Hydraulic Fracturing (Hydrofracking): The Risks and Rewards of the Controversial Drilling Technique
Fracking—if you’re a Battlestar Galactica fan, “fracking” is a coarse term for an intimate activity, as well as being an all-purpose, heavy-duty swear word.
However, if you’re in the oil or gas industry, or just read the news relating to upstate New York and eastern Pennsylvania, fracking—or fracing, as it’s also spelled—means something very different: hyrdofracking, or hydraulic fracturing. It’s a mining or drilling technique used to break up rock underground to create easier access to resources. It’s common in oil drilling; incredibly common in natural gas production; and is even used sometimes to revive flagging drinking water wells. It’s also used for some solid (as opposed to liquid or gas) mineral resources. For example, it’s used at a quarry in North Carolina to break granite blocks out from the surrounding bedrock.
Despite being in the news of late, it’s not a new technique. It was first commercially used in 1903, and was first used in the United States in the late 1940s. At present, thousands of wells use hydraulic fracturing. However, the “gas rush” in the Marcellus Shale formation in upstate New York and Pennsylvania has caused hydraulic fracturing to bubble to the surface of public consciousness: it may now come into widespread use in a densely populated region unaccustomed to fossil fuel resource extraction. Since the process—like most large-scale industrial processes—can have negative consequences, the near-certainty of its widespread adoption in this region has resulted in public controversy, as people weigh the benefits of economic gain against health and environmental risks.
And the debate has been loud, as would be expected when enough natural gas to satisfy US demand for at least a decade is set against possible harm to the water supply for almost 10 million people in one of the world capitals of media, finance, and law. It’s not natural gas per se that’s sparked a firestorm of controversy, it’s the technique—hydraulic fracturing—used to extract it.
So what exactly is hydraulic fracturing?