An Overview Of Hydraulic Fracturing: The Biases And Contradictions

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Energy is one of the most talked about topics from a technological standpoint to a political one and everything in between. There are so many facets to that conversation that sometimes those technological and political arguments force many of the base topics under the radar. One topic that is consistently up for discussion is what should we be using to generate power. Often times arguments are made for one source or another with lots of buzz words and staunch stances. However, the nitty gritty of the science behind the way we obtain and use those sources is left out. One specific example is hydraulic fracturing or, informally, hydraulic fracking. It is a term that many people hear about via an article or environmental protest but have little information on how the process works. To help alleviate that issue one can take a broad look at the technical definition of fracking, the pros and cons, and the biases and contradictions found in current information sources.

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So, what is Hydraulic fracking? From the Department of Energy: “Hydraulic fracturing is a technique in which large volumes of water and sand, and small volumes of chemical additives are injected into low-permeability subsurface formations to increase oil or natural gas flow.” But what does that mean? Hydraulic fracking is a process in which the mineral formations that hold oil or natural gas are fractured. This fracturing of the formations allows the oil and gas to flow more freely. Generally fracking is used to increase the productivity of a new or existing well. It allows areas that were either too expensive to extract gas or oil from to be profitable. This technique is mostly, but not exclusively, used when the well is drilled into coalbeds, shale, and tight sand formations. The well is drilled and, in most cases, a steel pipe is inserted into the well. Once this is complete sand, water, and chemicals are pumped into the steel pipe. The pipe has sections were the mix can escape into the shale, sand, or coalbed formation. When enough of the mix has been pumped into the gas rich layer the increase in pressure causes or increases the amount of fractures in the formations. This extra space is what will allow higher volumes of gas and oil to be collected. The sand, or sometimes beads, remain in the new or widened cracks to keep them open for gas or oil flow. The liquid used generally will flow back up the pipe. 

The next thing to consider when looking at hydraulic fracturing are the positive and negative outcomes and effects created by this process. As stated above this process generally makes wells productive, and by doing so, more profitable. This even more true when the process is combined with horizontal drilling also shown in Figure 1. Since the oil and gas are lest costly to obtain consumers could see a drop in price of products that utilize them. On an environmental level it will provide a more accessible alternative to coal. With higher volumes and easier access to natural gas it will be cheaper, cleaner, and easier to replace some of the energy being obtained through burning coal. There are other political and economical impacts as well. Being able to increase our energy production through our own geographically located energy sources will reduce how much we depend on importing oil from other countries. This could have an impact on foreign policy with some of our trade partners. As for the economy the U.S. would be able to keep more money in the hands of its people by buying and selling locally but it would also create jobs in the areas where the resources are located.

Despite the positives that could come from hydraulic fracking there are also some negatives that should be addressed before deciding to pursue it on a large scale. One draw back to this process is the massive amounts of water that are required to run this type of operation. For reference Earthworks.org says: “In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year. This is approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities each with a population of 50,000.” Another concern was about potential health risks associated with the bi products created by the physical process of fracking. These risks could be caused by spills, accidents or errors in the procedure, or any chemicals coming off of waste water storage and disposal. There were also air quality issues in the areas immediately surrounding the fracking sites. The EPA also did a study on potential contamination of ground water resources due to fracking. The EPA’s final report concludes: “EPA found scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.” Their final assessment then went on to detail some circumstances that were most common in causing negative impacts on drinking water resources.

Now that both sides of the coin have been examined it should be noted if there were any contradictions or biases present in any of the information listed by any source. For the most part the pros and cons lined up pretty consistently from all the sources that were used. The only major contradiction that was found was that the greengarageblog.org listed cleaner air as one of the top 5 pros to hydraulic fracking. They argued that by making natural gas more available it would eventually help improve air quality as it takes over for burning fossil fuels. The other side of the argument was that the process of fracking hurts air quality by releasing chemicals used to conduct the process into the air or waste water blow back allowing these chemicals to spread. It was noted that the decline in air quality was more locally located to the fracking sites themselves.

As far as bias goes there was plenty. Although, in most of the articles I read it seemed more as an omission of the opposing sides view points than making contradictions. Most of the sources such as the EPA, DOE, and Earthworks seemed to give a definition of what fracking is and other than noting it makes it easier to get oil and gas they listed no other pros. The sources that listed pros seemed to articles or blogs written about the economic advantages but listed few if any cons unless it was a blog article that was specifically a pro and con list.

How do I feel about hydraulic fracking? Like most things in life I think that there are both positives and negatives associated with this particular method that make it difficult to invest into on a large scale but also difficult to throw away entirely. I guess when I take a step back to look at it as a whole, like most things in life, moderation is the key. I also think that this is something that needs to planned and executed very carefully. Before these types of operations are bootstrapped up to their highest production rates and volumes, I think more time is needed to really evaluate what it is that we are doing to the environment. I am far from being an expert on geology and fracking so I would be hard pressed to evaluate fracking as a viable option at this time. I also remember reading that fracking has been a thing for approximately 60 years and while that seems like a long time for a case study, I am not sure that its enough to evaluate you long term environmental aspects. I also don’t think enough evidence has been provided to analyze all of the data and determine if fracking is a net positive or a net negative. I would be really interested in quantifying the negative and positives outcomes, throwing it into a model and seeing if there is a sweet spot where our environmental impact vs our economical impact trade off in a way that makes sense. It also seems like the powers that be are taking an interest into regulation and policies that would make fracking as safe as possible. However, without all the data I can’t say if what has been established is enough to make the technology safe enough for wide spread use or just enough to get the machine rolling.

When applying virtues and engineering to this thought Hippocrates quote “above all, do no harm” really stands out to me. I think as we develop new technology, we need to be very conscious about unintended consequences that technology may have. That being said I do not believe that any type of potential issues should stop us from at least trying, studying, and learning from things that have potential to be both good or bad. If that were the case we would never get anywhere. This again brings me back to the idea that we need more time to evaluate what exactly is happening and potential issues we could face in the future through widespread use of these types of processes.

My overall recommendation would be to limit the scale of fracking operations to ensure that we can predict, fix, or avoid potential issues moving forward. Again, I think that we need mountains of quantifiable data to analyze to really determine if this is worth doing. Sometimes if the cost at the end of the day is acceptable doing an experiment to see if something works is the way to go instead of loads of data and time spent analyzing something. I don’t believe that is the case here. There could be lasting effects that change peoples lives for the worse if this is done incorrectly and only for financial or political gain right now. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Bibliography

  • “Hydraulic Fracturing 101.” Earthworks, https://earthworks.org/issues/hydraulic_fracturing_101/.
  • “Hydraulic Fracturing For Oil And Gas: Impacts From The Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle On Drinking Water Resources In The United States (Final Report).” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 15 Nov. 2017, https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/hfstudy/recordisplay.cfm?deid=332990.
  • National Geographic Society. “How Hydraulic Fracturing Works.” National Geographic Society, 18 Mar. 2013, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/how-hydraulic-fracturing-works/.
  • Chief, Editor in. “10 Chief Pros and Cons of Hydraulic Fracturing.” Green Garage, 14 Jan. 2017, https://greengarageblog.org/10-chief-pros-and-cons-of-hydraulic-fracturing.
16 December 2021

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