What the Frack is Fracking? – The technology behind digging for Black Gold

Just 3 days ago, on July 13th, 2016, a massive fracking explosion occurred in New Mexico with 36 oil tanks catching fire. The fire broke out around 10:15 p.m at a fracking site owned and operated by WPX Energy, setting off several explosions leading to fifty-five local residents to be forced out of their homes. We hear a lot about fracking in the news but what the frack actually is fracking and how does it work? What is shale gas? And why has it suddenly become so relevant?

Some background …

In a fall from grace almost (but not quite) as drastic as Lindsay Lohan’s, oil prices have slumped over the past few years from 2014 highs of $115 per barrel to under $35. The reason behind the fall in oil prices is simple demand and supply.

The global (specifically Chinese) economic slowdown has reduced demand for oil.

At the same time, supply has greatly risen in the last few years due to a combination of factors. These include increased US fracking (yes, we’re getting to it) and OPEC attempting to price shale gas producers out of the market by increasing production themselves.

Why do we need fracking?

Oil does not only occur in large reservoirs that can be exploited by traditional recovery methods, but also under certain sedimentary rocks of solid mud or clay known as shale — these are found in New York, West Virginia and Maryland, traditionally associated with the Yankees, John Denver’s hit single ‘Country Roads’ and crabs (the crustacean, not the STD) respectively, and is enough to power the USA for 110 years.

This means that the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), namely Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, are not the only places in the world that contain oil. Done right, fracking can squeeze natural gas from such layers of rock, which until recently, were too difficult or costly to exploit. This technology has been pushed mainly by the US to gain energy independence from OPEC, much to their annoyance. 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are locked in Shale fields deep in the earth’s crust – that’s more than two times what we thought we had in 2010. Its game changing.

This oil cannot be removed by traditional methods.

What the frack is it?

Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas and oil from shale rocks deep under the earth’s surface. To reach the tiny cracks (fissions) in the shale rock where the gas is trapped, the drill is first driven straight down into the earth’s crust, then turned and pushed in a horizontal line, parallel to the earth’s surface.

After the drilling, a liquid called slickwater is pumped into the fissions of the rock at high pressures to widen them.

What the slick is slickwater made up of?

Fracking fluids are made up of three basic ingredients:
1. Water: If you thought you didn’t need much fracking fluid, think again. A single fracking well can use up to 20 million litres of water, which is seven or eight times the water in an olympic size swimming pool. Energy companies often buy water from farmers, lease surplus water from municipalities, or buy treated wastewater.

2. Sand: Grains of sand keep cracks in the shale open so gas can flow out of the rock and up the well.

3. Chemicals: Here’s the problematic bit. A chemical cocktail of “additives”, in industry language, helps to dissolve minerals, reduce friction, prevent corrosion and thicken the fluid, so that it can transport the sand. Here is a complete list of chemical ingredients used.

Ironically, the sand actually gives it a slightly rougher texture making it less slick than water. (Don’t ask – we didn’t name it). This fracturing of the rock is the key part of the process and lends its name to the entire process – fracking.

Fracking involves drilling horizontally and then pumping liquid into shale rock at high pressure to open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.

So you’ve drilled a heck of a long way into the earth and pumped some not-so-slick slickwater into the holes in the rock to make them bigger. What’s next? Well, you’ve done the tough bit already. Having opened up the rock, the gas can be released and extracted up the path made by the drill.

Source: Get Fracking! – Mary Lord

In a world where we’re guzzling more fuel in our 4x4s and industries than we can sustain, the fracking technique allows invaluable access to hard to reach energy sources.

Why the frack are people worried about fracking?
However, there is always, always a but, especially when things sound a bit too good to be true. Despite industry representatives being quick to assure us fracking is safe, people are still worried about the negative impacts it might have.

People are always paranoid, are their fears founded or is this like the mayan end of the world? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US has linked fracking to some pretty bad stuff.


Currently over 6 million people in the US alone derive their drinking water from sources within one mile of a fracking well. Safeguarding the water quality from fracking activities should therefore be a key concern of the technology. Yet, several pieces of evidence have shed serious doubt on the safety of fracking.

Firstly, spillages of slickwater can release some rather nasty chemical additives. Such accidents are more common than you might think, the EPA estimates that in the US up to 3,700 spills may occur each year, with an average volume of 1,600 litres.

Think that’s bad? There’s more. While fracking companies claim that the chemical additives remain embedded in the shale and never reach the surface or the water table, recent scientific studies have suggested otherwise. Some models suggest that the combination of natural and fracking-induced fractures in the rock could allow chemicals to mix with our drinking water within a few years. Similarly, a study on drinking water commissioned by the EPA discovered fracking chemicals (eg Barium, Arsenic and Manganese) in dangerous quantities in 5 Pennsylvanian houses. They later concluded contamination was a possibility but only if safety standards aren’t maintained.

Source: marcellusprotest.org


The fracking chemical cocktail (sounds absolutely awful, we think we’d rather down straight gin) includes a lot of carcinogens such as Benzene, Acrylamide, and Formaldehyde that have been strongly linked to the development of many types of human cancer. Don’t freak out though, the mere presence of dangerous chemicals does not imply a harmful effect on human health, factors such as concentration and duration of exposure are also crucial.

Only long-term comparative studies offer a reliable insight into the damage done by these chemicals. One such study (hyperlink: (Casey et al, Epidemiology, 2016)) showed that fracking may affect fertility and lead to birth defects such as preterm birth, miscarriage, and infertility. This is the risk we’re taking, but is it a risk we should be willing to take?

Furthermore, the high pressures used during fracking put enormous strain on the wells, much higher than during conventional drilling. This can result in cracks within the protective casing and release of gases or chemicals along the outside of the well that can contaminate nearby water sources.

Sometimes, to save money and time, fracking is used to extract further oil or gas from pre-existing, conventional drilling sites which were not built to withstand the high pressures of fracking. Sure, this saves $$$ and time, but it compromises further on safety as more toxic chemicals leak away from the site.


These concerns have recently been reinforced by a study that found a link between shale drilling proximity and methane content in tap water, which quite literally sparked terrifying scenes of people lighting their tap water on fire.

Methane is also a greenhouse gas, 84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. Thus fracking likely leads to more global warming than conventional drilling methods.

Others argue that the extra source of gas gives us a false sense of energy security and distracts our attention from the challenge of finding economically viable alternative energy that may be less polluting.


While the U.S. Geological Survey claims that, fracking “causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern.” residents close to such fracking sites may disagree slightly. In Lancashire, in the U.K., two small earthquakes registering 2.3 and 1.4 on the Richter scale in 2011 have been linked to fracking. Whilst this isn’t strong enough to liken Lancashire to of the San Andreas fault, it’s certainly enough to make you sit up and take notice.

What’s next?
Fracking is being extended from shale gas to extract light tight oil from similarly hard to access rocks and the amount being extracted is rising by 50% per year.

For the US, after a year of Trump and Cruz, this is some welcome news as it means that the they may even become a net exporter of oil and energy by 2020 – something incredible as Mckinsey’s Scott Nyquist points out

“Throughout my whole lifetime, we’ve considered that we’re going to be net importers of energy and net importers of oil, in particular.” – Scott Nyquist

The US’s natural gas reserve is not only be used to generate energy but also in feedstock-insensitive industries making chemicals such as ethylene, PVC and fertilizer. The steel industry also benefits, finally boosting the manufacturing industry that was hit so hard by the recent recession.

$1.4 trillion of capital investment will be required for infrastructure in order to put in place the resulting new jobs. This capital investment itself will create a temporary set of jobs—roughly 1.6 million jobs—just to build out the infrastructure required for the new manufacturing plants.

While fracking holds great promise, it seems that there still are a lot of problems associated with this technology. Once suitable data exists on the effect of the various chemical additives, appropriate regulations may be put in place to decrease the harmful side-effects.

Fracking can be a real force for good, but only if it’s used responsibly – something that, as a race, we don’t have a great track record of.


Writing an essay or want to read more?

1. Key Resources on Fracking

2. Assessment of Fracking impacts by the US Office of Research and Development

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