Fracking: Assessing The Price Of Energy Independence

One of the more transformative technologies of this century is that of fracking. In just a little more than two decades the use of this oil drilling and recovery technique has had a significant impact. Fracking has reordered the players in the energy business, changed the financial dynamics of that industry, and presents the U.S. with the totally unanticipated opportunity for generating all its own energy needs internally. At the same time, this use of horizontal drilling and high-pressure water to fracture sub-surface rock formations is raising alarms in many environmental circles.

Simple Concept Requiring Complex Technologies

The concept of hydraulic fracturing of underground rock formations applies the simplest of scientific principles in a sophisticated manner. There are two basic steps to the process, both using the latest in oilfield technology to achieve the limited objective of breaking up the underground formations.

In the first step, a traditional well is drilled, often miles down a straight vertical shaft. Then, the drilling goes horizontal, and a number of shafts are drilled into identified oil-bearing strata. Once the drilling is complete, immense amounts of water and sand, along with certain chemicals, are blasted into the well shafts, creating pressures great enough to collapse the rock formations. Trapped oil and natural gas deposits then pool into recoverable amounts.

This process has proven to be immensely effective at recovering great quantities of oil, even from fields thought depleted decades ago. In fact, U.S. oil production is now at more than eight million barrels a day, a 25-year high, due solely to the use of fracking.

Underlining the Importance of Effective Environmental Analysis

In spite of this important new source of oil, many environmentalists and others are expressing growing concern over the growing use of such recovery techniques. Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford, acknowledges both sides of this debate when he states, "The key is to reduce the environmental costs as much as possible, while making the most of the environmental benefits."

The issues brought up by those who are studying the impact of fracking include:

  • Pollution on local water supplies and drinking water, with the creation of great quantities of wastewater being the largest concern
  • Localized air pollution, including generation of volatile organics and air toxins created by the fracking
  • Destabilization of local underground formations, causing earthquakes and long-term consequences
  • Increased reliance on "cheap oil" to generate energy, instead of pursuing green alternatives.

Extensive environmental analysis (such as that done by Neilson Research Corporation) is now being conducted in many areas where fracking is in use, and there is new research focused on the long-term environmental costs of obtaining this additional supply of oil. The balance between dollars and climate is the driving factor in today's debate over allowing increased use of fracking throughout the United States and other parts of the world.