Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a specific drilling technique that allows miners to extract oil and natural gas from rocks buried deep below the surface. In other words, it facilitates the recovery of hard-to-reach natural resources.
Though this technology was perfected in the 1950s, it remains a major controversial issue to date, both environmentally and politically.
Below, we will discuss the process involved in fracking, its history, and its impact on society. We are also going to explore the future of this technique.
How Does Fracking Work?
A schematic of the process | Image Courtesy: Mike Norton
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency or EPA, fracking is a Well stimulation process that significantly increases the total amount of natural resources such as oil and natural gas extracted from shale and other rock formations.
The hydraulic fracturing technique has two components. One is hydraulic drilling, first carried out vertically and then horizontally. The other involves pumping or injecting fracking fluids (we will get into that in a bit) into the drilled well at high pressure.
What “Fracking Fluid” is Composed Of?
Generally speaking, the hydraulic fracking fluid is mostly water mixed with various chemicals, including acids, lubricants, and alcohol. In addition to those, small amounts of tiny solid particles such as sand are also added. These particles are known as “proppants.”
Though untreated sand is a conventional proppant, it’s susceptible to fines generation (size reduction) over time. And to maintain the ideal grain-size, sand is often coated with resin to create specialized sand (Curable Resin Coated Sand). Other alternatives, such as bauxite (sintered) and ceramics, are also there.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has identified an average of 14 chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing sites in the country. Ethanol, hydrochloric acid, and petroleum distillates were perhaps the most common among them.
A hydro-fracking set up in North Dakota | Image Courtesy: Joshua Doubek
The Fracking process begins with a vertically drilled well that can extend up to 3 km below the earth’s surface. Once the vertical well reaches a certain depth (at which mineral-rich rock lies), it takes a 90-degree turn and continues horizontally. According to a publication by Texas A&M University, the horizontal drilling can stretch as long as 1.6 km from the point of intersection.
After the drilling is over, the well is encased; a hardened, hollow tube (made either of steel or cement) is inserted to cease spillage of hydrocarbons and fracking fluids into the underground water sources.
The fracking fluid is then injected into the well under extremely high-pressure conditions. This process is often carried out at more than 62,000 kilopascals pressure levels, which is about 9,000 psi or pounds per square inch.
At high pressures, the fracking fluid creates cracks and fissures in rocks through which hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) can flow much freely. The sand particles or proppants are there to keep these cracks open even after the pressure is released, ensuring the continued release of valuable resources.
Along with the trapped oil and gas, a large amount of wastewater or ‘flowback’ liquid is discharged from the well. The flowback liquid contains water and various toxic contaminants, including heavy metals, radioactive materials, and other toxins.
An open wellhead | Image Courtesy: Joshua Doubek
The wastewater for hydraulic fracking wells can be either be disposed of or reused after being treated. Both methods, however, have their complications.
The History Of Fracking
The first recorded use of rock simulation technique is dated back to the 1860s. Dynamites were often used to increase the total output of oil from geologic formations. The idea served the basis for the “exploding torpedo” technique, which was developed by Col. Edward A. L. Roberts, a US Civil War veteran in 1865.
Here canisters fitted with explosives (initially gunpowder or nitroglycerin) were roped down into the well, which is already filled with water to maximize the effect of the blast. Torpedo blasts would fracture the mineral rock and remove the paraffin wax that builds up over time to facilitate the uninterrupted flow of oil.
Before the nitroglycerin filled torpedoes, boiling water or benzene was poured down wells to try and dissolve the paraffin.
The modern version of hydraulic fracking was introduced in the United States in the late 1940s.
Its Advantages and Economic Effects
The hydraulic fracking technique not only allows energy companies to extract valuable resources from hard-to-reach reservoirs but obtain them in more significant quantities (compared to conventional methods).
Though fracking is used mostly in oil and natural gas extraction, it can be deployed in a set of other conditions as well. For example, it can stimulate groundwater wells or help dispose of wastes deep into the rocks.
The remarkable growth of fracking technology in the United States has drastically improved the nation’s oil and gas production. In 2008, the total natural gas output of the country exceeded that of Russia to become the largest natural gas producer in the world.
On a side note, the country leapfrogged Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest oil producer in 2013.
Largest natural gas producing countries | Image Courtesy: Statista
The global demand for natural gas is only going to rise. According to McKinsey, a management consulting firm, outlook report in 2019, the demand for LNG (liquefied natural gas) is likely to increase 3.6 percent per year up to 2035.
With its extensive shale-gas reserves and advanced fracking technology, the United States is expected to supply more than half of the world’s natural gas by the same period.
Studies that are carried out to determine the economic aspect of fracking have been mostly positive. A 2017 report from the Brookings Institution indicates that shale gas extraction alone has increased per-person consumer benefits up to $432 in the West South Central region of the United States.
Furthermore, increased fracking has significantly lowered the nation’s annual expenditure on gas. The total yearly economic gain from this technique is about $74 billion.
Fracking may, however, adversely affect economic sectors such as agriculture. At least one study has found that irrigated crop productivity of a town decreases by 5.7 percent when a well is drilled in its proximity (11-20 km radius). According to the same study, the Canadian Province of Alberta lost about $14.8 million in agricultural revenue in 2014.
Is Fracking Safe? It’s Effect on Environment and Society
There is no doubt that extensive fracking has transformed America’s energy market and made them self-reliant for the next hundred years. It has boosted the US economy, and many nations around the world have attempted to emulate the same.
The technology is, however, facing widespread criticism even in the United States.
Clean energy march in Philadelphia (2016) | Mark Dixon/Flickr
The use of hydraulic fracturing over a long period can harm the environment in more than one way. Groundwater contamination, frequent earthquakes, noise pollution, high water usage, climate change, and overall health risk have been tied with fracking.
For decades now, opponents of fracking are running tow-to-tow against those in its support. The proponents of hydraulic fracking often cite its economic benefits and the fact that natural gas is a much cleaner replacement for coal.
The biggest concern regarding the use of this technology is groundwater and surface water contamination. In 2016, a research conducted by Dominic DiGiulio, a former EPA scientist, suggests that water wells in Pavillion (Wyoming) are polluted with harmful chemicals that are used in fracking fluid. Other similar findings have also been made. Potentially high risk of groundwater contamination and air pollution from hydraulic fracking was identified in a report 2012 by the EU Directorate-General for the Environment.
The vast amount of water required in fracking fluid is also a major issue. An average-sized hydraulic fracking facility (single well) uses as much as 3.5 million gallons of water, while it’s about 5 million gallons for large ones.
The process of fluid injection in hydraulic fracking is often associated with induced tremors. Though these tremors are usually small-scale, few are large enough to cause property damage. Nearly 8 million people living in US states of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma reportedly face the danger of fracking-induced earthquakes.
Fracking also has both immediate and long-term health effects. A preliminary study done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014, suspects that workers in a hydro-fracking facility are exposed to dangerous levels of benzene (a chemical compound that increases the risk of having cancer). They can also develop other severe conditions such as silicosis.
Fracking in Other Regions of the World
Apart from the United States, hydraulic fracking is being carried out in other countries around the world, at least to some extent. Fracking is currently in its initial stages of development in South Africa. It is relatively widespread in Canada, with over 356 active drilling rigs in 2012.
European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom embraced fracking technology in the 1970s. Today, however, these nations have either outright banned or issued temporary prohibitions against it.
In 2011, after nationwide protests, France became the first nation to ban its use entirely.
Countries that are currently utilizing the hydraulic fracking technology (to any extent) have at least some rules and regulations in place on national, state, and local levels.
In the United States, fracking is exempted from disclosing details about the chemicals used in the process (otherwise mandatory by the Safe Drinking Water Act). While states are required to follow federal law, they can put safety nets and regulations in place. Several states, including Texas, Wyoming, and Michigan, require mining companies to disclose such details.
Vermont became the first US state to ban fracking in 2012. It was followed by New York three years later.