Oil and Gas Exploration
For over a century, exploration for oil and gas—finding the next big field full of valuable fossil fuels—has involved locating oil and gas traps and drilling into them. Most commonly, this has involved “seismic” exploration (see the figure and explanation below). Nature figured out how to use this technique long before humans did. For example, a bat flying around in the dark “looking” for a moth to eat will make a noise, and listen to the echo off the moth, using the time and direction to locate the flying dinner. Dolphins can find their food the same way.
Video: Air Gun Vessel to find Oil (:55)
Oil explorers make noises, and listen to the reflections from layers in the Earth, using the time and direction to locate the oil-and-gas-filled traps. Then, drillers drill into the traps, and pump the oil and gas out. (Sometimes, the pressure is so high in the trap at the start that the oil comes out of the hole without being pumped, as a “gusher,” see figures below.)
But, soon, the pressure down there is reduced, and a pump is needed. Occasionally, a gusher catches on fire, with sometimes disastrous consequences, see the figure below.
Increasingly, a new technique is being used to recover oil and gas. Shale layers often have a lot of hydrocarbon left in them that did not escape in the past. Drillers have learned how to bore down to a shale layer, then turn the drill and bore along in the layer. When the hole is long enough, the drillers pump fluids at high pressure into the hole, breaking the shale in a process called “fracking” (from “fracturing”) that mimics the natural process by which oil and gas escaped the shale. Human use of this process was apparently first invented by a veteran of the US Civil War, Col. Edward Roberts, who saw the fractures in the ground caused by an exploding Confederate shell, and went on to patent the technique of using explosives to fracture rocks and allow more flow into wells. The technique has been improved in many ways since.
In many ways, fracking is not revolutionary but evolutionary from older techniques for recovering oil and gas. Under best practices, fracking probably isn’t inherently more risky or dangerous than those other methods. The biggest difference is that fracking is used to recover oil and gas that are spread out over large areas rather than having a large quantity concentrated in one place. So, fracking takes lots more drilling and pumping and installing pipelines in more places. Fracking is more likely to be in someone’s backyard, or near it, so there are more people seeing it and hearing it and complaining about it.
The more drilling there is, the more chances there are for mistakes to be made, contaminating groundwater or otherwise causing problems for neighbors. The drilling can also bring other problems, including lots of traffic. For example, back on Sept. 23, 2011, an article by Cliff White in the Centre Daily Times, State College, PA noted “A review of inspections performed by state police on commercial motor vehicles used in support of Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations in 2010 revealed 56 percent resulted in either the vehicle or driver being placed out of service for serious safety violations” but that “Thanks to heavy enforcement, the noncompliance rate has dropped to about 45 percent in the most recent study.” And, in the same article, “…a trooper in gas-rich Bradford County, said during the initial ramp-up of activity in that area a few years ago, almost all of the vehicles used for gas drilling-related purposes that he stopped had “some degree” of noncompliance.”)
Fracking is done with high-pressure fluids to which certain chemicals have been added, as noted above, and some of those chemicals may be dangerous to humans. The fracking fluids plus salty brines from the rocks “flow back” out of the wells, and these flowback fluids must be disposed of in some way. Much of that disposal recently has involved injecting the flowback fluids into the Earth in special deep wells. This has caused numerous earthquakes, some of them damaging. (See, for example, USGS: Induced Earthquakes.) Fluid injection for other reasons also has caused earthquakes; fracking is especially important in this only because it generates so much fluid that is being injected. Note that while fracking has probably triggered a few small earthquakes directly, the main cause of earthquakes is this injection of flowback fluids.
Fracking is likely to be with us for a long time. And, it is likely to remain at least somewhat controversial.
Video: Process of Fracking (1:01)
Earth: The Operators' Manual
Fort Worth: Gas, Waste & Water (9:08)
If you want to see a little more on fracking, much of the clip is relevant, but the first 3 minutes and 40 seconds especially fit here.