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Hydraulic fracturing is still misunderstood

Just over a decade ago, America’s energy outlook was revolutionized by technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, commonly called ‘fracking.’ While fracking – the injection of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into rock to force natural gas and oil to be released – has been used in vertical wells since 1947, new techniques of horizontal drilling are resulting in huge additions to our nation’s hydrocarbon reserves.

Fracking vertical wells was of limited value because the process affected only a few hundred feet of the horizontal sand or shale rock in which the oil and gas resided. However, in 1998, engineer and businessman George Mitchell discovered that steel pipe could be guided from a vertical to a horizontal plane with the use of a flexible drill bit directed by an internal global positional system. Copious quantities of gas and oil were then delivered after fracking along the horizontal pipe. This changed everything in terms of oil and natural gas production and should be welcome news to all Americans.

Yet, environmental activists oppose fracking because it is supposedly a groundwater pollution risk. What they fail to understand is that optimal horizontal fracking is carried out at great depths. Because a steel drill pipe can only bend about three degrees per hundred feet, it takes 30 100-foot lengths of steel pipe to bend a full 90 degrees. Operating at least 3,000 feet beneath the surface, fracking creates cracks in the shale that allow oil and natural gas to flow more readily. These cracks usually measure just a few feet in length and so pose no risk of enabling uncaptured oil and gas to interact with surface water.

The risk of oil and natural gas escaping the pipes that bring the resources to the surface is also infinitesimal. The pipe that brings the hydrocarbons up has as many as seven separate casings at the surface hole, which telescope down to a single casing at depth.

A more plausible concern is seismic events. An increase in the incidence of small earthquakes has been observed near fracking sites. Scientists believe this results from procedures such as filling underground rock formations with wastewater after the oil and natural gas has been extracted. This problem can be largely eliminated by controlling the rate and depth at which the wastewater is injected. State governments are now regulating this activity. Regardless, new technologies promise to eliminate all concerns of seismic events, and new chemical formulas may sterilize wastewater and make storage safer and easier.

Dwarfing the volume of oil and gas retrieved from shale wells is saline water, which commonly also comes up the pipes. This water is taken by truck or pipeline to commercial disposal wells, adding as much as $6 to the cost of producing a barrel of oil. This problem may be solved by processing and recycling the initial fracking water, a new business opportunity for water disposal players. The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 23 that $500 million has already been invested in wastewater disposal companies. KKR & Co., one of the world’s largest private equity firms, has begun approaching wastewater disposal companies for investment.

The big international oil corporations were slow to recognize the potential of fracking and horizontal drilling, initially leaving small companies to lock up land leases. Now the small players are struggling with pipeline bottlenecks and rising labor and material costs, and the big companies are taking over. This will quickly lower costs and make it easier to solve problems associated with wastewater and water supply.

Joe Leimkuhler, Vice President of Drilling for Louisiana-based LLOG Exploration, sums up the situation, “Fracking is safe and has the potential to unlock a vast resource of domestic oil and gas to enable America to not only meet much of our domestic demand, but to export globally on a significant scale.”

But climate activists don’t want this. To supposedly prevent a global warming disaster, they want us to ignore our access to these huge resources formerly unavailable. This would be a serious mistake. … We must take full advantage of the amazing new fracking opportunities nature and technology has provided us.

The Heartland Institute is based in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The International Climate Science Coalition is based in Ottawa, Canada.


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