I don’t know about you but up here in New York there is a lot of discussion about “fracking” and how this will increase our supplies of crude oil and reduce our need for foreign supplies. But along side this discussion is also a discussion about how this process is not very environmentally friendly and, as a secondary topic, how we need to be looking for alternative energy resources instead of continuing our reliance on fossil fuels.
So what is “fracking”? The proper name for this procedure is hydraulic fracturing and it is a technique for increasing the flow of crude oil out of bedrock. It and variants on the technique have been around probably since we first started drilling for oil.
To explain what it is, we need to have a better picture of how crude oil is taken out of the ground. I think that the most common conception of an oil well is a large pool of oil in a large cavity in the rock several thousand feet below the surface. In part, this is true but the cavities in which the oil is imbedded are very small and there is no large pool of oil.
When an oil well is set up, the pipe reaches the oil bearing rock strata, it cracks those micro-cavities and, because there is a pressure differential, the oil “flows” out of the rock strata and up to the surface. After the well is established, a pump jack is set on the wellhead to pump the oil out of the rock.
At some point in time, the pressure differential becomes to low for the pump jack to work and, in the past, the well is shut down. This is where “fracking” comes into play.
The process of “fracking” involves pumping water and other liquids under pressure back into the oil-bearing rock strata. This causes the strata to fracture and open up other pathways for the oil to flow out of the well. One benefit of this process is that it allows the extraction of oil from other oil-bearing strata normally not considered in oil production.
And that brings us to the downside of hydraulic fracturing. If all that was being pumped back into the ground was water (and I think that was the case many years ago), there might not be any problems. However, along with the water that is injected into these wells, other solvents, mostly hydrocarbons and essentially insoluble in water, are also being used.
These solvents are used to dissolve the oil and make it easier to extract but left behind in the bedrock, they end up in the water table and pollute the water. It also appears that the injection of this mixture of various solvents, under pressure, has increased the frequency of earthquakes in the area of the wells. Neither of these outcomes can be categorized as welcome and/or safe.
There are going to be those who say that the downside of “fracking” is minimal in terms of the oil that is produced from the process. Those who support this process would say that producing more domestic oil removes the need for the importation of oil from other localities. But is it worth it? Is the pollution and what would be the destruction of an underground water table worth the reduction of foreign oil?
Once upon a time, I began a science methods class by pointing out the two most important liquids in society were water and oil and that one could easily construct a curriculum based on that notion. There is no doubt that there is a limited supply of crude oil (fossil fuels are notoriously nonrenewable) but there is also a limited supply of clean drinking water. And having all the oil in the world won’t matter much if there is no water to drink. (A side note – there is plenty of water on this planet but the majority of it is undrinkable.)
Second, a focus on a process with so many downsides to it takes us away from seeking alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind. And we need to find other ways to utilize what limited resources of the fossil fuels that we do have, possibly through the use of fuel cells which would use the fossil fuels but not produce the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide associated with the combustion of the same fossil fuels.
There are probably countless technical details that I have overlooked but I hope this has provided some insight into this issue that seems to be a dominant part of the energy discussion in our country today. The reader will clearly know my bias but I hope I have left it there for them to decide on their own what their opinion will be and what action to take.