Unless you are a fan of Battlestar Galactica, the word “Fracking” tends to have negative connotations. People don’t necessarily like it, even without quite knowing that to which the word refers.
Fracking is the colloquial term for Hydraulic Fracturing (which may sound ever scarier), a mining process by which a fluid solution is applied at high pressure against fissures in subterranean rock formations to facilitate the yield of valuable materials (usually oil, gas or coal steam) that would ordinarily be uneconomical, or otherwise impracticable, to extract. This process has been in use for over sixty-five years, and over 1 million wells employing such a system have operated in the continental United States alone during that period.
While Fracking is not new, the technologies involved in both the Fracking process and in oil and gas exploration have improved to the extent wherein there are new uses that generate higher yields. Perhaps the most discussed new developments as of late concern the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits.
Focusing specifically on Fracking as it applies to the Marcellus Shale, in very basic terms: a well is drilled into an extraction site, and the hydraulic fluid is applied at great pressure against cracks in subterranean sandstone formations, allowing for the injection of a proppant that facilitates the release of natural gas particles (mostly methane), which then fill the well thereby making such gas available for extraction. The fluid solution employed in the Hydraulic Fracturing process generally consists of water (90%), sands (9.5%) and certain chemicals (0.5%).
The chemicals conventionally used in such a solution tend to include methanol, hydrochloric or acetic acid (to clean the initial fissure), citric acid (to prevent corrosion), salts, glutaraldehyde (a disinfectant against bacteria), water-soluble guar gum and other viscosity control agents, ethylene glycol (to prevent the occurrence of scaling inside the pipes) and friction reducers. These chemicals sometimes vary and are employed to prevent bacterial growth in the water within a wellbore, facilitate and maintain operation of the well, and to prevent or otherwise mitigate the corrosion of the well casing (such well casings typically consisting of a polymer gel or foam).
Recycled “flowback” water, liquid propane, carbon dioxide and other gases may be used to reduce reliance on water for this process, as the technology continues to change.
Most of the discussion about the recent proliferation of Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region revolves around the potential environmental impact. In addition to voicing worries over the possibility of increased seismic activity (earthquakes), many are concerned with the potential for pollution: the use of certain known carcinogens in the Hydraulic Fracturing process and, particularly, contamination of groundwater by methane gas via leaks in the wells after such wells are in operation.
There is some scientific debate still ongoing as to which is more susceptible to leakage: Fracked wells or conventional natural gas wells. Currently, radioactive tracers and, increasingly, geophones are used to monitor Hydraulically Fractured natural gas wells once established. Unfortunately, much of the research and discussion on issues involving Hydraulic Fracturing and the potential consequences to the environment and our health has been ideologically motivated and politically charged. Thus, when seeking accurate information to become better educated about these legitimate concerns, well, the waters are somewhat muddied.
That’s disappointing, but should not discourage one from seeking more information (especially if you live in an area where Fracking is employed, or scheduled to be employed).
The intention here is not to craft a scientific treatise or to present an academic paper. This little blog posting is not all-inclusive, but is merely intended to provide some basic facts on an often-mentioned, but little understood, word that has made its way into our vocabulary. JHI hopes it may well be a springboard for conducting your own research on the subject.
Finally, this article certainly does not take any political opinion on the subject of Fracking – that can continue to be the domain of those who engage in politics for a living.