Fracking for Dummies

Written by Kenna Kuhn, ESLLC 2016-2017

Recently, I was driving back from Fort Collins (25 South of Denver) through an area that seemed haunted by dozens of fracking rigs. Silhouetted against Rocky Mountain National Park in the background, the rigs were disturbing and scary. Although many oppose fracking and understand to some degree it’s impacts, it’s important to understand the process as well.

It is worth knowing that Hydraulic Fracturing has been around for more than 60 years. Recently however, it has gained more attention as a new technology, known as horizontal drilling, has been introduced. Horizontal drilling involves drilling into the desired reservoir rock at a horizontal angle, thus exposing more surface area and creating a lot more fractures.

Modernly, 60% of new gas and oil drilled in the U.S. is via fracking, making it a process that is increasingly important to understand.

So, here is Fracking for Dummies: A simple explanation of how it works and a few of it’s potential consequences.

The Process:

  1. Hydraulic fracturing rigs are centered over wells that have been drilled to reach into the desired “reservoir rock” where natural gas or oil is contained.
  2. Fluid is pumped at extremely high pressure into the well and through small “casings” into the rock.
    • It is important to note that this fluid is not just water. On average the process uses 8 million litres of water (which is equal to the daily consumption of 65,000 people) with ~200,000 litres of chemicals and thousands of tons of sand mixed in.
  3. This slurry if you will causes fractures in the reservoir rock that extend into the reservoirs of oil and/or gas.
  4. Once these fractures have been forced open, the water and chemicals are pumped back out of the well, the sand being left behind to prevent the cracks from closing.
  5. Whatever oil or gas is being extracted will pass through the porous space of the sand and fill the well to be pumped out.
  6. After the reservoir is completely depleted, the water and chemicals are pumped back into the well and fractured rock and sealed inside.

The Impacts:

  1. No long term studies have been conducted to monitor the effects of sealing chemicals back into the ground after a drill is closed however cases of drinking water being contaminated via the chemicals traveling through the water table have already been recorded. Some of the chemicals used include Formic Acid, Benzene, Methanol and Hydrochloric acid, but over 700 chemicals are known to be a part of the process. The threat of some of these chemicals is so great that they cannot be cleaned in any drinking plant.
  2. Much of the natural gas recovered through fracking releases immense amounts of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas ~70x as potent as CO2
  3. The energy consumption involved in hydraulic fracking is huge and consistent. Since rocks only contain small amounts of oil and natural gas, the process is relatively quick before the well is sealed and an entirely new well is drilled nearby.
  4. Again, although no long term studies have been conducted, there are many cases in which the fractures lefts inside the earth have causes micro earthquakes in the communities that fracking is present. Unfortunately, low socioeconomic, minority communities are often targeted and exploited by the oil and gas industry (regardless of their consumption of fossil fuels, they are the most impacted by the fracking process).
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