What is Hydraulic Fracturing? A Natural Gas Primer.
What is Hydraulic Fracturing? We explain the controversy by first examining the history of natural gas and hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. [Note: updated 1/12/2011 with extensive galleries]
Hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking,” entered the public sphere in full force this past year when it became an overnight political talking point, meriting its own nickname and even a scathing documentary. Understand this backlash can be difficult without a brief history of natural gas and hydraulic fracturing in the U.S.
What we consider “natural gas” consists of mostly methane, and its gaseous state has made the hydrocarbon notoriously difficult to harness as a fuel. New Yorkers noticed the volatile properties of the Marcellus Shale—a layer of fissile sedimentary rocks that extends beneath five northern Appalachian states—before “New Yorkers” existed, in pre-European America. Cities used manufactured coal gas to light stoves and heat houses in the mid-1800s, but soot and strong odors led twentieth-century industrialists to choose natural gas as the fuel of choice for a cleaner future. (Robert Whaples, “Manufactured and Natural Gas Industry” Economic History Association)
Americans discovered how to utilize natural gas reserves in the late 1800s as a byproduct of oil drilling (See Diagram. Scientists now estimate that early oil drillers in Texas allowed approximately 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas escape into the atmosphere per day.) The Hugoton oil fields in Texas supplied America with 16% of its natural gas in the twenty-first century, but only after oil experts found a way to transport unstable gases from the Western plains to population-dense areas in need of fuel: steel welded pipelines. (W. M. Burnett and S. D. Ban, “Changing Prospects for Natural Gas in the United States,” Science New Series, Vol. 244, No. 4902, Apr. 21, 1989, pp. 305-310) Seamless pipelines allowed for long-distance transport to the northeast, where extensive drilling had already exhausted Appalachian oil and gas reserves. The 1938 Natural Gas Act empowered the federal government to regulate natural gas interstate commerce, but the government did not create an executive agency (FERC) to regulate interstate gas commerce until 1978.
By the late 1960s, natural gas waned as a long-term fuel option for America. Up until this point, oil and gas companies only drilled vertically into the earth. In 1947, a Texas company called Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company adopted a long-used quarrying method called hydraulic fracturing to horizontally drill and extract natural gas through exerting hydraulic pressure into rocks.
Hydraulic fracturing (or “hydrofracking”) expands existent fissures in rock when hydraulic solution is forced into porous rock at high pressures. These cracks extend natural fault lines, making them eventually large enough for gases to seep up to the surface of the earth. The solution injected into the earth includes a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand.
Despite its use in oil fields in Texas, hydraulic fracturing remained economically inefficient for extracting natural gas from less-concentrated petroleum reserves in shale (again, see diagram). Only in the last five years have shale reserves emerged as economically feasible, thanks to R&D and federal legislative support.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included a clause that stripped the EPA of the ability to regulate the relatively new commercial process of hydraulic fracturing. Fracking made shale gas available, which increased potential U.S. natural gas reserves by 35% from 2000 to 2007.
As Stated in a 2008 Article in Scientific American:
"Thanks in large part to hydraulic fracturing, natural gas drilling has vastly expanded across the United States. In 2007 there were 449,000 gas wells in 32 states, thirty percent more than in 2000. By 2012 the nation could be drilling 32,000 new wells a year, including some in the watershed that provides drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia, some five percent of the nation’s population."
Documentaries and conspiracy theorists alike have since called this legislation the “Halliburton Loophole” because it allowed Halliburton and other gas companies to proceed with shale natural gas extraction before the potential side effects could be thoroughly researched.
In the past two years, potential and current side effects of hydrofracking have surfaced. Problems for residents of hydrofracking areas include groundwater contamination from the hydraulic solution and/or methane, overuse of water in drought-prone regions, radioactive residue, and unintended release of methane (the most common natural gas found in shale) into the atmosphere.
Halliburton was subpoenaed by the EPA in November 2010 to release the chemical content of their hydraulic solution pumped through shale, and has still only released a few of the chemicals because of copyright issues on the formula, the company claims.
Also in the past year, several groups of scientists fear that “policy has preceded adequate scientific study,” and wish to halt further fracking until the EPA completes a two-year report set to end in 2012. New York State governor David Paterson issued a moratorium on hydrofracking, and the U.S. House and Senate have introduced bills to close the “Halliburton Loophole.”
Hydraulic fracturing has catapulted to the forefront of political and scientific energy discussions in the past five years. Invented in the 1940s, hydrofracking cost too much for oil and gas companies to turn a profit until federal regulators allowed rock-breaking chemical solutions to be used without EPA regulation. Natural gas burns cleaner than oil or coal, but the methods used to extract it from the earth might cause greater long-term geological and environmental damage than the amount of pollution saved by burning a relatively clean fuel. Before assuming that a clean burn means a clean source, regulators must examine the controversial extraction methods used in the as-yet scientifically unexamined approach to drilling known as hydraulic fracturing.