by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
You may have heard the word “fracking” a lot lately. It is short for the term “hydraulic fracturing”, which is a method of drilling used to get natural gas from shale rock formations deep beneath the surface of the earth. It has become very controversial and has caused arguments against it by many citizens and environmental groups, and counterarguments in favor of it by the oil and gas industry. Whatever side you may be on, it is important to understand exactly what fracking is and to learn as much as possible about this complex process. Then make your own judgment.
To drill and frack a well takes millions of gallons of water. Added to the water are various chemicals and sand. The chemicals help stop bacteria growth and corrosion, and they lubricate and thicken the fluid to better suspend the sand in the water. After drilling a vertical shaft thousands of feet down, the drill gradually turns and continues horizontally until it eventually reaches the shale. The watery fracking fluid is then pumped under very high pressure, cracking the shale rock. The sand in the fluid keeps the layers of cracked shale slightly separated, allowing the natural gas to escape up the well shaft.
There has been a rush to drill in many parts of the United States. Some of these “hot spots” include the Barnett Shale in Texas; other shales in North Dakota, Michigan, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana; and the Marcellus Shale under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland….a very large area. Locally in Colorado, there is the Wattenberg Shale in eastern Boulder County and much of Weld County. There has already been a considerable about of fracking in Weld County.
Natural gas is methane, which is a powerful “greenhouse” gas that is even worse for global climate change than carbon dioxide, especially if there is some methane leakage from the drilled wells, which there often is. But burning natural gas releases much less carbon dioxide than burning coal, so there is strong argument in favor of replacing coal-fired electric power plants, like many of the ones in the Boulder/Denver area, with gas-powered plants. It is argued by some that since fracking makes natural gas cheaper, it helps to stimulate switching from coal to gas, which is a good step toward slowing down global warming and climate change.
On the other hand, others argue that switching from coal to natural gas simply postpones the development of clean alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and even some new kinds of nuclear energy (such as integral fast reactors, already positively tested at Hanford, WA). You can see how complex this situation is.
In the West, however, one of the biggest worries about fracking is the tremendous amount of water that is required for each well. Also, some of the water remains deep underground after fracking, removed forever from the normal water cycle. The depletion of surface water and water from aquifers (reservoirs of water beneath the surface of the earth) are the main concern here. Water is becoming as valuable as gold!
Because of the chemicals used in fracking, the waste water is unable to be treated by our local treatment plants. A fracking drill site also causes much damage to the natural environment and includes a lot of truck traffic for transporting the huge amounts of water required. So there are many questions about fracking that still need to be answered. I hope you will be a good scientist and learn as much as you can about this process. Then don’t be afraid to speak up and voice your opinion!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.