What is fracking? Is it dangerous?

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Fracking is an oil/gas recovery technique that has been used in the petroleum business for a long time and traditionally has attracted no more attention than the twelve year old issues of I Love Cats you find in the doctor’s office (or is that just my doctor?). Then some folks in a Pennsylvania fracking-frenzy zone can light their drinking water on fire and suddenly everyone’s curious. Funny world hey?

Before tackling the more delicate question of whether it will kill you and/or turn your tap water to napalm, here’s a quick overview of what fracking is in the first place. Fracking (which is just a lazy abbreviation for fracturing rock (and petroleum people argue, believe it or not, whether it should be abbreviated as “frac” or “frack”, which is like arguing whether “gonna” is better than “coulda”)) is a process whereby fluids are forced underground at really high pressures, creating cracks in rock to increase the flow of hydrocarbons out of a well. In an earlier post I went through how you exactly find oil and gas, noting in particular that drilling a well is usually a bit of a crapshoot. Some produce vast quantities without aid, some never produce at all, some get buggered up when you try to get things flowing…anything can happen. But a fairly common result is that hydrocarbons are found but won’t come out in large enough quantities to satisfy the well’s owners. So producers develop ways to thrash around at the bottom of the well and get more hydrocarbons to flow. Fracking is a pretty common technique to achieve that.

To understand the fracking process, here’s a bit of background on well drilling processes. First you (note that I use a second person reference throughout, on the assumption that it sounds so fun you’ll run out and try this yourself. Also, metric is used today because, well, I felt like it. 1 meter =~3ft) drill down about a hundred metres, and then you have to set surface casing (and please no snotty emails from engineers; I know it could be more or less than 100 metres. You’ll be ok.). That is, you put steel pipe down the hole for about 100 metres, then pump cement down around the outside of the steel pipe. This is setting the casing. You do this to protect ground water (what people drink (or try to ignite as the case may be) from their wells), so dirt/rock doesn’t fall into the hole, etc. and to prevent any mystery stuff from shooting up uncontrolled when you drill the rest of the well, which could happen if it was just an open hole. Then you start drilling the actual well, through this steel pipe you put in the ground. You drill, drill, drill until you get to the zone of interest that your geologist has mapped out, maybe 500 m down, maybe 2 kilometres (non-metric = really far). The geologist checks the logs (recordings taken all the way down that measure things like rock formation, water saturation, oil/gas saturation, etc.) and if it looks good you then put in production casing, or steel pipe, right down to the bottom. Then, you perforate the pipe (perfing) right at the zone where you think the oil/gas is most concentrated. The stuff can then flow out of the rock into the pipe, and up the hole.

Sometimes stuff flows in but not very much (recall that geologists smoke a lot of weed), so you might frack the well, which is short for fracture. The holes that were made when perfing, above, can be used as little ports into the rock that contains the oil and gas. You can pump fluid down the well bore at extremely high pressures, which will go out through the little holes and into the rock, creating cracks in the rock that can go out for many metres. These cracks create channels that allow oil/gas to flow back into the wellbore, and the well can therefore produce much more oil/gas. A fun added twist is that sand is added to the mixture that’s pumped down; this sand flows out into the cracks along with the high-pressure liquid and remains there after the high-pressure pumping stops. This nifty trick holds the cracks open when they otherwise would want to close back up. The effect would be like if you were in a multistory parking garage and there was an earthquake that flattened it; the cars would help keep the floors apart and you could then escape just like a little oil molecule.

The above describes a vertical well that has been fracked. That is old school. Nowadays, the wells tend to be drilled horizontally. You still start out drilling down to the zone of interest, but once you get there through some magic trickery the drill bit turns sideways and goes out perpendicular to the well bore for up to a few kilometres. The benefit is that, because oil/gas zones are very wide horizontally (sometimes) but not very thick vertically, you now have a well bore that is traveling for up to a few kilometres through the oil/gas zone rather than just a few metres as with a vertical well, if you can picture that. So now, companies do the same fracking thing, except instead of doing it only once as in a vertical well (because there is only room for one, since most oil/gas bearing zones are less than say roughly 20 metres thick) you can now do these fracks every hundred metres or so on the horizontal piece, and each frack stage might produce as much as one vertical well that is fracked. So you get multi-stage fracs that are horizontal. The whole process is called a downhole completion.

Now what was that other fracking question…oh yes, will it kill you? Or turn your taps into little fire-breathing dragons?

The petroleum industry chuckles nervously and says no, of course not, we’ve been doing this for decades (mop brow mop brow). That’s true (that it’s been done for decades), but it’s hardly true that anyone understands the full implications of a lot of these fracks happening in such a frenzy of activity. It’s like introducing rabbits into Australia. The first few were no doubt cute, but in two years when there are 100 million of them, well, even the guy that released them might be scratching his head and thinking you know that wasn’t such a good idea. In the petroleum industry, rising prices for oil and gas led to an eerily similar phenomenon of over proliferation, with frack-crews multiplying like rabbits (in the world’s worst love scene, if you want to picture that in your head).

First, the prevalence of fracking might be creating unknown side effects. With fracking becoming so widespread in certain areas, fears are arising that fracking may be a source of minor earthquakes. Studies indicate that the number of minor earthquakes has increased significantly in certain areas that have been particularly violated. You might think it’s ridiculous that opening tiny cracks in rock two miles below the surface could cause earthquakes. I’m sure most oil and gas professionals think it’s ridiculous. But it is possible. No one really understands earthquakes that well (or else we could predict them better) so it’s hard to say that fracking doesn’t cause minor earthquakes. A producing zone that is two miles down has a lot of pressure on it, from the weight of the earth above at least. If we puny humans can force open that rock by pumping fluids down there and in effect splitting the rock, well, that’s a lot of pressure, and if crazy shit starts happening no one should be that surprised.

Second, when these wells and mega-scale frack jobs are designed, there are some significant assumptions made that these things will be done correctly. But ask anyone who lives in a petroleum boomtown what happens in boom times. Construction tends to get shoddier, inexperienced workers get put in charge because no one else is around, mistakes happen as crews are overworked/rushed…it’s not uncommon. (A kid across the street from me went to work on a drilling rig for a summer job; he got promoted 3 times over the summer months because he didn’t kill anyone, didn’t lose a limb, and did less outright damage than the average rookie.) The same problems happen with frenzied fracking activity, and the consequences can be pretty serious. A poorly drilled or completed well can leak lord knows what into the water table if the well pipe/casing is not properly cemented in place and isolated from the underground water aquifers. The extremely high pressures fracking requires may cause harm and/or leaks in other unforeseen ways. So the caution being exercised by certain jurisdictions is not unwarranted.

Should fracking be banned outright then? Well, now that’s getting into a real minefield. Fracking has been credited with dramatically increasing the supply of oil and natural gas in the US, at a time when the western world is somewhat financially vulnerable (as in, the credit card is maxed out), and the added production from fracking is keeping oil and natural gas prices far lower than they would be otherwise. The western world thrives on cheap energy, and sort of has a stroke when prices spike. To ban fracking, or even severely limit its use, would create large price spikes and potentially derail the economic recovery. So…anyone want to send that to Washington for a vote?

That doesn’t answer the question of whether it should be banned. I don’t think it should, provided that regulators are prepared to put in the scrutiny necessary to find out if indeed the practice is causing second or third order problems. And someone should be holding the drilling/fracking companies to some pretty high standards. Nineteen year olds might get an A for enthusiasm, but may not be the best person to guide the motley horde of rig pigs as they and their hangovers maneuver drill bits through local water supplies. No wonder people get a little cranky here and there.

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