The Story of Fracking: American Ingenuity in a Time of Crisis

November 6, 2018 Updated: November 6, 2018

Commentary

Open-minded people, a breed that seems in danger of going extinct, sometimes ask me how I feel about oil and gas production utilizing hydro-fracturing techniques, commonly referred to as “fracking.”

In my opinion, it’s a safe, environmentally sound technique that generates wealth and is helping to make America increasingly energy independent.

Many people believe that fracking is relatively new and therefore should be treated with great caution, because we don’t have enough information to judge. In truth, fracking has been around for more than 70 years. As with any technology used to harvest natural resources, if performed incorrectly or negligently, fracking can put people and the environment at risk. The same could be said of any other kind of drilling or mining—or of industrial processes and agricultural activity.

The bottom line is that when fracking is done right—as it is the vast majority of the time—it’s a responsible and beneficial way to extract energy resources that benefit us all. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has studied fracking extensively, considered the risks, and recommended best practices that responsible energy producers should follow.

But fracking is only one part of an incredible story that too few Americans know about. It’s a story of American ingenuity, resilience, and the strength of the free-market system. It’s a story that starts a little over two decades ago, with an imminent energy disaster looming on the horizon.

A Shortfall and a Solution

In the 1990s, rolling into the turn of the century, projections showed that U.S. demand for natural gas would soon exceed the nation’s ability to meet it. This was clear to environmental groups, some of which revelled in an “I told ya so” moment. It was equally clear to those of us involved in the energy industry, who scrambled to find a way to fix the problem.

As natural gas prices spiked, most everyone—including myself—believed the answer would come from across the Atlantic. Nations such as Russia and Qatar have huge natural gas reserves. It seemed that importing liquid natural gas (LNG) was the only practical way to address the shortfall. Yes, that would make energy more expensive for everyone and it would make the United States even more dependent on foreign sources, but there didn’t seem to be an alternative.

Plans for huge new terminals to handle overseas imports of natural gas were drawn up. For example, Dominion Energy geared up to expand its Cove Point terminal in Maryland to accept, store, and distribute the anticipated surge in imported LNG. And then, American ingenuity stepped in.

As the famed economist Julian Simon wrote, and proved, commodity scarcity creates commodity value. Commodity value spurs innovation that drives down the cost of the commodity. The “Simon cycle” may not apply to every commodity, but it exerted itself once more when it appeared that domestic supplies of natural gas were in danger of drying up.

Energy professionals had long known that the earth held huge supplies of natural gas and petroleum liquids deep underground, chiefly—but not entirely—in shale formations. There was a lot of energy to be had, but getting at it was too expensive for a number of reasons.

First, the deeper the drilling, the more expensive the exercise. There is a great deal of disincentive not to drill deep wells unless one is virtually certain of success.

Next, the nature of deep shale and other unconventional energy reservoirs located far underground provided another difficulty: They were relatively “thin.” That is, while a deep shale formation may stretch far and wide on a horizontal axis, their thickness on the vertical axis is relatively small.

This, in turn, worked in concert with the final factor that made shale unattractive to big energy companies: The gas and liquids contained in those formations were so tightly contained that conventional drilling techniques would release only a fraction of their potential.

Energy professionals had long ago established how to release energy from tight quarters like shale: Hydro-fracturing was the solution. The technique used specially sized fragments of sand, inserted by water pressure, to hold open small gaps in the shale structure that allowed gas and liquids to flow freely.

The problem was that drilling straight down through a relatively thin formation didn’t result in much production, relatively speaking. If one could somehow drill and “frack” along the horizontal axis, that might be another story. At the time, that technology didn’t exist and, even if it did, nobody was confident enough in their ability to identify deep unconventional formations to invest in what would be essentially quixotic quests.

One man changed everything: George P. Mitchell. More than anyone, Mitchell, who passed away in 2013, put together the pieces that began to transform America from energy dependent to energy giant.

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Almost unnoticed outside the energy industry, Mitchell Energy and Development began to work out the kinks in horizontal drilling technology in the late 1980s. As sensing technology improved through the ’90s, drillers could locate oil and natural gas reservoirs with increasing accuracy.

Mitchell could then solve the puzzle. Sensing technology provided the means to find the treasure, horizontal drilling allowed you to get to the treasure, and the old, well-established technique of hydraulic fracturing provided the means to collect it. It was the beginning of a revolution.

While we once expected to run out of energy in our lifetimes, current U.S. reserves are estimated to cover our needs for more than 100 years. It’s an amazing tale, and one of those stories that used to prompt people to say “only in America!”

Richard Trzupek is a chemist and environmental consultant as well as an analyst at The Heartland Institute. He is also the author of “Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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