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Hydraulic Fracturing: A Bridge to the Future

About the Author: Drew Calamaro

Drew Calamaro is a Junior studying Finance and Supply Chain Management at the University of Maryland. In his spare time, Drew likes to play golf, follow politics and foreign affairs, and read. He is also very interested in emerging technologies, especially 3D printing.

By Drew Calamaro | Position Paper

In recent years there has been great concern over the growing demand for energy, and the lack of non-renewable energy resources to meet the demand in the future. In addition, the question of "sustainability" — the ability to balance social, economic, and environmental needs in energy production to meet both current and long-term requirements—has come to the fore. It is clear that America must expand energy production quickly, and that we must develop renewable, sustainable energy sources to meet long-term demand and protect our future. There are many proposed solutions, such as wind and solar power. But the technology for these resources is not yet fully developed, making them, at best, low-output alternatives. Because renewable sources are not yet fully developed, there are many who claim that a “bridge fuel” is needed to meet the world’s requirements while more sustainable energy sources are developed.

One proposed option is shale gas produced through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” But this energy source is highly polarizing, with strong advocates and detractors. While there are many who believe hydraulic fracturing should not be used in the quest for natural resources, the process has a relatively low impact on the environment, and the shale gas that it produces has the potential to change the energy landscape for the better. Contrary to what environmental activists say, hydraulic fracturing is an inherently safe process that is highly effective at producing the fuel the US needs to meet our growing energy demands. In addition, the process has the potential to benefit national and local economies for many years to come by enabling the US to become the leading producer and exporter of natural gas.

In this paper, I will describe the history and process of hydraulic fracturing. I will then consider arguments against the use of the extraction technique. These arguments include environmental concerns and doubts as to whether hydraulic fracturing is economically sustainable. By first addressing the arguments against hydraulic fracturing, I will be able to effectively argue for its continued use and expansion in its current form. Finally, I will support this argument by addressing the need for a clean fuel in the US to bridge the gap between non-renewables and renewable energy in the future.

The use of hydraulic fracturing dates back to 1947, when Stanolind Oil conducted an experimental fracturing in Kansas. Although this experiment was relatively small compared to the processes used today, it served as a catalyst for advances in hydraulic fracturing. Just two years after the first test of hydraulic fracturing, Halliburton was granted a patent for the new “Hydrafrac” process. In each gas well that was treated with the new fracturing process, production increased by 75 percent. This type of breakthrough attracted many followers, and soon the process was utilized on thousands of gas wells across the US (“The History”).

The spread of hydraulic fracturing followed the discoveries of shale deposits. The largest deposit is the Marcellus Shale, located in the northeastern part of the US, centering on the state of Pennsylvania. Other areas with significant shale deposits include Texas, North Dakota, Michigan and Wyoming. Hydraulic fracturing has been used on “over 1 million producing wells” (“A Historic”), and it is believed to have “increased US recoverable reserves of oil by at least 30% and of gas by 90%” (“The History”). The fracturing technique has become a cornerstone of unconventional energy production in the US.

The process of hydraulic fracturing as it is practiced today has been made possible by the advent of directional drilling. Directional drilling gives companies the ability to drill horizontally underground as well as vertically (Heywood 43). This breakthrough has provided numerous benefits to the fracturing process, including the ability to fracture shale in many different areas from a single location on the surface. Hydraulic fracturing today begins with drilling at this single location. Companies can drill a vertical bore to an average depth of 6100 feet before drilling a horizontal bore of a few thousand feet (Weinhold A274). After the drilling process is completed, holes are perforated into the horizontal area of the bore. Companies then begin to pump an average of four million gallons of fracturing fluid (Walter 268), 98 percent of which is water, into the borehole (Heywood 43). The other two percent of the fluid consists of “proppants,” or sand, and chemicals specifically designed to fracture the shale, allowing for the release of natural gas into the borehole (Heywood 43). This process lasts two weeks, whereupon the pressure is reduced and natural gas is pumped up the borehole and into storage tanks (Howarth 272). Flowback water, which is the original hydraulic fracturing fluid that is pumped up before the natural gas, is treated and stored (Howarth 272). This process has become frequent and routine, and it is widely believed to be the answer to America’s need for a bridge fuel.

For many, the benefits of hydraulic fracturing begin at the surface. In the past, acquiring natural gas in a given area would entail the use of many drill sites, and a large area designated for numerous storage, transportation vehicles, and pipelines. Today, wells incorporating directional drilling can cover the same 640-acre area with a single borehole that would have taken 100 boreholes just a few decades ago, says Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University whose research supports hydraulic fracturing (274). Drilling from a single point reduces infrastructure on the surface and allows for more oversight of the drill site. Engelder states that with a single drilling pad, only “a 0.8-kilometer right-of-way for roads and pipelines” is needed, as opposed to 18 kilometers of infrastructure that would have been needed in that same 640-acre area before the advent of directional drilling (274). Drilling from fewer pads also means that more oversight occurs in a single area, reducing the potential for accidents related to the process.

But many believe that oversight is not enough. Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology at Cornell University, has called for a moratorium on natural gas extraction due to the many perceived environmental and health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. In a recent forum held at Yale University, Howarth stated: “Current regulation by states is clearly not sufficient” (“Forum”). He supports this claim by citing the hazardous chemicals and additives used in the hydraulic fracturing process. These chemicals consist partially of acids, friction reducers, and biocides to prevent the buildup of bacteria (Howarth 272). Howarth and others opposed to hydraulic fracturing cite the more than 750 chemicals known to be used in the process as a potential hazard. A recent US House of Representatives committee found that “in 2005-2009 over 2,500 fracking products containing around 750 chemicals were used by 14 oil and gas service companies” (Heywood 43). According to journalist Peter Heywood, however, the chemicals pumped into each well are crucial for the process of fracturing and not all 750 are used in each well (43). While detractors cite the transportation, storage, and disposal of these chemicals as a point of concern, these challenges “are common to all oil and gas operations and are therefore not specifically associated with hydraulic fracturing.” (Cooley 7). Wastewater from the fracturing process can be “transported to disposal sites by truck or pipeline” (The Royal Society 21).

Concerns about the safety of the storage and disposal of this wastewater are also unfounded. In the US, the most favored practice of disposal is through “[i]njection of waste fluids into porous and permeable rock formations” (The Royal Society 21). This practice essentially consists of gas companies disposing of their waste fluids in exhausted wells. On some occasions, companies will drill a new borehole for storage if it is determined to be the most economical solution (The Royal Society 21). The primary fear many have is that wastewater is possibly contaminating underground aquifers from which the general population obtains its drinking water. According to Myron Arnowitt, an anti-fracking activist,“[a]wareness of large industrial operations to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania grew suddenly in 2008,” over fears that it was becoming a “growing environmental problem” (45). This increased concern was due to the drilling boom that began that year and has continued to grow each year. But in counterpoint to the fears expressed by both Howarth and the public, Engelder cites that the Ground Water Protection Council “found no instance in which injected fluid contaminated groundwater from below” (275). Engelder reminds us that the fluid is being stored kilometers underneath the surface, too far for water to travel back up in a timescale that matters (275).

Although there are environmental concerns with the hydraulic fracturing process, the shale gas that it produces is far cleaner than most non-renewable fuels, making it an extremely promising bridge fuel. According to the website of the American Gas Association, natural gas is “the cleanest and most efficient fossil fuel.” Natural gas produces far lower carbon dioxide emissions than oil or coal. If the US were to replace coal plants with natural gas plants, carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced “by up to 50%” (Engelder 274). The potential for cleaner emissions is what makes natural gas the bridge fuel to the future: it brings the nation one step closer to a clean energy landscape.

In addition to its environmental benefits, hydraulic fracturing will help to expand the natural gas industry in the coming decades. The International Energy Agency stated in 2012 that “‘natural gas is poised to enter a golden age’” (Rahm 2). The development of modern hydraulic fracturing is expected to increase total world gas reserves by at least 40 percent (Rahm 3), translating into more drilling for natural gas in the future. At the start of the hydraulic fracturing boom, shale gas production increased by 48 percent each year from 2006 to 2010 (Weber 5688). A major spokesperson against the growth of hydraulic fracturing is David Hughes, a geoscientist from the Post Carbon Institute. According to US Energy Information Administration forecasts cited by Hughes in his article “Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?”, shale gas production “is forecast to grow by 265% from 2009 levels, or nearly quadruple” by 2035 (28). This boost in shale gas production will help to increase overall natural gas production by 12-percent over the next 20 years (Hughes 29). The importance of hydraulic fracturing to the natural gas industry is highlighted in these numbers, along with the estimate by the US Energy Information Administration that it will provide 45 percent of the nation’s natural gas by 2035 (Hughes 30). In order for the natural gas industry to grow in the coming years, hydraulic fracturing must play a significant role in production.

Hydraulic fracturing must continue to grow in order to meet US energy demands. At the present, the US consumes more natural gas than any nation in the world. According to the American Gas Association, 88 percent of this gas is domestically produced. Natural gas has a wide range of uses in the US. It is used in nearly all “sectors except transportation” (Hughes 11). Gas provides about 23 percent of the nation’s electricity, and this figure is projected to increase through 2035, according to the US Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook (Hughes 13). It is also extremely important in the industrial sector, contributing heavily to the production of fertilizers for crops (Hughes 11). The industrial sector takes up about 32 percent of the overall use of natural gas, followed closely by the generation of electricity and finally heating applications for both commercial and residential buildings (Hughes 11). If the many sectors of the US economy are to continue growing, hydraulic fracturing must continue to meet their energy demands.

But there are still doubts as to whether hydraulic fracturing will follow the forecasts put out by the US Energy Information Administration. Hughes writes that producing 45 percent of the nation’s gas through hydraulic fracturing is nearly impossible (31). He believes that “drilling rates assumed by the EIA to meet its forecast are inadequate” (Hughes 31). Hughes maintains that the current drilling rates of about 20,000 new wells per year are woefully short of what is needed to increase gas output (31). This shortfall is because the production rates of the average well produced through hydraulic fracturing decline “between 63% and 85%” (Hughes 24) in their first year. This steep decline means that nearly constant drilling must take place in order to sustain high levels of production. In Hughes’ estimate, 40,000 new wells will need to be drilled every year in order to achieve the goal set by the US Energy Information Administration (Hughes 31).

Though Hughes’ point appears valid, he assumes that technology involved with hydraulic fracturing is going to remain virtually the same in the coming years. He fails to recognize that drilling techniques in the industry are far from static. Rather, hydraulic fracturing is “getting easier in some ways, as success rates for finding reserves have increased from 75% in 1990 to 90% in 2009” (Weinhold A274). Furthermore, according to Lindsey Bewley of Chemical Week, while drilling rates have slowed somewhat since 2008, gross gas production rose a significant amount in 2010 from “55 billion cubic feet/day… to about 66 [billion cubic feet/day].” The process of hydraulic fracturing is clearly becoming more efficient, even in short timescales i.e. just two years. Thus, even as drilling rates are no longer accelerating at the same rates seen in 2008, production has risen due to technological advances in the system (Bewley). The negative outlook Hughes takes on hydraulic fracturing due to well-production rates is therefore unfounded, for the efficiency of the process is on the rise even today.

Hughes also cites environmental concerns, such as seismicity - the debate over whether hydraulic fracturing can cause earthquakes - to argue that shale gas will not be a large contributor to our future energy landscape. Hughes states that “hydraulic fracturing seems to be the largest source of induced seismic activity” (Hughes 26). Seismicity concerns have been allayed by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, who write that there “is an emerging consensus that the magnitude of seismicity… would be… negligible” (Royal Society 4). This scientific consensus suggests that Hughes’ arguments against shale gas are misinformed. He fails to provide substantial evidence in support of his opinion that shale gas will not be an economic boon moving forward.

Shale gas will indeed be an economic boon in the future, especially due to the large number of jobs it directly affects. The Barnett Shale in Texas alone provides over 80,000 jobs to the area and “accounts for $8.2 billion in annual output” (“Economic”). These figures are especially impressive given that the Barnett region is already an urban area home to a wide range of economic activities (“Economic”). The Marcellus Shale in the Northeast also stands to benefit greatly, particularly in light of the fact that the economy of the region is far less developed than that of the Barnett region (“Economic”). Hydraulic fracturing creates jobs in “exploration, drilling, and operations” (“Economic”) as well as in pipeline infrastructure and new construction. These are typically jobs which are heavily involved in the process of hydraulic fracturing itself. But the industry extends even further. According to Vincent Valk, a contributor to Chemical Week, shale has caused growth in the chemical producing industry as well. Makers of “catalysts, brominated products, urethanes, and lubricants are benefitting because of growth in shale oil and gas drilling” (Valk). The companies supplying oil and gas firms with chemicals necessary for the fracturing process have found enormous growth as well. This growth, according to Valk, has caused new investment in chemical companies that would never have occurred just years ago.

If drilling rates of natural gas increase at the forecasted rate, economic opportunities in all sectors involved in the process would increase dramatically. The website of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences states that the impact of hydraulic fracturing on jobs and economic growth goes beyond the “specific firms directly involved in the industry” (“Economic”). Hydraulic fracturing impacts local retailers by bringing in drilling crews and other workers involved in the process who then become consumers in local economies. A recent study conducted by Timothy W. Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics, and Eleanor Andrews, a graduate student in geography, both of Penn State University, found that many members of communities directly affected by hydraulic fracturing viewed the boom in industry as a “‘cash cow’…for restaurants, as well as for caterers able to deliver at gas well sites” (Andrews). The sharp increases in population have brought with them more business and cash flow for local store owners. Small and large businesses are benefitting greatly from the growth of hydraulic fracturing.

Opportunities for land leasing have also arisen from the growth in hydraulic fracturing. Land leasing is perhaps the area most affected by hydraulic fracturing in terms of individual income. Areas where incomes are typically low and arise from agriculture are beginning to experience an industrial boom; these areas, located in the northeast, are beginning to reap the benefits of the Marcellus Shale underfoot (Smith). For example, the gas company Eclipse reportedly paid a total of “$38 million in lease bonus checks to the landowners in Sardis, a river town of 1,500 residents” in late June of 2012 (Schneider). Some received up to half a million dollars for their land, income which had never been seen before in the area (Schneider). Furthermore, residents in nearly all areas receive royalties from the natural gas extracted by the company (Smith).  It is clear that in areas of high activity with regards to hydraulic fracturing, local businesses and households are benefitting enormously from the process.

It is true that there are concerns over the potentially negative impacts hydraulic fracturing may have on the environment, but scientific evidence suggests that many of the concerns over seismicity, the toxicity of fracturing chemicals, and groundwater pollution are unfounded. Furthermore, this process is a relatively low-impact method of gas extraction when compared to methods used in the past. The fuel produced is also far safer for the environment than other fossil fuels, like oil, that produce exorbitant amounts of carbon dioxide. There are also businesses which depend on hydraulic fracturing companies for greater revenues. Hydraulic fracturing creates thousands of jobs and has the potential to generate billions of dollars in economic output over the long term. Because of the enormous economic potential hydraulic fracturing holds for the US and its much lower carbon footprint, the moratorium on the process that Howarth calls for would have an immediate negative impact on the US economy and keep the nation dependent on fuels like oil that yield a higher carbon output. Hydraulic fracturing is extremely to our nation’s growth, and it must continue to serve as a bridge towards a renewable energy landscape in the future.

Works Cited


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