By Quentin Wagenfield
Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — breaks apart concrete-like shale thousands of feet below ground to extract natural gas or oil unaccessible by conventional drilling.
The procedure includes conventional vertical drilling to the right depth, horizontal drilling to where gas or oil is recoverable, and then the two- to five-day fracking process. This involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shale at high pressure, cracking the shale and freeing the gas or oil to flow toward the well. The well then produces gas or oil for up to 40 years.
Increased production through fracking is phenomenal. The North Dakota Bakken Reserve included 457 wells and produced 7 million barrels of oil in 2007. In 2012, between 2,000 and 3,000 new wells yearly were producing up to 127 million barrels of oil annually.
The North Dakota Oil and Gas Commissions predicts drilling and fracturing 35,000 to 40,000 new wells in the next 20 years.
In gas production, the Marcellus Shale beneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York could produce 493 trillion cubic feet of gas over its 50-to-100-year life span, according to Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder. This could power every natural gas-burning device in the country for more than 20 years.
Fracking dropped gas prices more than two-thirds in the last decade, saving consumers about $125 billion yearly. Cheap gas moved a tenth of U.S. electricity production from coal to gas, emitting 45 percent less carbon dioxide per energy unit.
So what’s not to like about fracking?
Environmentalists and residents near fracking sites believe that fracking pollutes the air and water, kills animals and causes cancer and other illnesses. This is sometimes true, if proper precautions are not taken.
Examples: burning off unprofitable gas from oil wells that release carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and improperly using ground water reserves.
Since fracking takes a billion gallons of water to produce 100 million barrels of oil, North Dakota farmers fear that fracking may diminish or pollute their water supply.
In Pennsylvania, Duke University chemical engineer Robert Jackson found methane in 115 of 141 shallow drinking water wells. Concentration in wells less than a mile from a fracking well were six times higher than homes farther away. Although chemical tests are incomplete, leaking fracking wells are suspect.
Opponents also distort facts about fracking. A 2010 Hollywood documentary film, “Gasland,” shows a faucet catching fire from fracking activity, an event that later was proved to be false.
In this film, Craig Saunter in Dimrock, Penn., claimed his water contained compounds such as strontium, barium and uranium, and several families in the town claimed they and their animals were made violently ill from fracking-contaminated water. Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that the drinking water was safe.
Can fracking occur without endangering human life? Yes, through thorough examination and regulations strictly enforced by state and federal agencies. This effort is underway and expanding.
Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University fracking expert, has examined inspection reports for leak indications from most of the 41,311 gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2000. The EPA also examines claims made against well operators, and states are making rules to ensure safe fracking.
The Groundwater Protection Council states: “… State and federal requirements, along with the technologies and practices developed by industry, serve to protect human health and help reduce environmental impacts from shale gas operations.”
Companies also are helping. A statement from Exxon Mobil reads: “Those of us in the energy industry remain focused on making sure every step of the process — from setup to drilling to fracturing to producing — is conducted safely and responsibly.”
l Quentin Wagenfield, retired from Rockwell Collins as a technical writer and programmer, is a freelance researcher and writer from Cedar Rapids. Comments: email@example.com