What’s the Deal With “Fracking”?

Hello All, and welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”  the blog that covers current events from a historical perspective, and today, a scientific subject …. SCIENCE!!!!.

You're talking about Science? Are you fracking kidding me?!!?

Today we are going to delve into the relatively “deep” and now controversial subject of natural gas extraction from shale rock, known as “fracking” (a great euphemism for certain swear words).

Natural gas as a large-scale potential energy source is gaining a large public following mainly due to the hype of “alternative” fuels and high petrol costs, but there are some serious issues that are being debated at the moment that may hold private gas companies(or force government agencies) against following public opinion.

Along with examining the issues surrounding Natural Gas becoming a major energy source, we’ll take a look at the risks and issues that have come up before in new/untested energy processes, and compare them.

Why is natural gas so popular with everyone right now?  Well, let’s see.  There has been a pervasive hype about “alternative” fuels for the last decade, that has only recently become profitable (widely available and popular).  Natural gas has caught on as a “cleaner burning” fuel that can replace the dependence of the U.S. on foreign petrol and domestic coal.  There is also a pervading assumption that there are huge stores of the gas in large sections of shale rock, and so it is a fuel source that can begin to replace other fuels.  The estimates of large amounts of natural gas are a potential business and profit opportunity for individuals who are investing in production or allowing drilling companies to drill on their property.   In this poor economy, any kind of positive investment seems to influence public opinion greatly.  These are the positive spins of natural gas that drilling companies and energy businessmen have been promoting in the last few years.

That nat'ral gas, it's Gold!! Liquid Gold!!

So what are the risks and problems of drilling for natural gas that are being debated?

As more information is being made public and being researched by the government and academic institutions, it turns out that there are huge risks involved for:

*the environment and citizens’ health

*the natural gas industry

*academic institutions

For effects to the environment, let’s look first at emissions if more people potentially use natural gas a major fuel source.  Although natural gas combustion gives off lower  levels of CO2, there are still high levels of methane, CH4 which happens to be a more potent greenhouse gas (more effective at trapping reflected sunlight to warm the earth).  So, it is a cleaner burning fuel than oil or coal, but still gives off greenhouse gasses (ie. not a fix all)

The direct effects of hydro-fracturing and natural gas extraction are closer to the surface and directly affect people.  The process of hydro-fracturing involves drilling thousands of feet below the surface to reach the shale rock formation where natural gas is trapped and using a small series of explosions from a perforating gun, literally “fracture” the shale rock to release the trapped hydrocarbons.  Then using a combination of chemicals, sand, and  pressurized water (hydro) the fractures are widened and the pipe acts a siphon bringing the natural gas to the surface.

The potential hazards during the process of “Hydro-Fracking”

  1. The drill has to bypass underground aquifers that can potentially be contaminated from the process, even though the drill well is sealed by cement in the process (I’ve never heard of an oil pipe bursting before)
  2. The used contaminated water could seep through the fractures in the shale and rise upwards to the water table or surface.  The water contains certain toxic (and radioactive) compounds such as benzene (from diesel) and methanol (could be released as methane as well).
  3. the contaminated water returns to the surface as waste water at very hazardous levels, higher than all drinking water standards permit.  This water has to be stored by the gas/drilling company in tanks or ponds, which of course have the potential to overflow from rain, or spill/leak.
  4. The extraction of natural gas is inefficient as the initial gas that rises from the surface is not captured.

    Who knew Kekula's Dream would be so toxic? Side note: only history of science buffs will appreciate this

There have been reported cases of water contamination surrounding operations around the huge Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania such as the Alleghany River containing 28 times the allowed particulate of benzene (see picture).   There was also a huge well blowout in 2010 in Pennsylvania spewing 35,000 gallons of fracturing fluids into the air.  Potential seismic effects of drilling and potentially harmful silica particulate in the air are hazards to keep in mind from this operation.

That gives a pretty clear picture of the detrimental effects to local and regional areas from natural gas drilling, but there’s an interesting twist to the natural gas “rush” of the last decade on the numbers side.

The bottom line for hydro-fracture extraction of natural gas from shale rock, is that there is not enough information or experience to say how much gas a drilling operation can extract especially after the initial period of productivity declines.  So any estimates of natural gas from huge shale formations should be taken with a pinch of salt.  The Energy Information Agency gets most of its information publicly including from studies done by oil and drilling companies research/estimates which have tended to overestimate the amount of gas in shale formations and use inappropriate models to show production over time, a clear case of profit over risk and actual knowledge of productive capacity.

The largest shale formations (Barnett Shale and Marcellus Shale) have varied production numbers from area to area with some being large hotspots, and other producing much less. Producers have used these hotspots with the highest value to show what is “normal” and boost public opinion.  Also, many potential drilling sites in both formations have yet to be tested for their productivity.  So, it is difficult to characterize the entire shale extraction business as uniform at all drilling locations, meaning higher risk for investors, and possibly unnecessary environmental risks with little energy reward.  The possibility of natural gas from shale not being as big as predicted is being discussed by major producers and the EIA.

Tied in with the skewed numbers on shale gas extraction is the muckraking from academic researchers, one of whom has been fired for his reports calling out energy companies and the new “gold rush”.  Dan Volz of the University of Pittsburgh calculated that the actual amount of available natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation was grossly overstated by a Penn St. professor Terry Engelder.  It is interesting that Penn St. is largely funded privately by gas and oil companies, but also interesting was that Volz was eventually fired from his post because he was too outspoken in his offense against the natural gas craze in Pennsylvania.  We can see how politics came into play here to create a new surge in popular opinion.

So let’s summarize the “fracking” story here:

  1. natural gas extraction from shale is a rapidly expanding operation especially in the largest formations in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, W. Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland.
  2. The boom in this industry is being portrayed as a positive creator of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, lower oil prices, and a cleaner energy source; all of which have boosted public opinion.
  3. “Fracking” has several serious environmental and health concerns.
  4. There is doubt from the EIA and private organizations that the amount of natural gas available is not enough to make it the fuel of the future.

So, since this is a history blog, I am going to tie in some historical concepts here to relate with this story because I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat waiting for this part.

Let’s talk about the history of federal regulation on the natural gas industry (you’re yawning already), because the stance of the federal government (or lack of) will be significant in determining how much investment gets put into shale gas hydrofracking.

Between 1938 and 1978, the natural gas market was heavily regulated by various federal commercial and energy commissions.  The move towards deregulation of the industry came during the peak of natural gas supply shortages at the end of the 1970s (the energy crisis).  Deregulation was seen as a measure to create incentives for bringing down costs through competitive measures, so regulation of price ceilings and sales were decreased.   This is primarily still the case today, with regulation of distribution and transport still regulated heavily, but sales and production not regulated as much.

The FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) is the agency currently in charge of regulating natural gas and could serve as the decision maker in deciding how much production will be made from the large shale reserves.  The question is: how much regulation of production will there be after more research is done, and the best known statistics for production value and environmental harm are shown?

My hope is that stricter measures will be imposed upon drilling companies, but it doesn’t look good for that cause for a couple of reasons:

  1. Several state economies (that are in good economic shape b/c of natural gas) want to ride the wave of this “opportunity”
  2. Research may continue to be skewed if politics continues to play a strong hand in deciding the results of research.
  3. President Obama has already made provisions for natural gas being an energy source of the future.

So what we can take away from this is that we have to wait and see (an unfortunate finding).  There is simply not enough research to tell what more drilling in the shale rock will produce.  What we do know for sure is that there are harmful effects of “fracking” and that the EPA and EIA need to enforce safety and environmental standards pronto to protect our health and environment.  Something to keep in mind: back in January, Jon Stewart interviewed oilman T. Boone Pickens and clearly, he is not presenting the hazards of fracking, and Jon Stewart needs to listen and get his act together:

It's Great to Learn!

Well, another week, another story.  I hope you learned something, or at least enjoyed one of the images I posted.

Tune in next week for another edition of “What’s the Deal?”  and Thanks for Reading!

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


natural gas supply association


Coal, a Human History by Barbara Freese

The New York Times Investigative Report: Drilling Down

Chicago Public Radio: This American Life: Game Changer podcast

the documentary film, Gasland

Hydraulic Fracturing, a report by the EPA


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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One Response to What’s the Deal With “Fracking”?

  1. Why no video of people lighting their tapwater on fire? Thats the “money shot” of the fracking debate!

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