Can you answer the question: What is fracking? Although most of us have heard of fracking and know it has something to do with oil and natural gas, that’s about as deep as our understanding goes. As fracking in the U.S. continues to increase we can expect more controversy over its effect on the environment and more headlines on each side of the debate. So it may be time to dig a little deeper (pun intended) into the subject so you can get a basic understanding of the process.
Fracking is the informal name for hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting hydrocarbons (like oil and natural gas) from the ground that’s been used since the 1940s. You may be wondering why, if it’s been around for decades, fracking is suddenly such a big deal. It’s simple, it used to be very expensive but recent technologies have made it an extremely economical way to get at oil and gas reserves.
So what is fracking? It begins with a well dug vertically—anywhere from under 1000 to over 8000 feet—then thousands of feet horizontally (picture and underground L). Water mixed with sand, chemicals and additives like salts, acids, alcohols, lubricants and disinfectants is pumped into the well at an extremely high pressure. This causes fractures to form in the surrounding rock releasing reservoirs of natural gas or oil which can then be pumped out. The water is also pumped back out leaving the added sand to settle into the fractures which prevents them from closing. And now you have an active well!
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Why is fracking such a big deal? Fracking allows us to extract hydrocarbons from much denser rock (like shale) than traditional wells. Now that the process is affordable, it gives us access to huge, previously unattainable, reserves and makes us far less dependent on foreign oil. You can thank fracking, in part, for the recent drop in gas prices. They are project to drop another 23% this year and, “According to a Bankrate analysis of government petroleum statistics, each American driver stands to save about $452 on gasoline in 2015. All told, the lower prices could pump more than $100 billion into the American economy over the course of the year.” That’s a big deal!
Then why is fracking so controversial? This is the second biggest question after you’ve answered What is fracking? The environmental impact of widespread fracking isn’t yet known. It requires an enormous amount of water—as much as 2-5 million gallons for a horizontal well in a shale formation. This water is generally taken from local resources. In addition to the chemicals initially added, the wastewater that’s pumped back out can also contain many other contaminants and toxins, including radioactive material. And, according to The Geological Society of America (GSA), “Estimates of the fluids recovered range from 15-80% of the volume injected depending on the site.” That leaves quite a bit of contaminated water left to leach into the ground.
The wastewater is stored on site and then sent to a water treatment facility or, more commonly, injected deep, deep underground (there’s not much research on how this could affect the environment years from now). We’re also not sure exactly how much and what chemicals are present. In March, the Obama administration announced new, stricter regulations requiring fracking companies to disclose their chemicals. You can check out FracFocus to see a list of what chemicals are currently being used for hydraulic fracturing.
Whether or not fracking causes more earthquakes is another hotly debated topic. So far studies have shown that the actual fracking process doesn’t significantly increase earthquake risk. HOWEVER, in areas where there is a lot of fracking, disposing of wastewater by injecting large amounts deep underground does appear to have a pretty serious seismic impact.
According to the GSA, “Deep well injection of fluids has likely caused earthquakes in excess of magnitude 2.0 over the past several decades, including a magnitude 5.7 earthquake in 2011 in Oklahoma and a sharp increase of earthquake frequency from 2012 to 2014 in Oklahoma. Kansas has also experienced a marked increase in seismic activity in the last two years, including the state’s largest earthquake recorded at magnitude 4.9 in November 2014.” In addition, research geologist at the United States Geological Survey William Ellsworth recently told The New Yorker, “We can say with virtual certainty that the increased seismicity in Oklahoma has to do with recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced.”
Now you can impress all your friends at the next cocktail party with your brilliant grasp of this complicated yet fascinating topic!