To frack, or not to frack?

I’m genuinely puzzled. Fracking has been around since the 1947!  How can a tried and tested technique over sixty years old suddenly be catapulted into such notoriety?  I’m going to try to find out.

It is considered a standard technique which used to be done once and the beginning of a well’s life to enhance productivity. It’s is used for both oil and gas wells and even recovery of uranium dissolved Uranium. Ironically it is even used on drinking water wells and to free up the hot water for enhanced geothermal systems. Worldwide over 2.5 million fracking operations have been completed, over 1 million of them in the US. Sometimes acid is used to dissolve the rock lengthening the fractures and preventing them from settling back to their original state. Often sand, ceramics or other particles called proppants are pumped into the fractures to prop them open.

Some of the original jobs were very short range. The drilling process can damage the borehole in such a way it is in fact mostly sealed. Fracking is used to open up fractures for a few feet or metres from the borehole to link up with existing natural fractures in the surrounding rock.

Things apparently didn’t even kick off when they started “massive hydraulic fracturing” in the late 60s. This can involve over 330,000 pounds of proppant into the wells to free up huge quantities of gas from low permeability rocks including shale.

In the 70s it caught on in Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, both onshore and offshore and even here in the North Sea oil fields of the UK.

In the 1990s the first horizontal drilling started, following the horizontal layers of sedimentary rock. These were routinely fracked to free huge amounts of oil from from very “tight” chalks and shales. At this time they began to add small amounts of sand, solvents and lubricants to create “slickwater”.

Still it seems, nobody’s tap water was on fire…


Ten years ago the large scale exploitation of onshore shale gas using hydraulic fracturing started and it’s fair to say there have been problems, brilliantly illustrated in the movie Gasland.  The process can cause the migration of pre-existing methane into aquifers so you can light your tap water… it also smells.  There are myriad other problems with the management of the process, all of which are manageable


But with over a million wells and rising fast this has to be expected.  Blowbacks occur about 0.1%-1% of the time (though is considered under reported) so on 1M wells that’s 10,000 incidents.

The debate reminds me of the way all issues of this kind progress from tobacco or mobile phone masts causing cancer to climate change or water management on the Somerset levels.

A relatively small number of people are affected, they do some research and unearth some genuinely informative data but they also see causal correlations where there turn out to be none and draw other conclusions with no scientific underpinnings.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the affected people are wrong but it does make it easy for the scientists and professionals representing the interested parties to pick apart their arguments by focussing on the flaws and ignoring any kernel of truth at the centre.  If you are the people making money you can keep those arguments going, all the while raking in money to keep people tied up in legal knots.  Eventually, just like the tobacco barons, you win.

There is potential for problems at nearly every phase of well development from drilling to eventual production.  In America it seems pressure from the government (motivated by energy security and presumably the tax take from the industry) and from the industry itself has led to a relaxation of various environmental laws and the knobbling of reports which might prove embarrassing by narrowing their scope to the point where they can’t find anything damaging.  In other words the exact same crap our politicians do.

Both sides are spinning in an effort to undermine the other.


Wikipedia: Gasland

Wikipedia: Environmental impact of Hydraulic Fracturing.

Report from the University of Texas “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection”

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