What the Frac is Fracking?

The word “fracking” sends chills down some people’s spines and even causes hysteria in some environmental activist circles. But not many people are informed about what fracking actually entails. The […]
Published on January 16, 2014

The word “fracking” sends chills down some people’s spines and even causes hysteria in some environmental activist circles.

But not many people are informed about what fracking actually entails. The oil industry needs to communicate to the public what fracking means for them and why the practice continues to be vital for Canadian industry.

First, a fracture is a crack in a rock formation.  Naturally occurring fractures have long attracted the attention of oil and gas explorers because they sometimes mean productive conventional reservoirs.  At times, rock formations that contain hydrocarbons are too tight for the oil and gas to be extracted, and fracking, or fracturing the rock, is a solution.

Fracking, or induced hydraulic fracturing, is an attempt to increase artificially the porosity and permeability of hydrocarbon-rich but tight formations in the earth, which makes it possible to extract the oil and gas the formations contain.

A fracking fluid is pumped down a drill hole and into the target formation.  This increases the hydraulic pressure and causes fractures to form and grow.  These new fractures are kept open by adding some proppant, often sand.  This makes the formation permeable, so that the oil and gas flows into the well.

Frac (the correct spelling is indeed frac) fluids are normally water, with minor amounts of gel polymers, surfactants, acids and a few other chemicals.  The exact composition of the fluid depends on local reservoir-engineering considerations.  It is these chemicals that make some people nervous.

Groundwater contamination by fracking is exceedingly rare.  Some people claim that frac fluids contaminate local drinking water in underground aquifers, but this danger is avoided by making sure the wells are properly cased as they penetrate aquifers to reach the rocks below.

Fracking is typically restricted to places where the target formation is significantly deeper than the water-bearing aquifers, with a thick mass of impermeable rock between them.  That substantial separation prevents potentially undesirable frac fluids from seeping out of the play formation into the aquifer.  Several thousand feet between the aquifer and the drilling target are usually plenty.

Gassy water is rare.  Just as oil can sometimes seep naturally through the rock mass to the surface over millions of years, so can gas.  This is where the “flaming water in our tap” of an anti-oil chant usually originates, and normally fracking has nothing to do with it.  Naturally occurring gassy water has been known in various parts of North America ever since people began digging water wells.

The oil industry needs to acknowledge potential challenges with fracking.  It is a business that uses large amounts of water, which is a real concern, and people are right to raise it.  The solution is to recycle as much water as possible, and to use those water sources which the local populations do not need.  The solution is not to stop fracking entirely.

Activists frighten the public by proclaiming that fracking causes earthquakes.  Earth tremors in drilling operations do, in fact, occur, but they tend to be so small that they cannot be felt.  Companies use precision instruments to monitor any fracking-related microseismic tremors.

Fracking has been done for many decades.  The novelty is horizontal drilling that modern fracking entails, but not the fracking itself.

Today, fracking could give the Western world energy self-sufficiency.  North America’s low natural-gas prices are a result of the new methods of extracting gas.  Higher gas prices overseas create export opportunities for Canada.
Liquefied natural gas terminals built previously to import gas could perhaps be reversed for exports.  However, in places where these terminals have to be built from scratch, such as British Columbia, construction may conceivably take so long that prices in other parts of the world could decline before completion.

Canadians can also benefit from their oilfield service companies expanding their presence abroad, where new fracking projects require our experience and expertise.

But fear-mongering by environmental activists and lacking communication on the part of oil companies have resulted in fracking being banned in some North American and European jurisdictions.

The oil industry needs to listen to people’s concerns and educate the public with fracking facts.  Fracking helps maintain our quality of life, and so far evidence shows fracking can be done with care for the environment.

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