Innovations and Safety in Hydraulic Fracturing

Published June 23, 2016

The copious amounts of oil and gas produced over the past decade through the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has resulted in greater energy security for the United States and extremely low oil and natural gas prices for consumers, and contrary to radical anti-fossil-fuel activists’ claims, this energy bounty has come with little or no harm to the environment.

A little-known fact outside of the oil and gas industry is hydraulically fracturing wells has been a tool used by extractors to increase yield since 1947, although it’s only recently the technique, also called “fracking,” has greatly impacted the energy industry.

In the late 1990s, Mitchell Energy figured out how to turn a well shaft from vertical to horizontal, enabling them to pierce thousands of feet of porous, but not very permeable, shale that harbors diffuse pockets of gas and oil. Using the very same hydraulic fracturing techniques employed for 50 years, Mitchell Energy—and soon after, many of Mitchell’s competitors—were able to access these previously unavailable petroleum resources for the first time. 

No Contamination

One reason there is so much concern over fracking is the public has been misled by anti-fossil-fuel alarmists to believe fracking wells are drilled in or near the water table or underground water wells. As a result, alarmists have convinced  many people their water is at risk whenever fracking occurs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because of the limits of technology, shale gas wells must be drilled thousands of feet below subsurface water supplies.

The lack of understanding is a result of several factors, including the use of poor explanations and terribly scaled drilling diagrams. For instance, it is likely some of those reading this article believe, as most diagrams show, at some point in the fracking process, the drill bit turns at a right angle or gently curves, requiring only a few hundred vertical feet. Nothing could be further from reality.

The primary technological advancement that has made horizontal drilling possible is the creation of a drill bit that can be turned by a separate motor that controls rotation. The bit is on a swivel  directed by a global positioning system. The drill pipe is essentially the same inflexible steel pipe that has been in use for a century, except now it is able to bend approximately 3 degrees from vertical for every 100 feet of pipe.

Simple arithmetic shows to turn a pipe 90 degrees from a vertical orientation to a horizontal orientation requires, at a minimum, 30 lengths of pipe measuring 100 feet each, for a total of 3,000 vertical feet—a much greater distance than many commonly used diagrams and explanations suggest. Because a significant amount of production comes from even deeper sources, there are often thousands of feet of rock separating the production zone and water wells.

          Contrary to the claims made by many fracking alarmists, the thousands of feet between water wells and the fracking production zone help to make the practice safe, when conducted properly. Over one million wells have been hydraulically fractured to date, and there has not been a single water well proven to have been contaminated by either fracking fluids or oil and gas seeping into a water well.

Dangerous Chemicals?

Those opposed to fracking often say chemicals used in the process are incredibly dangerous and that hydraulic fracturing should be banned to prevent the chemicals from reaching water supplies. Fortunately, this claim is not supported by scientific evidence.

It is true certain chemicals are added to the water used as part of the fracking process to reduce surface tension in liquids, prevent corrosion in the well, and eliminate bacteria, among other purposes, but the chemicals make up less than 0.5 percent of the total volume of fluid pumped into wells and are safely used in common household products such as dish detergents, deodorants, furniture polish, and paint..

One reason the public has a mistaken impression concerning the danger of the chemicals used in fracking is because many drilling companies have in the past refused to say which chemicals they used in order to protect important trade secrets. Radical environmentalists took advantage of the situation and convinced many in the public to believe the secrecy was linked to the potential danger the chemicals would pose if they reached water wells. Today, most states require drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use, and there’s no reason to believe any of them pose a significant threat to humans’ water supplies. 

Drillable Formations

Drillable shale formations containing significant quantities of natural gas and oil exist throughout the United States. The most famous and prolific at this time are the Bakken formation in North Dakota, the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, and the Barnett Shale in Texas.

While the price of oil and gas has declined, yields from horizontal wells have increased 300 percent  in the past five years—largely because technology has improved with experience.

Environmentalists can’t produce a single person who has been harmed or point to an ecosystem ravaged as a result of fracking. Fracking has produced tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, lowered energy costs, has helped to bring manufacturing back to America, and has reduced our dependence on foreign oil.

Every time you fill up your car at the pump or pay your electric bill, thank a fracker for the low prices you are paying.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute. This article is adapted from material contained in the Renewable Energy and Shale Gas Encyclopedia, published by Wiley in 2016.