Those who supply metal components to industry are keenly aware of the rapid emergence of induced hydraulic fracturing – known as “fracking” – as a technique used to liberate natural gas from shale deposits deep below the earth’s surface. To a typical consumer, the perception is that fracking is a new technique. In reality, however, the first viable commercial fracking operation occurred in 1949. The methods and technologies used in fracking have been improved and refined ever since.
In a fracking operation, large quantities of water are mixed with sand and chemicals and injected at high pressure into a wellbore to create small fractures in shale formations. These fractures essentially become pathways along which natural gas can flow as it is liberated from its entrapment in an otherwise untouched rock formation. The sand or other particulates used in the water act as proppants to keep the formation pried open.
Fracking has its proponents and its opponents. The issues surrounding this energy-recovery technique are varied and complex, and those who favor fracking are continually at odds with those who don’t. Add politics and politicians into the mix and things really get muddled, but make no mistake that this publication comes down firmly on the side of fracking expansion in appropriate formations lying deep under the earth’s surface.
Our support is derived from the positive effects fracked natural gas has on the diversity and flexibility of our nation’s energy portfolio. That it also happens to be good business for many who read this column is icing on the energy cake.
Those who oppose fracking say the method causes small earthquakes that can damage homes. I can’t say how many damage claims have been filed based on this, but I can say that some geologists claim these small earthquakes relieve pressure in the earth’s crust that could have caused larger, more damaging earthquakes at a later time.
Similarly, there are those that claim that the huge amounts of chemically treated runoff water can harm the environment and pollute potable water supplies. Is this a possibility? Well, maybe, but keep in mind that most aquifers are found hundreds of feet below the surface, while most fracking occurs one or two miles below the surface. The possibility of contaminated water supplies comes more from possible spills on the surface than from the fracking process itself. Finally, because fracking involves horizontal drilling techniques, there are land- and property-rights issues that cloud the legal landscape, keeping lawyers on both sides of the issue very happy indeed.
Because of fracked natural gas, the cost of electricity produced from natural gas now costs about the same as that produced from coal – at only one-half to one-third the emissions spewed by coal-burning utilities. Green-energy proponents may argue that this is still too much, but the harsh reality is that the U.S. does not yet have the solar, wind or other green-energy infrastructure in place to make up the shortfall if we stopped burning carbon-emitting fuels today.
Horizontal drilling, fracking and other energy technologies have proved to be serendipitous to the development of natural gas resources in the U.S. and Canada. The technologies involved may not yet be perfect, but we are in full support of the effort to improve them. It is likely that fracking will continue to spark controversy where it is used, but it is even more likely that natural gas produced by this method will become a bigger part of our energy mix.
It could not have come at a better time.