Definition of Hydraulic Fracturing
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of underground well stimulation that is used to extract underground resources including oil, natural gas, geothermal energy and water. Gas and oil companies use the fracking method because it is the most cost efficient way to draw resources from the rock formations underground. Gas and oil companies have been attracted to the state of Pennsylvania for its geologic formations such as the Marcellus Shale formation.
How does Hydraulic Fracturing Work?
The fracking process begins with the identification of underground resource deposits and the acquisition of the rights of that land to drill. If the target land is vacant, gas and oil companies will purchase them for use. If there are residents on these valuable plots of land, leases are offered by gas companies for the rights to the land for a fraction of what the land holds.
Site construction begins with the leveling of the environment surrounding the well as well as the introduction of access roads to the well site. The wells often travel hundreds to thousands of feet vertically and then anywhere from one to six-thousand feet horizontally. After a well has been drilled, the final process is the fracturing of the rock formations surrounding the well casings. Much of the debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing is the contents of the fluids used throughout the fracturing process.
As explained by the EPA:
“Fluids, commonly made up of water and chemical additives, are pumped into a geologic formation at high pressure during hydraulic fracturing. When the pressure exceeds the rock strength, the fluids open or enlarge fractures that can extend several hundred feet away from the well. After the fractures are created, a propping agent is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing when the pumping pressure is released. After fracturing is completed, the internal pressure of the geologic formation cause the injected fracturing fluids to rise to the surface where it may be stored in tanks or pits prior to disposal or recycling. Recovered fracturing fluids are referred to as flowback. Disposal options for flowback include discharge into surface water or underground injection.”
Hydraulic Fracturing and People
It is important to understand the differing perspectives surrounding fracking and the contexts that shape how fracking is understood. There are ranging levels of involvement between this technology and the public. The public can find itself connected to fracking as the owner of land leased to drilling companies as well as the purchaser of gas for heating that was extracted via fracking hundreds of miles away.
To the natural gas industry, hydraulic fracturing offers the most time and money efficient way to fill the demand of the general public for cheap and easily accessible energy. To the environment, fracking is a destructive practice in which extensive resources are consumed in both the extraction process and the actual use of the resource itself. To the people of the Lehigh Valley, hydraulic fracturing presents jobs and the cheaper supply of valuable resources with potential costs to public health and safety.
Whether or not they are more in support of or against fracking, it is clear that fracking has lead to a great increase in gas production in Pennsylvania. As seen in the graph generated by the Energy Information Agency Western Pennsylvania, gas production has increased over the past decade.