Myths and Realities About Hydraulic Fracturing
These days it is hard to open a technical magazine or newspaper without reading something on the topic of hydraulic fracturing, especially in the US.
Hydraulic fracturing—variously “fracing” or “fracking” nowadays (the controversy rages)—has been used by the industry for more than 60 years. Although the technique was seen worldwide, the first 30 years were primarily focused on North America but the last 30 years have seen a proliferation in its application to many new reservoir types as a means to maximize resource value. It is now seen in high-permeability oil fields in Alaska, the North Sea, and Russia; unconsolidated formations in the Gulf of Mexico and Santos Basin; and unconventional resources such as shale and coalbed methane developments.
Advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology have transformed the natural gas supply in North America. With the advent of technology and know-how, the US is primed to become a gas exporter. According to a recent article in The Economist, the gas potential in Europe is similar, with an estimated “639 Tcf of technically recoverable shale gas compare to 862 Tcf in America.”1But the regulations in Europe are more stern, the environments more geologically challenging, and reserves come at a higher cost of extraction.
Even with years of successful application and the huge potential for reserves, there are a lot of misconceptions about and opposition to the process. Unfortunately, until very recently, little has been done to educate the public and governments.
What role can SPE play in this issue? Simply, through education and the dissemination of transparent factual information. With our membership at more than 104,000 members in 123 countries, we are well positioned to help clear up the myths and shine light on the realities of this important issue. SPE facilitates best practice sharing through conferences, Applied Technology Workshops, Technical Information Groups, and publication of technical journals. In the spirit of enhancing collaboration, SPE takes a step further and exerts a special effort to hold conferences jointly with the other industry professional societies.
In 2011, SPE held its first SPE Technical Summit, which addressed the topic “Hydraulic Fracturing: Ensuring Ground Water Protection,” and resulted in a white paper based on the discussions.2 And as I write this column, SPE is hosting its fourth Hydraulic Fracturing Technology Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. The program committee chairperson, Dan Hill with Texas A&M University, commented on the importance of the conference: “As the enabling technology for the development of vast unconventional resources, hydraulic fracturing continues to increase in prominence in petroleum engineering, making this conference a critically important event for our industry. SPE plays a vital role in facilitating the right people, place, and atmosphere to discuss and document best practices for the industry.”
The program chairperson for the conference last year, Stephen A. Holditch, former SPE president and currently head of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M, has taken his expertise in hydraulic fracturing to Washington, DC, as a member of the US Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee. The subcommittee was tasked to document immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracturing and to recommend best practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment. The report was published in November.3 Holditch also wrote an excellent article about the myths and realities of hydraulic fracturing in the January 4, 2012, Houston Chronicle. The title was “Opinion: Fracking fears mostly unfounded.”5 He acknowledges that fracturing “has inspired public fear-mongering, mostly around presumed threats to air quality and water quality. Most of that fear is unfounded.” Holditch doesn’t “deny all,” but rather presents the facts about fracturing to educate.
Even with all of the success in hydraulic fracturing, there is still public concern about the process and how it will affect the community and environment. Here are some of the more prominent concerns.
One of the main issues surrounding fracturing is the chemicals used in the process and the contamination of public aquifers. The chemicals used were not disclosed for proprietary reasons until recently so the lack of information has caused unnecessary concern. Most of the ingredients are common and have been safely used in home products for years. There has been some concern about diesel fuel, but its use is being eliminated in the field.
One of the biggest challenges for the future of fracturing is the issue around accessing or using too much of the local water supply. According to the findings in the SPE white paper, each fracturing job requires 1 million to 5 million gal of water (with the trend in new frac jobs to use even larger volumes). Some US states have even passed regulations or bans on fracturing use. But compared with demands on water supply for cities, farmers, and power plants, the amount of water needed to develop oil and gas wells is small, only 1.6% as reported in a recent 2012 Texas water plan report.4
There is a fear in the public and reports in the media that hydraulic fracturing causes earthquakes. Technically, fracturing does produce some movement in the formation that is similar to earthquakes. But when compared with earthquakes, the movement is perceptible at the surface only in extremely rare circumstances. George King wrote a comprehensive paper explaining the comparison for the 2012 SPE Hydraulic Fracturing Conference (King, 2012). He explains that the tremors are related to the length of the fault and the risk can easily be reduced by mapping the faults and avoiding major lines.
Reducing the Risk
As an industry, we must relentlessly pursue excellence in the field of hydraulic fracturing because of the misconceptions in the media and public. We must be diligent in training and education on best practices and safety to minimize the risk and ease concerns. The burden is on us to set the record straight and make the practice as safe as possible. I know there is a “happy medium” that balances our desire for developing the resources and eliminates the concerns for the public. We need stronger communication to ensure that the public feels like its concerns are being heard so we can work together on solutions instead of continuing down the path of us against them.
- King, George, 2012. Hydraulic Fracturing 101: What every Representative, Environmentalist, Regulator, Reporter, Investor, University Researcher, Neighbor and Engineer Should Know About Estimating Frac Risk and Improving Frac Performance in Unconventional Gas and Oil Wells. The Woodlands, Texas, 6–8 February.