Top Three Myths on Hydraulic Fracturing
Written by Ellin Belz
You don’t have to be a petroleum engineer, geologist, or roughneck to have heard of fracking. Our media is saturated with a variety of claims about fracking practices, and, for better or worse, it seems like everyone has an opinion on the matter. After countless hours spent scouring online resources and major media news outlets, I have noticed three common misconceptions about fracking. In this article I share a brief overview of what exactly fracking is and dispel some common myths associated with the practice.
Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known, is a method used to extract oil and gas from deep, often impermeable reservoirs, better known as unconventional plays. One of the most extensive applications of this method is in producing natural gas from shale. Shale is a highly impermeable source rock, which means there is little space for hydrocarbons to flow through it. Fracking offers an economical solution to this problem. During fracking, sand, liquids, and chemicals are injected into a formation at high pressures. This leads to small fractures opening up throughout tight formations that increases permeability and allows for energy production. In most oil fields, hydraulic fracturing is utilized along with horizontal drilling practices.
Myth #1: It is an untested new method
In recent years, there have been an increased number of news reports on fracking. This leads many people to believe that it is a new, untested method. In reality, hydraulic fracturing as we know it today has been around since the 1940’s. The combination of fracking and horizontal drilling has been widely used in shale extractions by major oil companies such as ExxonMobil since the late 1970’s. Modern hydraulic fracturing methods were in fact pioneered by Texas A&M Petroleum Engineering Class of 1940 George P Mitchell. (You may recognize this name from the Mitchell Physics Building) . Fracking has been researched, tested, utilized, and improved upon for decades. Furthermore, there are new discoveries and studies concerning fracking technology proposed frequently. If you are interested in learning more about where the future of fracking is headed I highly suggest reading more about it on the JPT website. I’ve compiled some fascinating articles in the references section below.
Myth #2: Fracturing methods pose a significant risk for groundwater contamination
The main environmental concern with hydraulic fracturing is groundwater contamination. While there are over a dozen studies that prove this is not the case, I am going to briefly describe the results of one of the best I came across. Yale University did a three year study on exactly how fracturing practices impact groundwater. They specifically observed reservoirs in eastern Pennsylvania. The overall findings of the study indicated that, although trace amounts of chemicals were found in the groundwater, the amounts were well below the regulated limit, all chemicals were easily filtered out, and a slight contamination was found in sources close to to the surface. This means that contamination does not stem from the actual process of fracturing, but rather is a result of seepage from chemical spills on the surface. Fracturing itself does not cause groundwater contamination, and what little contamination does occur can easily be avoided. There are even companies, such as Southwestern Energy that devote themselves to not only preventing all groundwater contamination, but also try to reduce and replenish freshwater used in energy production. In addition, although fracturing requires large amounts of freshwater, companies do try to regulate and even recycle usage to be both economical and efficient in their use, and still prioritize the sanctity of the local environment.
Myth #3: Fracking increases air pollution.
Although the process of producing natural gas release small amounts of methane pollution into the atmosphere, these emissions do not exceed public health thresholds. It is also a widely accepted fact that natural gas is a much cleaner energy alternative to coal. On average coal produces twice the amount of carbon dioxide emissions as natural gas. At the end of the day, increasing natural gas production means lessening the national dependency on coal. Replacing coal with natural gas will lessen air pollution over time. In fact, carbon emissions in the US have plateaued in recent years due to the switch to shale gas as an energy source from traditional coal combustion. Fracturing produces gas in large enough quantities to make this even remotely possible. The relatively small, EPA approved amount of emissions produced by fracturing are a minor cost when considering the larger consequences natural gas production has to air quality. Further, companies often adopt the practice of flaring, in which methane that could be released into the atmosphere is combusted to convert into relatively safer carbon di oxide gas. This practice is in fact also a safety precaution.
Overall, hydraulic fracturing revolutionized natural gas production, and greatly increases our ability to produce commercial quantities of it. It has turned the United States from an overall importer to an exporter.