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What is Fracking: A Simple Description of a Complicated Process

By Edited Sep 22, 2016 0 6

The recent oil and gas industry downturn has muted the discussion of fracking that reached a fevered pitch only a few months ago.  In the world of fossil fuels, one thing is nearly certain; what goes down will surely come back up.  When the value of oil and gas gets higher, and the industry gets busy, the vigorous debate surrounding fracking will be front page once again.

Industry insiders, myself included, can't help but cringe when we hear our local news anchor call oil and gas "the fracking industry".  To be sure, there is such a thing but it refers specifically to the companies that do that type of work and it is only a small, albeit important, part of the bigger picture.  A solid understanding of what the process is by people on all sides of the issue, would go a long way in moving the overall conversation forward.

The term fracking is short for fracture stimulation.  Somehow that just doesn't have the same ring.  Despite all the attention lately, the process is really nothing new.  Fracture stimulation has been around since the 1940's and, although the technology has changed, the basic principles have stayed pretty much the same.  The importance of fracking to the recovery of oil and gas from shale can't be overstated but it is just one part of the bigger picture.

After the well is drilled and prepared, a tool called a perforating gun is lowered into the well bore.  The gun, as the name would suggest, shoots projectiles through the pipe, that encases the well, and into the rock or shale formation.  The projectiles create holes deep into the rock and tiny cracks form around the holes.  Once the tool is removed, the well is prepared for the next step which is the fracture stimulation process.

Powerful industrial pumps, capable of creating pressure in excess of 10,000 pounds, are connected to the well.  The equipment is used to force a mixture of water, sand and a small amount of other chemicals down the well bore and into the formations, through the holes created by the perforating gun's projectiles.  The pumped water exerts pressure on the surrounding rock and widens the small cracks.

In industry terms, the sand is call a propant.  Just like the name sounds, it prop open the newly formed fractures so the oil and/or the gas can flow back through.  The sand is strong enough to hold the weight of thousands of feet of dirt and stone, but porous enough to allow liquid to pass through.  The small amount of chemicals that are mixed with the water and sand, lubricates the pipe and keeps the mixture from clumping into a sludge that can't be forced down the bore.

A well is broke into zones, or areas where pockets of liquids have been found.  Each zone is perforated and fracked, starting at the bottom and moving upward.  After each is complete, a plug is set just above it, to prevent the pressurized liquids from shutting the process down for the next zone.  When the frack is complete, the plugs are drilled out and the well begins to flow.

Fracking has been held up as a new and mysterious process when, in fact, it is neither.  It is a very important part of recovering gas and liquids from both tight rock and shale formations but it is only a part even though it has been credited with bringing about the most recent boom.  As surely as the oil and gas prices will come back up, the fracking debate will once again be front and center.  The next time you hear a heated discussion on subject, you can agree or disagree but at least you will know just what it is you are arguing about.



O&G Flare
Credit: Shawn Gipson

O&G Flare



Aug 11, 2016 11:48am
Interesting read about the process and nice photo! I see the pros and cons (but lean towards being against it). I wish more companies were transparent about the chemicals used, it shouldn't fall under proprietary information in my opinion. I read a while back one company (forget which one) was going to start sharing that information, which I thought was a positive move and would help with transparency and the public would have a clearer perspective.
Aug 11, 2016 1:20pm
Believe it or not, there is more transparency than what we are led to believe by the anti-fracking movement. The a list of the types of chemicals used is public knowledge: https://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used and regulatory agencies closely monitor their use as well as testing of water supplies if close enough to the operation. The secrecy alluded to in movies like "Gasland/Gasland 2" has more to do with the percentages they are mixed in than the actual chemicals used.
Aug 11, 2016 1:26pm
To be sure, most of the chemicals on the list can be quite nasty in high concentrations but they are mixed with 90+ % water. Additionally, the mixture is injected thousands of feet below freshwater zones and away from them completely in most cases. American producers have made mistakes in the past but they and regulators have learned from the mistakes and the process continuously improves. Thanks so much for your comments. I recognize that not everyone will feel positively about the subject and there is a lot of misinformation out there on both sides. I hope I have shared something that will further your understanding of the subject, regardless of your overall opinion on it.
Aug 12, 2016 12:49am
Thanks, I will check out the link you've shared. I haven't seen the "Gasland" movies (didn't know there was a second one actually), my information came from when I was writing news stories and doing my own research, reading studies, etc. Also, I think the percentages are a problem, it should all be transparent.
Aug 11, 2016 12:45pm
This is a good article and a nice, clear explanation of the process, Sean. However, for what it's worth, I am totally against fracking. First, it has been known to cause earthquakes in several places, including British Columbia, the seismically sensitive area where I live. Second, it pollutes groundwater. Third, CO2 from the continued use of oil makes global warming and environmental problems worse. We are all like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, denying that oil is going to run out eventually and continuing our self-destructive behavior instead of looking for viable alternatives.
Aug 11, 2016 1:45pm
HLesley - Many people are against the process, you are in good company. Unfortunately, the industry has made mistakes in the past (mostly out of ignorance), and many in the anti-fracking group spread 1/2 truths and falsehoods. Both serve to muddy the issue. There actually has not been a direct causal link between fracking and significant seismic activity, to my knowledge. That being said, deep well injection which is also a component of oil and gas production is linked to larger quakes. It sounds like you might be in the anti oil and gas camp in general and that's OK; you're in good company there too. I happen to be in the all-of-the-above group, believing that we need to continuously find newer, cleaner, and more efficient ways of producing energy. I don't happen to subscribe to the man made global warming consensus but believe very strongly that we, as residents of the planet, should use our resources responsibly and take care of what we've been given. All the best!
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