Fracking is an industrial process for extracting natural gas and oil from previously untapped reservoirs in solid ground. The relative value of its benefits and drawbacks has been greatly debated among politicians, news media, and academia. On one hand, fracking has greatly increased the domestic supply of natural gas and oil, contributing to a global decline in prices and promoting U.S. energy independence. Critics, however, point to evidence of serious health concerns and major pollution/contamination risks.
What is Fracking?
Hydrauling fracturing, or “fracking”, involves the pumping of fluid at high pressure deep into wells in order to crack the rock (typically shale) open and release trapped energy-rich natural hydrocarbons (gas and oil). Fracking wells are first drilled vertically down and then horizontally through the target shale deposit, followed by well encasement and subsequent pumping of fracking fluid. Fracking fluid is primarily water, but also includes supportive chemicals as well as proppant. Proppant can be either sand or tiny ceramic balls that fill the cracked rock and help keep the fissures open for extraction of gas/oil. Once the pressure is turned off, the released gas/oil along with other minerals travel up the well and are extracted.
A short video explaining the process of fracking
History and Economics of Fracking
While fracking has only been a major topic of discussion recently, the concept dates back to 1865, when a civil war veteran received a patent for the “exploding tornado”, which employed volatile nitroglycerin for promoting oil extraction from shallow wells. Utilizing pressure to improve extraction efficiency was first tested in 1947 using a gelatinous form of napalm and gasoline. The subsequently patented process was named Hydrafrac based on the concept of mechanically injecting a pressurized solution into wells in order to fracture the adjacent rock. Hydrafrac was officially performed commercially two years later using oil and gasoline, resulting in a 75% extraction increase. The use of water-based gelatinous solutions began in 1953 and continued through the 1990s. The viscosity of the gelling solution was necessary for proper fracturing, however as the industry transitioned from shallow wells to deeper wells in order to utilize shale the increasing amount of chemicals required became problematic. Deeper wells used up to a million gallons or more of gel and additives, which became extremely expensive and began to hinder the financial feasibility of the industry. As explained in an episode of the NPR “Planet Money” podcast, the economics of fracking changed when an engineer discovered that the high viscosity of the gelling agent was less important than necessary. By diluting the fracking fluid to ~99% water, the well efficiency was actually increased by about two fold – for half the cost.
Due to this and other technological innovations, fracking has since exploded as an industry. Natural gas extraction from shale increased over 10-fold between the 1970s and 1998. In less than 10 years later, production increased yet another 5-fold, approaching 2 trillion cubic feet per year. As a result, the decades-old complaint about the need for energy independence from the Middle East is no longer a concern. For the past several years, the United States has been the world’s largest producer of both natural gas and oil. The fracking boom has created economic powerhouses out of sparsely populated rural towns, but the oil surplus it created has also led to its own market decline. The greatly increased supply contributed to global oil prices plummeting, often leaving a trail of unemployment and abandoned residences in its wake across the very same neighborhoods that it created.
Dangers of Fracking
As previously mentioned, the primary controversy surrounding fracking is not its relative economic impact but its potentially dangerous effect on both the environment and human health. While an EPA assessment actually found that the instances of drinking water contamination were relatively rare, they did identify several steps throughout the fracking process that could potentially promote contamination. Potential mechanisms for contamination include fracking fluid spills, drilling into drinking water reservoirs, migration of fracking chemicals underground away from the site, poor oversight of wastewater removal, and others. Many aspects of fracking surprisingly remain exempt from several EPA regulations, however the EPA is currently working to improve environmental safeguards where possible. In addition to contamination concerns, there is some evidence that fracking may promote earthquakes approaching 5.5 or greater magnitude (enough to break windows and disturb some furniture) on the Richter scale. Surprisingly the geologic instability is not caused by the initial fracking well but by the disposal of wastewater, which is pumped deep underground.
The dangers of fracking were largely publicized by the 2010 documentary Gasland, which highlighted some of the more extreme scenarios resulting from fracking, including flammable tap water due to methane contamination. While the documentary achieved its purpose of highlighting the potential dangers of fracking, both the natural gas industry and others have disputed some of its claims. In response to Gasland, independent filmmakers created the documentary FrackNation. FrackNation highlights farmers and other people that have benefitted from the economics of fracking while also debunking several claims of Gasland, including the infamous tap water scene. The producers of FrackNation claim to have denied all funding from the gas industry, although the project was heavily promoted and championed by industry lobbying groups.
Despite how various stakeholders may try to simplify the issue, the impact of fracking on the economy and the environment is complex with a mix of benefits and consequences. The issues of fracking are common to many disruptive new technologies. Innovation far outpaces regulation, because scientific consensus takes a long time to obtain. Even if fracking can be done safely, many environmentalists fear long-term indirect effects. The prospect of decreasing available fossil fuel sources and increasing gas prices has led to a recent focus on renewable energy sources, however plummeting gas prices may dampen public interest in alternative energy investment. There are clearly many factors that contribute to fracking’s overall footprint on society. Only time will tell whether the pros outweigh the cons.