Fracking: Opportunity or Danger

The technology of fracking or hydraulic fracturing for hydrocarbon well stimulation is not new but has only recently become a very common and widespread technique. Instances in North America have allowed this due to technological advances that have permitted extracting natural gas from so-called unconventional reservoirs such as tight sands, coal beds and shale formations (Gandosi and Von Estorff, 2015). The process involves the high-pressure injection of ‘fracking fluid’ or “hydraulic fracturing fluid (primarily water, containing sand or other proppants suspended with the aid of thickening agents) into a wellbore to create cracks in the deep-rock formations through which natural gas, petroleum, and brine will flow more freely. When the hydraulic pressure is removed from the well, small grains of hydraulic fracturing proppants (either sand or aluminum oxide) hold the fractures open (Gandossi and Von Estorff 2015).

Hydraulic fracturing has been used in the oil and natural gas industry since the 1940s, producing more than 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 15 billion barrels of oil since the practice began. The first experimental hydraulic fracturing treatment was performed in Grant County, Kansas, in 1947 by Stanolind Oil (Montgomery and Smith, 2010).

A limestone formation, at approximately 2,400 feet below ground level, was fractured using a total of 1,000 gallons of naphthenic-acid and palm-oil thickened gasoline followed by a gel breaker. Following the experiment, an industry paper was written by J.B. Clark of Stanolind Oil introducing the technology and in 1949, a patent was issued granting Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company the exclusive right to pump the new “Hydrafrac process (Montgomery and Smith, 2010). The first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing was performed on March 17, 1949, on a well approximately 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma. The same day, a second well was hydraulically fractured near Holliday, Texas. In the first year, 332 wells were hydraulically fractured with the new technology, with an average production increase of 75%. Since then, more than 2 million hydraulic fracture stimulations have been completed (Fisher, 2010). Fractures are created by pumping large quantities of fluids at high pressure down a wellbore and into the target rock formation.

Hydraulic fracturing fluid commonly consists of water, proppant and chemical additives that open and enlarge fractures within the rock formation. These fractures can extend several hundred feet away from the wellbore. The proppants, which include sand, ceramic pellets or other small incompressible particles, hold open the newly created fractures (EPA, 2018) Once the injection process is completed, the internal pressure of the rock formation causes fluid to return to the surface through the wellbore. This fluid is known as both “flowback” and “produced water” and may contain the injected chemicals plus naturally occurring materials such as brines, metals, radionuclides, and hydrocarbons. The flowback and produced water are typically stored on site in tanks or pits before treatment, disposal or recycling. In many cases, it is injected underground for disposal. In areas where that is not an option, it may be treated and reused or processed by a wastewater treatment facility and then discharged to surface water (EPA, 2018). Fracking has brought about an economic boom in the energy sector. According to a 2016 report from IHS Economics:

  • Natural gas access contributed to 1.9 million jobs economy-wide in 2015.
  • Shale gas put an extra $1,337 back in the pocket of the average American family.
  • New natural gas transmission lines meant more than 347,000 jobs, with 60,000 in manufacturing.
  • Total natural gas demand is poised to increase by 40 percent over the next decade. Key drivers will be manufacturing and power generation.
  • S. supply is expected to increase by 48 percent over the next decade to meet new demand.
  • Because energy innovation is lowering production costs, IHS expects energy-intensive industries such as chemicals, metals, food, and refining to outperform the U.S. economy through 2025 (O’Neil, 2016).

Natural gas and shale gas extraction operations can result in several potential impacts on the environment, including:

  • Stress on surface water and groundwater supplies from the withdrawal of large volumes of water used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing;
  • Contamination of underground sources of drinking water and surface waters resulting from spills, faulty well construction, or by other means; ¬∑
  • Adverse impacts from discharges into surface waters or from disposal into underground injection wells;
  • Air pollution resulting from the release of volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and greenhouse gases (EPA, 2018).

It is understandable that with the growing population of the world and the increased dependence on gas and natural resources, we had to look for other ways of extracting these resources and using them. Nevertheless, these resources which took many years to develop are being depleted rapidly due to human activity. I support the use of alternative methods to extract natural resources to meet demand in the short term. But in the long run, we need to shift more towards renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. This, in turn, will allow for decreasing of our dependence on oil, and reducing the environmental impacts of fracking. Despite the economic benefits of fracking, there are legitimate concerns on its impact regarding our environment like building industrial plants and pipelines in natural reserve lands. Some studies have also suggested that fracking has a contributory factor to increased seismic activity (Yale E360, 2017).

Moreover, it is very important for the government to implement regulations that these energy companies need to abide by to limit the effects of their activities on the environment. Multiple studies have found that human activity has been a great factor in climate change, and we need to move away from our heavy dependence on oil and gas. Investments should be made in renewable energy sources as this might well be the future driver of the economy as well as having fewer negative impacts on our environment.

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