Horizontal oil fracking is a new technology that has boosted the domestic economy, helped pull down gas prices and given jobs to BYU students even as environmental activists express concern about its impact.
Controversial claims about fracking range from it being the key to U.S. oil sufficiency to a serious threat to the environment. The truth, said BYU geology professor Sam Hudson, is somewhere in the middle, but he is in favor of fracking when done safely and responsibly.
Fracking, and the whole oil process, has direct implications for BYU students. Nearly all the graduate students of petroleum geology in 25 years have gone to work for oil companies.
“We have a good relationship with the oil and gas companies, and we intend to keep that,” said BYU geology professor Thomas Morris.
Morris Argyle, associate chemical engineering professor, said five or six of each class of 80 chemical engineers usually go to an oil company. Recruiters for oil companies come to BYU to hire mechanical engineers as well for internships and post-graduate jobs.
“(Fracking) opens up a lot of opportunities for our students to work in an industry that everybody thought would be dead,” Argyle said.
Fracking — short for “hydraulic fracturing” — actually began in the 1940s or earlier. It is currently used only in onshore drilling, and it involves pumping large amounts of water into the well to form fractures that allow oils and gas to escape the impermeable rocks where it is trapped, Hudson said. Shale beds often contain oil or natural gas, but the resources are located in unconnected pore spaces within the rock, Morris said. The new technology is horizontal drilling, which turns the wellbore 90 degrees and drills horizontally as far as two miles, with as many as 15 separate frack stages.
“Fracking has been an amazing rebirth in the U.S. oil production,” Argyle said. “Up until now it wasn’t economic to try to drill a hole into shale beds.”
Argyle said American oil production has increased by 20 or 30 percent in the past five years. It has allowed existing wells to be used more efficiently. Previous fracking methods could usually take no more than 30 percent of the oil out of each well, but horizontal drilling can get closer to half of the oil.
Morris said fracking has also helped the nation’s security, as domestic production has increased enough to avoid new oil deals with unfriendly countries.
“That’s why our gas at the pump has not gone up in the last few years,” Morris said.
Fracking has pushed the world’s oil production “peak” back another 20 years.
Morris emphasized that no energy source is “free”; all have risks, and the success of fracking does not mean searches for better energy should stop.
The new technology of horizontal drilling means a smaller footprint at the surface but more beneath, Hudson said.
“You can get many times the production with one well,” Hudson said.
Fracking is vigorously opposed by many environmental groups. Andy Wilson, a BYU graduate who works with the Sierra Club in Texas, said horizontal fracking has meant drilling can occur in new communities that have to decide what the balance is between economic growth and the hazards of local drilling.
Wilson addressed one environmental concern in an email. “Because of poor industry practices, well casings may be compromised, which may cause fracking fluid to escape into groundwater (even though the shale formation may be miles below the water table).”
He said in Texas especially, getting rid of the dirty water used in fracking has become a problem.
Morris acknowledged this concern but referenced a recent study by Ohio State University, published in September, that reveals no proof of any link between fracking and groundwater contamination.
Argyle said the main scare factor has been videos of people turning on their water taps and setting the fluid on fire because of methane gas. Argyle said the natural gas, which is not toxic, comes from surface-level coal beds and not fracking.
“That’s been there,” Argyle said. “They just didn’t know it.”
Fracking would not affect drinking water because oil drilling usually occurs a mile deeper than the water table. Argyle pointed to the Balkan shale in North Dakota, which is located 7,000 feet below the surface, as an example.
Any water at those depths would be brackish and not fresh water, Morris said. Where groundwater has been contaminated, it is the result of old, poorly made wells going bad.
Geologists, engineers and the Sierra Club alike agreed that water contamination has been the result of sloppy practices by oil companies.
“Good environmental policy is good business,” Hudson said.
Fracking would have more impact than nuclear energy, although with less danger of accidents, said Richard Gill, a conservation biology professor at BYU. The technology would actually be less harmful than extraction via tar sands and particularly mountaintop coal extraction, and it produces a cleaner fuel, Gill said.
Fracking does pose risks that methane wells do not.
“There is a reasonably high chance of there being environmental harm from fracking, but it would tend to be localized and of small global consequence,” Gill said in an email.
These risks potentially include small earthquakes. So far, these have been small, mostly too small to feel. Hudson said the large oil companies understand the need to proceed cautiously and are anxious to do it right, adding that even groundwater wells are fracked.
“Would I frack next to the San Andreas fault? Absolutely not,” Hudson said.
The biggest concern receives less media coverage but has more immediate environmental and economic impacts, especially in the West. Fracking requires massive amounts of water — millions of gallons. The water contains a “propent,” which is usually just sand, and chemicals that decrease the drag as the water pushes through the rock, Morris said. Workers usually try to pull the water back out of the well and reuse it, but some will remain.
“One concern is what we’re leaving down in the ground,” Morris said.
Fracking is occurring in the Green River Basin in Utah, western Texas, North Dakota, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Colorado and elsewhere in the United States. The United Kingdom and eastern Europe are also looking into it, Hudson said, and China is actively working to develop the technology.
Fracking enabled North Dakota, which was previously not a huge producer of domestic oil, to jump to No. 2 in the United States as of 2013.