What is Fracking? The Answer to Our Energy Problem?

frackingWhat is fracking? Before we explain, a little background first…

Sometime in 2006 an inconspicuous thing happened that could have been as a dramatic junction in human history as when man discovered fire. Global oil production dropped by 375 million of barrels per day. It’s a small drop, but one with a big thud when it hit the bucket’s bottom.

After decades of rapid growth in production to outpace the world’s energy needs, suddenly, the oil drills were pumping out less petroleum.  Have we just crossed the line to peak oil? That from then on, oil production is on a gradual slide unless we find other sources of energy? As we stumble our way to make renewable energy a viable replacement—we’re barely scratching the surface

at 13.2% according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—the oil industry seems to have found an answer: fracking.


Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, creates fissures and cracks underground to release natural gas and crude oil trapped in shale formation, a sedimentary layer of earth composed of clay and other mineral fragments. Fracking is an old technology, but advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic systems allow fracking to reach shale layers that were inaccessible in the past. Instead of drilling deeper, oil companies can now drill sideways and snake through the shale, shoot them with highly pressurized liquid to crack the sediments open and release the fuel.


Proponents say that if we keep fracking, we can be a top fossil fuel producer like Saudi Arabia. The U.S. happens to have a lot of these shale rocks to crack, around 2.5 trillion cubic feet says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Imagine the windfall. Stable fuel prices. More energy to drive more businesses. Less dependency on the Middle East, which means less military and political costs to protect the Saudi royals.

With fuel surplus, the U.S. can even start exporting natural gas to China, another country with a big appetite for energy, to tilt the trade deficit to our favor. The dominoes will fall into the right places. We can use our energy surplus as a bargaining chip to compete with China’s manufacturing advantage. Say, fuel subsidies on American factories to drive down manufacturing costs here?

Proponents are wide-eyed with the economic and political windfall of fracking. If the picture seems too rosy, it is. Environmental concern is the thorn that sticks out and opponents to fracking are as loud and wide-eyed, not with the possibilities, but the consequences of fracking.

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One thing we’re sure of, fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes, at least not significant enough to shift the tectonic plates. A study by the Durham University’ Energy Insitute says that creating fissures underneath can technically re-activate dormant fault lines, but the chances are as high as the thud produced by someone jumping off a ladder. The real threat, opponents say, is contamination of ground water.

The liquid used in fracking is a combination of chemicals from benzene to methanol and other components known to cause cancer. But nobody really knows the exact mix. The industry’s lack of transparency on the liquid mixture only draws more flak from opponents. Are they hiding some dangerous fluid that can contaminate our groundwater? Although many states, particularly along the Marcellus Shale, a large swath that straddles West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, say that fracking fluid is safe when regulated. In fact, a look at one fluid reveals some benign common ingredients as walnut shells and instant coffee.

Just how risky is the fluid seeping into groundwater? No more than, perhaps, an oil spill in the Bering Strait or Gulf of Mexico. The only and big difference is that a fracking disaster, or fraccident as some put it not without a hint of sarcasm, hits home much closer. Ground zero is not in the body of water miles away, but in the running water your kid is using to gargle before bed time.

Another environmental issue is air contamination. In a report published in the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences warns escaping gases including methane will migrate to the surface and be released in the air. These are toxic fumes that can easily be blown from the drilling sites to neighboring communities. If burning fossil fuel is bad enough, a methane-contaminated air is deadly. The evidence is hard enough that France and Tunisia have banned fracking operations. In Quebec, a moratorium is in place pending safer procedures. Robert Howarth, a scientist from Cornell University, calculated the escaping methane from drilling and distribution via pipeline at eight percent, enough to accumulate at toxic levels.

A side issue is that fracking will deplete our water resources. Theoretically, the fluid is trapped in the shale for a long time, preventing it from re-circulating into our water supply through evaporation. But hydrogeologist David Yoxtheimer of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research puts that issue in context: Pennsylvania uses about 1.9 million gallons of water for natural gas development; livestock is using 62 million gallons of water and industries consume about 770 million gallons. The use of water for fracking is not enough to disrupt our water resources.

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Drilling rigs are sprouting across once semi-abandoned towns in Western Colorado, a scene straight from the oil boom in Cleveland two centuries ago. Only this time, the search is on for natural gas using fracking technologies. It’s the new energy boom or an impending disaster depending on which side of the fence you are. Investments are pouring in to fracture the Marcellus Shale in the northeast. Businesses are also lining up to refine and deliver this new energy source.


Fracking is the knight’s sword that slays the dragon that is our dependency on oil-exporting countries. Or is it the sword of Damocles that threatens our public health? Regulations can lower down potential risks, much like adding strings to keep the sword from falling to Damocles sitting under it. But the sword is still hanging above our heads. Is fracking, then, the answer to our energy question? We should throw and keep throwing that question at our policymakers, government regulators, scientists and private enterprises. Margie Tatro, the director of fuel and water systems at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, perhaps gave the clearest answer. Natural gas, and the means to extract it through fracking, is transition fuel until “we can get a greater percentage of nuclear and renewables on the grid.”


Category: Financial News

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