In 2000, shale beds provided just 1 percent of America’s natural gas supply. Today, that figure stands at nearly 25 percent.
Most of that production increase is due to the growing popularity of hydraulic fracturing--known colloquially as “fracking”--a process used to release oil or gas from underground formations that are otherwise too difficult to mine. Over the past few years, advances in fracking technology have made tremendous reserves of natural gas in the United States economically recoverable for the first time. According to the Energy Information Administration, shale gas plays, or fields, in the United States--most notably the Marcellus, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York, and the Barnett, in Texas--are said to contain enough natural gas to power the country for 110 years. With the enticing specter of energy independence in the balance, some have argued that such efforts to recover natural gas need to be expanded. Activists concerned with fracking’s potential environmental hazards view the process as a serious threat.
The process of fracking creates fractures that extend from wells into oil and gas formations by pumping highly-pressurized fluid--water, sand, ceramic beads, and a mixture of chemicals--into the oil or gas formation. As this fluid holds the underground fissures open, oil and gas flow up the well to the surface where they can be recovered. Water makes up an overwhelmingly high percentage of fracking fluid, but a congressional Democrat report released in April identified about 750 chemicals that have also been used in the process, 29 of which are either likely or known carcinogens. That fluid also flows back up the well, and is stored in open pits until it can be sent to a treatment plant. Depending upon local geology, a variable amount of fracking fluid remains in the ground after a well has run dry. Likewise, fracking is known to produce airborne pollutants like methane, benzene, and sulfur oxide, and the EPA has recently targeted this pollution and plans to set strict guidelines to reduce it.
Is fracking a good idea? Here is the Debate Club’s take:
Jon Olson Associate Professor in the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Daniel Simmons Director of State Affairs at the Institute for Energy Research
Chris Faulkner Founder, President, and CEO of Breitling Oil and Gas
Lee Fuller Vice President of Government Relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America