Fracking – Good News or Bad for America’s Energy Needs?

In Hot Topics posts, UConn experts comment on current events and issues unfolding in the news.

The scene in Williston, North Dakota, resembles the California Gold Rush days of the 1840s and 50s. Only now, instead of coming in horse-drawn wagons, settlers are arriving in RVs, mini-vans, and pickup trucks.

Williston has been put on the map because modern techniques in oil drilling – known as ‘fracking’ or hydraulic fracturing – have suddenly made it feasible to tap the 11 billion or so barrels of oil that lie in the Bakken Formation under North Dakota and Montana.

Idealized cross section of horizontal drilling and creation of fractures (fracking) for increasing oil and gas recovery.

Idealized cross section of horizontal drilling and creation of fractures (fracking) for increasing oil and gas recovery.

Fracking is the process of using explosive charges, followed by the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals to break up rock miles beneath the surface of the earth. Horizontal drilling allows shale gas or shale oil to be extracted and pumped to the surface, along with the fluid used in the drilling operation.

While the availability of new sources of oil may seem like a positive step for the nation, the practice of hydraulic fracturing has raised concerns. And, while North Dakota is fairly remote from a population standpoint, there are also deposits of natural gas and oil, such as the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin, that lie under densely populated areas in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Hydrogeology expert Gary Robbins, a professor of geology in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment in the College of Agricultural and Natural Resources and a member of UConn’s Center for Integrative Geosciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, spoke with UConn Today about the issue.

Q. Why the sudden interest in fracking? It’s a technique that has been available since the late 1940s and yet, until recently, not many people had heard about it.

A: I think there are three reasons for the growing interest. First off, starting in about 2008, the use of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) was greatly expanded, in conjunction with the use of deep horizontal drilling. This has led to a boom in production of both gas and oil. The boom was finally picked up by the popular media. Secondly, it is now close to home. Although we have no known natural gas deposits in Connecticut, our close neighbor New York does have abundant gas deposits. Thirdly, films like “Gasland” have brought to light the potential dangers associated with fracking and the politics that have been involved. For example in New York, a target area for gas extraction lies in a major upstate watershed that supplies New York City with water. This has raised serious concern. Environmental-related issues have been a wakeup call.

Q. How does the process differ between the Bakken Formation and the Marcellus Shale?

A: Although both involve rock fracturing, the Bakken boom in North Dakota, Montana, and Canada involves the extraction of oil and not gas. In the Bakken Formation, the approach involves drilling horizontal wells to intersect vertically oriented natural fractures. The permeability of the rock is further enhanced by fracturing the rock. The Marcellus Shale development also involves drilling of horizontal wells. Here fracking is used to artificially produce vertical fractures that intersect the horizontal boreholes to increase the gas permeability of the rock. In both cases, drilling vertically then horizontally once the target depth is reached allows for installing many wells from one surface location.

Q. Fracking is a contentious issue, with a great divide between environmentalists, who cite issues of safety, and the oil companies who cite the possibility of America’s energy independence. Is there such a thing as a middle ground?

A: As a geologist who has spent a career working on resolving environmental problems, I believe there is a middle ground. There is no doubt fracking can greatly help to increase oil and gas production. In the two formations involved here, there is a tremendous resource potential. But there is also a potential for environmental-related problems to arise – air pollution, water pollution, contamination of aquifers, inhalation hazards from gas, dangers of fire and explosion, not to mention increases in local resource demands, truck traffic, and the like. I believe a conservative approach is warranted. Such an approach would involve sound regulation, inspection, and enforcement, coupled with the use of technologies that have a high level of redundancy in safety measures, e.g., use of multiple cased wells, close fracture development monitoring using geophysical techniques, deep and shallow ground water monitoring, etc. But even then we can and should expect something to go wrong. Given the profit to be made, I would like to see oil companies bond their activities so that funds are immediately available for remediation and restitution to minimize going through litigation to make things right.

As far as energy independence goes, I believe this is a different issue. Unlike most other countries, the U.S. government does not own the resource. Hence, it makes little profit from it. Pricing and availability in this country are market driven. If some country like China is willing to pay more, the oil – and even possibly the gas derived in the U.S. – could go there.

Q. Does the extraction of oil and natural gas via fracking fall into the ‘too good to be true’ category from a cost standpoint? Can the average consumer, particularly those who heat their homes with oil, anticipate a significant cost savings in our heating bills?

A: There certainly is a potential for lower costs for gas here in the northeast. Gas prices have been falling in recent years, but whether this can be attributed to Marcellus gas availability or the recession that has resulted in reduction in industrial gas consumption is debatable. The gas boom could not only be a benefit to consumers but also to U.S. manufacturers and chemical companies as well. Of course, this means jobs. Natural gas has been replacing coal for electrical generation. Given the march to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and carbon foot prints, I see a future emphasis being placed more and more on green energy. I believe we will soon be seeing our coal power plants shutting their doors, and more power shipped long distances to meet green energy mandates. How gas will fit in waits to be seen. Of course, there is also the issue of whether local communities and states will add taxes on the production of the gas, which could offset profits and cost reductions.

I suggest those who are interested look at two brief reports:

  • a Price Waterhouse study that provides an outlook on the economics of the gas extraction;
  • and a study by Penn State that provides a good overview of the situation in Pennsylvania, where gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale is ongoing.

Contact information for members of the media:

Gary A. Robbins
Professor of Hydrology, Department of Natural Resources & the Environment
and Professor, Center for Integrative Geosciences
University of Connecticut
Phone: 860-486-2448
Email: gary.robbins@uconn.edu