Editorial / Commentary/Columns

Stick to the Fracking Science

August 2, 2012
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Illustration shows a typical horizontal well being fracked to release oil or natural gas from low-porosity rock.


Our headline comes from an editorial written by a U.S. Congressional representative from Pennsylvania, Mark S. Critz. We will return to that later, but with our industry benefiting from the demand for materials to supply the growing shale-gas industry and the cheaper natural gas pricing resulting from it, this column will provide some information for you to fact-check what you are hearing in the news. Because of the impact to our industry, we have broadly covered this topic in two previous editorials (August 2010 and July 2011), but we will attempt to more specifically address fracking in this month’s column.

Why have shale gas and its requisite fracking become such a political issue, and why has questionable science been associated with its attacks? In their report, World magazine indicates that the lower natural gas prices have undermined efforts to make “green” energy technologies – wind and solar – economically viable. Green energy resulted from global-warming theory, which was supported by people such as James Lovelock, considered to be the godfather of global warming. In a recent interview, Lovelock admitted that he had been “unduly alarmist about climate change.” He said, “The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago.” Lovelock is in favor of natural gas fracking as a low-polluting alternative to coal. What is Lovelock’s opinion of the green energy technologies? He said, “We rushed into renewable energy without any thought. The schemes are largely hopelessly inefficient and unpleasant. I personally can’t stand windmills at any price.”

What is fracking, and why is it necessary? Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique that has developed over the past 65 years to reach oil and gas reserves in less-permeable shale formations. After more than a million jobs, fracking is a routine process step in this industry. Fracking involves pumping millions (up to 7 million) of gallons of water into deep (over 1 mile) shale formations at a pressure of 9,000 PSI or higher. Fracking is necessary because the oil and gas is trapped in low-porosity rock formations very deep in the earth. For perspective, a cube of Marcellus shale 2 feet on each side would have the pore volume equal to a baseball scattered throughout the rock. Fracking is necessary to create additional fissures, which are used to release the oil and gas hidden in the pores.

If fracking has been around for 65 years, why is it only now being attacked? Some of the answer to that is political, but it is certainly gaining more attention due to the recently adopted horizontal-drilling techniques. These techniques expose more of the well bore to the formation, which means that a single gas well is now as productive as at least four traditional vertical wells. These techniques have also made gas available that was previously unaccessable, which has opened vast new geographical areas to drilling. As these new areas deal with this new industry, misunderstandings often occur.

That takes us back to the politics and our encouragement to stick to the science. Unfortunately, the EPA has been taking advantage of the local ignorance of the process by spreading scientifically untrue information. Critz said it this way: “Recent missteps and questionable actions by the EPA have regrettably cast doubt upon the agency’s credibility and ability to put forth the ‘best science’ to ensure the public’s trust.” In both Texas and Pennsylvania, the EPA has recently retracted unfounded and unprovable accusations about polluted water, but the public hears less about the retraction than the accusation. So, what do they believe?

The key to remember when someone talks about drinking-water pollution is that the aquifers for drinking water are typically 200-600 feet deep, but the horizontal gas wells are 5,000-10,000 feet deep. It is geologically impossible for fracking to affect water located many thousands of feet above the well bore.

The encouraging thing about this technology is that as little as five or six years ago many experts thought the U.S. had only a seven- or eight-year natural gas supply. With horizontal drilling and fracking techniques opening up new possibilities, we now have an estimated 110-year supply based on a 2009 rate of consumption.

It’s no wonder groups like SAE International will be holding a symposium on Aug. 28 in Pittsburgh, Pa., to discuss the use of natural gas in vehicles. With an opportunity such as we have before us to lower our energy costs and create a more independent energy policy, let’s make sure decisions are being made on good fracking science only. IH

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