Frac Fluids on Fire

PROMISED LAND,2012, Focus Features

2012, Focus Features

One of the more visually entertaining scenes in Promised Land (2012) was when the environmental activist Dustin Noble (played by John Krasinski) visited a local school to discuss the risks that fracking poses to farms.  Firstly, selecting the name of “Noble” for the environmental activist was a clever but non-subtle choice.


Secondly, during his classroom lecture, Noble entertainingly douses a play desktop farm with a mixture of water, cleaning fluids, and flammable liquids, then sets the whole thing on fire.  I thought this ploy was visually effective in terms of illustrating the risks in a way that would raise concerns.  But, I couldn’t help but notice the mixing ratios of water, sand, chemicals, and flammables were way off from reality.

In the movie, they were mixed in roughly equal quantities: 1 bottle of water, 1 bottle of cleaners, 1 bottle of flammable alcohol, and a large ziplog bag of sand.  While there is no doubt that frac fluids are a combination of water, proppants (usually sand, but not always), chemicals such as surfactants to improve gas flow or disinfectants to prevent rapid growth of undesired biota, and the flammable gas or liquids that producers are seeking to extract, the mixing ratios in actual wells are much different than shown.

A more typical breakdown is as follows: 99% of injected frac fluids is water and sand, and the rest of the constituents, which are the chemicals that cause the most concern (surfactants, corrosion inhibitors, acids, antibacterials, etc.) comprise the remaining 1%.

This isn’t to say the chemicals are harmless or that we shouldn’t be concerned, it’s just that the volume of controversial chemicals is nowhere close to equal with the water and sand.

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