The Fracas about Fracking
From the June 20, 2011, issue of NR


Kathleen Hartnett White

A major boom in domestic oil and gas production is under way, brought about by breakthrough refinements of a 1940s technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” 

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water, sand, and some trace chemicals under high pressure into a completed wellbore to create fissures in relatively impermeable geologic formations such as shale. The fissures allow oil or natural gas to flow into the well. The sand props the fissures open, preventing the resealing of pathways. Combined with horizontal drilling at depths of one to more than two miles below the earth’s surface, hydraulic fracturing has unlocked vast stores of natural gas. 

Fracking is also now widely used in vertical and horizontal drilling in oil reservoirs with low permeability. Conventional oil reservoirs with permeable geologic formations allow oil to flow to the wellbore as a result of natural pressure. But in many wells, as much as 75 percent of the oil and gas may be left in place. Fracking is one of several new ways to get at the ample resources remaining after natural pressure subsides. 

In these ways, human ingenuity, catalyzed by market dynamics, has foiled predictions of irreversible decline in domestic oil and natural-gas resources. Official estimates of the amount of recoverable oil and natural gas have soared. Last year, global natural-gas supplies rose 40 percent. From 2010 to 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) doubled its estimate of recoverable natural gas in the U.S. The EIA increased its estimate of Texas’s natural-gas reserves by 70 percent between 2005 and 2008, and Texas also is doing prolific fracking in oil: Producers now have access to 2 billion barrels in the Wolfberry formation in the Permian Basin. The Eagle Ford fields in South Texas increased oil production fourfold in the first ten months of 2010. And the Haynesville-Bossier fields, straddling Texas’s border with Louisiana, increased reserves of natural gas by 9.4 trillion cubic feet while increasing production twelvefold. 

The EIA also believes that natural gas in the Marcellus formation of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia contains more BTUs of energy than do the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. Drilling is well under way in Pennsylvania, where 141,000 new jobs in the “gas patch” have been created in the last few years. New York has declined to accept its energy wealth and instead imposed a de facto moratorium on fracking, pending the completion of an environmental-impact statement — thus deferring the creation of hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs. 

Enormous new oil production is opening up in the Bakken fields of the Williston Basin, covering the Dakotas and Montana. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Bakken contained up to 4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Current estimates range as high as 24 billion barrels.

Oil production made possible by fracking is not now as prodigious as that of natural gas, but this could change, especially if the federal government allows oil-shale development in the Rocky Mountain West, where 70 percent of recoverable oil shale lies beneath federal land. Most of the currently surging oil and gas production is on private land, where federal permission is not required and state governments are supportive.

A rapid increase of domestic supplies of oil and gas at a time of painful gas prices; high-paying new jobs; expansion of thousands of businesses; increased federal, state, and local tax revenues: What’s not to like? And the lion’s share of the fracking boom has been in natural gas — the so-called bridge fuel to the green-energy economy that President Obama promotes at every turn.

A fierce anti-fracking movement is nonetheless growing. According to its most zealous critics, fracking may even kill you. They claim that the technology may transform the water from your faucet into fire, make your house explode, cause earthquakes, or poison you with toxic chemicals. Just watch the Oscar-nominated documentary film Gasland, shown on HBO and sure to join the canon of sensationalist environmental documentaries of which Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is the classic.