Those darn frackers*

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This is a post I wrote a while back when a friend requested I publish something about fracking from an insider’s perspective. I don’t think I posted to my LinkedIn because it seemed a bit like preaching to the choir, but my network has grown a bit beyond just industry insiders. Please see my note at the bottom of this page about how to spell the word “frack.”

Full disclosure: I work in oil and gas, and I am proud of it. I don’t think hydrocarbons are the Spawn of Satan, and I don’t hide my profession and my passion. That’s not to say I think we should go gleefully dumping hydrocarbons everywhere and generally make a mess of things, but it is to say that we should be aware of the context of what we’re doing and how we think. How we think certainly needs intense scrutiny when actors and other celebrities are considered experts more so than people who work and live in the industry. I understand the concept of conflicting interests, but people who work in the industry are not monsters. I mean, as a fracker, I obviously club baby seals on the weekend and care nothing about our planet. I collect my shill checks and dispense poisonous chemicals into drinking water…which I then drink, because I live here too! No. I chose to work in the petroleum industry because I don’t think it’s destroying our planet, but I do know it powers our way of life, and I’m happy to be a part of that.

My industry has thrust us out of the dark ages (literally) and saved the whales. Hydrocarbons have done more to raise the standard of living of the middle class than any political movement could ever hope to. Look around you. Anything that wasn’t available before ~1900 is probably made of hydrocarbons. Anything not made of them is probably manufactured on machines that use them and transported using them. Our world is covered in the stuff, and it’s not like the high demand for it arose out of nowhere once oil was discovered. A cheap, effective ignition source was already in high demand, and that demand used to be met by whale oil. Whales were nearly driven to extinction until a much better source came along and illuminated (see what I did there?) our lives.

Many people forget that hydrocarbons are, in fact, natural fluids on this planet. They’re as natural as water. I’m not saying they are the exact same as water, but they are as natural as it. Over half of the oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico is from natural seeps. Oil is a natural part of that ecosystem. When the Horizon disaster happened, researchers had to work to distinguish Horizon oil from those natural seeps. In fact, one of the worst parts of the Horizon disaster — besides the 11 men that died, who seem to have been conveniently swept aside in favor of oil-covered birds — was the surfactants used to clean up the mess. The situation would have been a lot better if cleanup involved skimming as much oil as possible and leaving the system to filter out the rest, since it’s perfectly capable of doing that. There are little bugs and critters that eat the stuff. Like it or not, hydrocarbons are a natural and necessary part of certain ecosystems.

Pulling oil out of the ground is a process that has been going on for over a century. Fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, has been going on for more than half of that. Let’s go over a quick primer on what is involved in fracking and why we do it. In order to pull oil out of the ground, we have to extract it from rocks, which have two important characteristics of porosity and permeability. Porosity is the amount of void spaces within a rock. Permeability is the ability of fluids to move through the rocks. When the voids (pores) within a rock are highly connected, fluids can easily move through them, and the rock is said to have high permeability. When the voids are not connected, or are poorly connected, the rock is said to have low permeability because fluids cannot easily move through them.

Hydraulic fracturing is a means of generating cracks in the rock to create artificial permeability, allowing hydrocarbons to flow from the rocks to the wellbore when natural permeability is very low. It is done by pumping mostly water at high pressure down the well bore until the surrounding rocks crack. Once the cracks are created, sand is sent down to prop the new cracks open. The end result is a crack in the rock which has sand propping it open, providing a path of permeability to the wellbore. Most of the water used in fracking is recovered back up the wellbore, as are most of the chemicals which may have been used to help transport the sand or clean up the wellbore so fluids and sand can move more easily through it.

That doesn’t sound like too big of a deal, right? The reason it’s suddenly an issue is because now the cracks are going up, instead of sideways like they used to. I’d agree there could be contamination possibilities if this process were occurring near a water source, but it’s generally not. In Colorado, this process is done thousands of feet below any water sources. Our best fracks simply don’t go high enough to come close to them. The physics and geometry don’t match up to allow for contamination of water sources.

There are ongoing studies searching for interactions between fracking and water. So far, there have been only a few conclusive findings. Given the fact there are are millions of fracked wells in this country, examples of contamination are clearly the exception, and not the rule. However, we need to use those few examples as the excellent learning opportunities they are and utilize them to make and pass new regulations.

I am a fan of regulations. I want the effects of my industry studied and to make sure things are being done properly, but outright bans are lazy and stupid. They’re done in the name of environmentalism, but let’s walk through the real consequences of banning fracking in the United States. We know what happens when the U.S. isn’t producing a lot of hydrocarbons. What happens is that OPEC produces those hydrocarbons, and we pay them a lot of money for those. OPEC is not regulating themselves like we regulate ourselves. They’re certainly not looking out for the environment, and some of the people who are getting our money turn around and use that money to kill us. So…banning fracking in the U.S. results in worse global environmental actions, the loss of huge sums of money, and provides monetary support to groups who may be out to kill U.S. citizens.

Alternatively, fracking generates money and jobs where it’s allowed…and those jobs generate more jobs. We can now sell our hydrocarbons on the global market, which generates jobs and money for U.S. citizens. Anywhere drilling and fracking operations go, prosperity often follows. Drilling and fracking is hungry work, and the people who do the work are often eager to spend their rather large paychecks at local businesses. Just look at how whole communities folded over in the downturn because drilling and fracking crews are no longer there.

In the end, all banning fracking does is eliminate jobs, harm the environment, and lose us money. It doesn’t remove the supply of hydrocarbons because it’s globally sourced, nor the demand, which existed before hydrocarbons were discovered. Bans will also not cause a renewable energy revolution. Renewables are not capable of filling the gap that would be left behind if hydrocarbons could be removed from the picture. We’re simply not there yet, and acting as if we are is irresponsible, at best. We have thrown lots of money at renewables, and they are coming along, but they have a long way to go. Banning hydrocarbons would actually slow the renewable revolution because most of the research into renewables is dependent on materials and products made from hydrocarbons. You’d be cutting off the nose to spite the face. You must live in the real world if you want real solutions, and for now, hydrocarbons are the real solution. We need to get them from somewhere, and it’s best if we get them from our own backyard.

In summary:

  • Is fracking dangerous? Absolutely not when done with smart regulations.
  • Will banning it make our environment cleaner? No. Your backyard may be cleaner, but the overall global environment will not be cleaner at all.
  • Will banning fracking bring about a renewable revolution? No. It will make Russia and OPEC richer while stealing jobs away from working-class Americans, and it will hinder research into renewables, which is largely driven using machines and materials made from hydrocarbons.

*there’s a major debate about the spelling of the word “fracking,” with some industry insiders preferring “fracing” while some grammar nazis prefer “fracking.” See my take on the topic here.

Shout out to Liberty Oilfield Services for the excellent picture!

Rub some acetone on it and call me in the morning.

Side note/legal jargon: Everything on this blog is based strictly on my own personal, private views and is completely independent from my current employer unless otherwise explicitly stated. In no way, shape, or form is my current employer responsible for any written content on this blog, though I may borrow the occasional picture with appropriate permissions and credits.


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