Hydraulic fracturing has become a focal point for anti-drilling fanatics. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing allege that it has contaminated water, demand to know what is used in the fracturing process, and say hydraulic fracturing has caused earthquakes. Proponents point out that the industry has been fracturing wells for 60 years and there has never been a case of groundwater pollution. Even the spelling has become controversial. Environmental groups and the news media have decided that hydraulic fracturing is too long so they have shortened it to “fracking.” The oil and gas industry generally uses the entire term, hydraulic fracturing, but on occasion it is shortened to fracturing and sometime just “frac.” Fracking with a “k” was never used in the oil patch until environmentalists decided for some reason that it needed a “k.”
Which brings us to the question at hand: What is hydraulic fracturing and why is it important? The drilling process, which can take from four to eight weeks, involves securing a drilling rig, conducting final tests and environmental analyses, and securing all permits to ensure drilling is done in accordance with regulations. At this time, the drilling contractor implements his safety and operational plans on top of those required by the government. This includes planning for proper management of the project, ensuring that plans incorporate responsible practices, and reviewing procedures with employees and contractors. After roads are constructed and the location is finished, the crew moves in the drilling rig. As professionals drill the well, they install multiple layers of cement and steel casing in the ground to create an impermeable barrier between the well and groundwater zones. Drillers also use casing deeper in the well to ensure its integrity and to isolate natural gas formations from the surrounding areas. Engineers and technicians test and monitor each layer of casing and cement to ensure the integrity of the well and the quality of the protective casings.
Hydraulic fracturing is used relatively briefly during the well completion process. It often takes place a mile or more below groundwater supplies. Shale rock has gas trapped in pores smaller than the width of a hair, so we must create a network of small fissures in the rock to release the gas. This involves injecting a mixture of 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand, and 0.5 percent chemicals (that in part prevent bacterial growth and reduce friction) into the well at high pressures to keep the fissures open, which allows the gas to flow. The activity is continuously monitored for injection pressure and flow rates during the process to ensure that everything is going according to plan. Once a well is drilled and completed over the course of a few months, it is ready for production. When drilling is being conducted near homes, the operator in many cases will put up large sound barriers around the rig. The industry is also looking at methods to reduce the amount of water used in the drilling/fracturing process. There is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing causes earthquakes or has ever contaminated groundwater. The industry is required to report the components of the fracturing fluid to a website, FracFocus, so anyone can go online and find out the composition of the frac fluids.
Hydraulic fracturing has been studied by numerous government agencies, and the Environmental Protection Agency currently has an investigation in progress that is slated to conclude in 2015. One thing is certain: If government were somehow to prohibit hydraulic fracturing, the drilling of oil and gas wells would decline significantly because virtually all wells are completed using fracturing.
Alex Mills is President of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.