There is likely no more controversial topic in energy today than the technique of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. “hydrofracking.” Supporters point out that hydrofracking has provided the United States with an overabundance of cheap fossil fuel and brought the U.S. from being a gas importer just a few years ago to the verge of being a net exporter of natural gas. Critics respond with charges that hydrofracking is a recklessly dangerous technique that releases a stew of toxic chemicals into the environment. And in a way, both sides are right, which only adds to the controversy.
It is important here to understand the hydrofracking process. The technique has been around for decades, though its usage has exploded in just the past 10 years thanks to improvements in oil and gas production technology. Hydrofracking involves forcing a mix of water, sand and chemicals down a gas or oil well under extremely high pressure with the goal of cracking previously impermeable rock (typically shale) to create fractures that will allow trapped oil and/or gas deposits to flow to the surface. The key example of how effective hydrofracking can be is found in rock formations like the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian region of the Eastern U.S.: the industry knew about the oil and gas within the Marcellus reserve for decades, but widespread drilling only began within the last decade as advances in hydrofracking made the Marcellus commercially viable.
On the downside, hydrofracking uses a lot of water: it may take several million gallons of water to properly frack a single well. Water is the main ingredient in hydrofracking; the sand is used to help keep the fractures open once they are created, while the mix of chemicals helps the process along and eases the flow of gas/oil. It is hard to say what chemicals are used since most firms treat their frack mixtures as proprietary secrets, and thanks to industry lobbying efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled in 2005 that companies do not have to disclose their frack mixtures. Much of the water used in hydrofracking eventually comes back up to the surface contaminated with hydrocarbons, sand and other chemicals. Treatment and disposal of this used water is a major challenge to any hydrofracking operation. Environmentalists are sounding the alarm over hydrofracking-related groundwater contamination, contending that methane gas and fracking chemicals are migrating up from the frack locations and into local water tables.
The economic benefits of hydrofracking are obvious, but is the process too inherently dangerous to use, or can its environmental risks be mitigated? That is the question to ponder. Unfortunately both the oil and gas industry, and environmentalists are doing their best to make an informed debate on the issue impossible.
The oil and gas industry in the U.S. has done itself no favors in promoting the use of hydrofracking. Aside from the needless cone of secrecy they have slapped over the make-up of their frack fluids, the industry has been guilty of numerous instances of simple negligence that have led to incidents of contamination near drilling sites. Companies have not properly disposed of waste water; either storing it improperly, dumping it into municipal sewer systems not set up to process fracking runoff, or in some cases, just dumping the waste into local streams – all have led to instances of contamination. Poorly constructed casings – the cement tube that carries well pipes down from the surface – in some cases have allowed methane to leak out, contaminating wells near drilling sites in Pennsylvania and other locations.
The environmental side though has also played fast and loose with reports of contamination, trying to portray each case as an instance of fracking chemicals migrating up from the frack site deep below ground to foul the local water table and cause a host of health problems for people living near the drill sites. The documentary Gasland, which has provided many of the iconic images for the anti-fracking movement (like tap water that can be set on fire), provides a barrage of anecdotal evidence designed to imply this causal linkage. The problem is that the dramatic incidents portrayed in Gasland can be traced back to the two industry misdeeds: improper disposal of waste water and poorly cased wells; many of the other anecdotal reports of fracking contamination can likewise be explained.
In fact, after years of investigation the EPA has only substantiated one case of frack fluid migration up to a water table in Pavilion, Wyoming, at a well site that should not have been fracked in the first place since the reservoir rock and local water table were separated by only a few hundred vertical feet of rock, not the more than a mile like you typically find in formations like the Marcellus. This would indicate that fracking can be done relatively safely if drilling companies exercise due diligence and carefully dispose of their drilling wastes. One example of a company putting this approach into practice is Cuadrilla Resources at their prospect well in northern England. Fearful of a public backlash that could doom their fracking project, Cuadrilla took - for the industry - drastic steps, including: fully enclosing their drilling rig; lining the drill site with an impermeable membrane to contain spills; and disclosing the contents of their frack mix, which contains only three ingredients besides water and sand. Cuadrilla estimates the steps have added 20% to the cost of the project, though there has been almost no public opposition to their drilling operation as a result.
The United States has enormous energy demands; hydrofracking the country's vast shale gas and oil reserves can go a long way towards meeting those needs. If done responsibly, the risks associated with hydrofracking can be mitigated. Rather than trying to manipulate anecdotes to push for an outright ban on fracking, it would be better if environmental groups instead pushed for strict regulation of the industry. And it would be better if oil and gas companies acted responsibly and did all they reasonably could to reduce the impact fracking has on both the environment and the communities where they work. As Cuadrilla demonstrates, this approach is not only possible but beneficial to the industry as well.