It’s no secret that the fossil fuel industry today finds itself in danger of being considered a fossil. For one thing, oil simply does not have the economic allure it once had. While it remains an essential part of the international economy, it is nevertheless recognized as having negative environmental impacts. This, coupled with slowdowns at oil fields across once oil-rich regions, has led to concern about the long-term outlook of the industry. Fracking, for the time being, has helped to alleviate those concerns. While it was first discovered in the mid-19th century, it is only in the past couple of decades that the practice has really begun to take off. With its rise has come a spike of investment in companies practicing fracking, as well as greater scrutiny as to its sustainability and impact. The story of fracking has been more than a century and a half in the making, and its progress does not appear to be waning any time soon.
What is Fracking?
The process of fracking involves using controlled explosions and water pressure to cause fissures to form in the ground. Today, this is achieved mainly with water pressure alone. From these fissures spring forth oil. The reasons for the expanding popularity of this method are understandable. For one thing, modern methods of fracking offer oil producers an alternative to conventional drilling. For another, it can be an efficient extraction method. When it works, oil can be extracted from a wide swath of land in a relatively short period of time.
The History of Fracking
As with so many other technologies, fracking is a technological advancement born of necessity and developed via experimentation during wartime. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Colonel Edward A.L. Roberts discovered that firing exploding artillery shells into narrow canals could fracture the ground and release fluid via what he would describe as “superincumbent fluid tamping.” Roberts patented the torpedoes responsible for this in 1865. He also refined the technique, making use of a torpedo packed with around 15 to 20 pounds of powder, lowering it into an oil well, and filling the hole with water to “tamp down” the explosion and direct its force more fully downward into the ground (Borowski, 2012). Roberts would go on to found the Roberts Petrol Torpedo Company, which would charge as much as $200 per rocket to be used in each fracking attempt, as well as retain a percentage of the profits generated from each successful use. In the 1930s and 40s, the evolution to using nonexplosive measures that focused on liquid pressure began, starting with the switch to using acid to create and widen underground cracks (Montgomery & Smith, 2010). Additionally, the acid helped prevent the ground from sealing up again like after an explosion. Eventually eliminating the highly volatile nitroglycerin previously used in the fracking process, these advancements also helped make fracking exponentially safer for workers.
The process of hydraulic fracking began in full in 1947, when Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas began analyzing the interaction between oil, gas, and pressure. This gave rise to the first modern fracking experiments in Hugoton, Kansas, during which 1,000 gallons of sand and gelled gasoline were injected into a limestone formation 2,400 feet below the ground. The experiment failed, but the process prompted further interest in using hydraulic methods for oil extraction purposes. On March 17, 1949, Halliburton conducted two tests in Oklahoma and Texas that were more successful. This led to greater usage of the technique, and it soon spread to other companies. Pan American Petroleum began using hydraulic fracking in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, the practice had grown beyond the plains of the south to basins in the San Juan, Green River, Denver, and Piceance areas.
President Gerald Ford further endorsed the use of fracking, promoting it in his State of the Union address as part of his oil and energy plan, intended to allay the United States’ dependency on foreign oil. An economic and political Achilles heel for the United States, later years would see high oil prices, long lines at gas stations, and shortages due to issues with global oil supply, as well as political tensions between the United States and its Middle Eastern trading partners. By the 1990s, further advancements in fracking were made by innovators such as George P. Mitchell, who combined hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, increasing the effectiveness of the practice further. This ability to exert extreme amounts of pressure on deep layers of rock produced a boom in what is referred to today as shale oil, which is a type of high-quality crude oil that lies beneath shale rock and similar layers of sediment. Oil companies were able to reach these deep deposits via fracking, and this practice has increased over time. With production booming in the United States from 2014 onward, shale oil has accounted for more than a third of crude oil extracted via onshore production in the continental United States. Today, the U.S. is the largest producer of crude oil. This has allowed America to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, with import totals falling since the U.S. shale boom began.
Boom, Bust, and Attempted Recovery
However, while fracking and crude oil have allowed the United States to be less dependent on foreign imports, it has also spurred its own economic booms and busts. While shale oil and fracking were at their height several years ago, entire communities in areas where the practice was common saw huge spikes in population and renewed interest and investment. Some towns in North Dakota more than doubled their population with an influx of new workers. This led to all manner of side effects, from a boom in local businesses, to an increase in crimes in some towns. However, the booms experienced by many towns did not last forever. With fracking coming under increased scrutiny and its efficacy in certain areas being questioned, some of fracking’s boomtowns, like the oil wells that brought their business, began to dry up. In addition to increased scrutiny, the method itself was somewhat to blame. While oil production in the United States experienced a boom from 2010 to 2015 unrivaled by many others in history, the conditions necessary to maintain such high production largely did not prevail. For one thing, it relied heavily on an international market already filled with crude suppliers. While disruptions, such as civil war in Libya, helped to balance oil markets for a time, supply soon began to overtake demand as oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia signalled they would not entertain production cuts. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy began to slow down, reducing demand and contributing to a fall in oil prices. And, inflaming the issue, shale oil wells dried up quickly – making once-productive areas no longer viable and increasing companies’ costs.
Shale oil and fracking are the result of innovation. If there is a silver lining in fracking communities and fields suddenly going from boom to bust, it’s that innovation continues to play a major part in the industry. Every year, new fracking methods, fluids, and drills are developed. Sensors implanted at the drilling sites help provide companies with more information about how to drill more effectively and where new drilling should occur. The hope is that these new fracking techniques are more sustainable and may help avoid the volatile surges and declines that have characterized the industry thus far.
Benefits and Drawbacks
As with so much of the oil and energy industry, there are several concerns that have appeared as fracking has developed. Meanwhile, proponents of the technology remain staunchly supportive, and the issue of fracking remains hotly debated today. On the positive side, there is no denying that shale oil extraction is a more flexible method than its traditional counterparts. Being able to fire high-pressure liquid into the ground opens up new possibilities as to where oil companies can drill for oil, expanding potential reserves and reducing limitations on production. Additionally, the natural gas extracted through fracking burns cleaner than coal, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and providing a cleaner alternative in the face of climate change. Helping countries to meet their lower emissions targets, fracking also provides countries such as the United States greater national security by reducing their dependence on imports. Likewise, the increased amount of domestic production could provide a significant number of jobs, available in particular in small towns across America that may not be home to other large companies.
All of these advantages, however, come at a cost. Fracking requires a great deal of natural resources to work. In particular, fracking ultimately requires a greater amount of water to produce a single unit of energy than coal does, burdening supplies that may already be tight. Simultaneously, fracking can add to that burden further by contaminating separate water supplies, all the while also posing a severe human health risk. Extensive amounts of harsh chemicals and toxic materials are used in fracking processes, and these contaminants have been known to leech into the groundwater or even find their way into drinking reserves via leaks at fracking sites. These cases have often stemmed from issues such as boreholes – the area into which the high-pressure water is delivered – not being built properly or water being mishandled. Additionally, the trend in research regarding the effects alongside reports of gas contamination from fracking sites has been increasingly concerning. The same communities that may benefit from increased job opportunities, meanwhile, have complained about the increased pollution and noise that fracking brings and the seismic concerns regarding fracking have grown. Studies have shown both Oklahoma and California as having earthquakes resulting from technologies similar to fracking, with the high-pressure techniques used in the fracking process – the core principle of the technology – triggering problems along existing fault lines (Alden, 2016).
Domestic and International Criticism
The environmental concerns regarding fracking have led to a swath of political repercussions. Some states, like Maryland and New York, passed statewide moratoriums on fracking in 2015. Globally, countries like Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and France have all rejected the notion of continuing oil exploration in their countries via fracking. While some of these bans have been temporary and others indefinite, other places like California have also expressed their concerns over the continuation of fracking. Home to some of the United State’s largest fault lines, California is an area already inherently sensitive to seismic activity. Other states, meanwhile, are considering required disclosures regarding the fluids used in fracking processes and greater transparency for communities that might be nearby. Germany, short of a full fracking ban, has limited the use of unconventional fracking technologies and placed greater restrictions on conventional methods.
For as much as its production potential has excited oil companies across the globe (and especially in the United States), the story of fracking does not end there. Amongst its potential for economic growth lies risks that, for many countries and states, warrant pause. Taking into serious consideration the disadvantages – and even dangers – of fracking, the environmental picture is still far from rosy. Comparing those dangers to the benefits offered by this new and burgeoning industry, the volatile history of fracking will likely continue to experience its signature peaks and troughs. The technology has never been better, with that innovation arriving at an economically crucial time for the industry. However, its sustainability and environmental impact are uncertain at best and hazardous at worst. Fracking has developed significantly over its surprisingly long history. Today, it stands at a crossroads – and what history holds in store for fracking remains as opaque as the shale oil itself.
Alden, A. (2016). “How Oil and Gas Production Triggers Earthquakes in California.” KQED Public Media for Northern California.
Borowski, S. (2012). “Idea for ‘fracking’ came from Civil War battlefield.” American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Montgomery, C. & Smith, M. (2010). “Hydraulic Fracturing.” NSI Technologies.