• Richard Prosser

A Brief History of Fracking

Photo credit: GreaseBook

This week, the British Government has voted to ban fracking. Naturally, the usual noisy Green / Mainstream Media / Other Ignorant suspects, are overjoyed.

So what is fracking? If the doomsaying panic-mongers of the far-left socialist Green movement, and their willfully ignorant media toadies, are to be believed, it is a new and heinous invention, created by the greed of faceless multi-national oil companies, as a way of extracting ever more profit for themselves from the beleaguered ranks of humanity, wantonly disregarding the sanctity of Mother Earth at the same time, caring nothing for the swarms of devastating earthquakes it causes, or the certain and irredeemable contamination of water supplies everywhere.

Not so. In fact "fracking" has been standard practice in oil and gas extraction for more than a hundred and fifty years, and achieving it by way of water injection has been the method of choice for almost half that time.

Fracturing of hydrocarbon-bearing rock strata to improve yields of oil and gas has been undertaken by drillers since the 1860s. First used in the US, it involved explosives such as nitroglycerine, in a process known as "shooting" a well.

Hydraulic fracturing, the process which has come to be known as fracking, was invented in 1947, and patented in 1949. That's seventy years ago. It involves injecting high pressure water and sand, along with one or two other compounds, into oil and gas wells.

Some of the public's misunderstanding of this process may stem from a lack of knowledge regarding how hydrocarbon deposits exist underground. Oil and gas do not reside in vast subterranean caverns, as enormous lakes of liquid waiting to be tapped and pumped. Rather, they are contained within 'bearing strata', or layers of slightly crumbly rock, that resembles slightly oily, stony, coal. These rock seams are subjected to massive pressures created by the weight of kilometers of rock sitting on top of them.

When a well is first drilled, an initial fraction of oil or gas is released under the pressure created by the weight of rock above it. This is commonly known as a 'gusher'.

Shortly thereafter, the pressure stabilises, and the next fraction - up to half the available resource able to be tapped by the well - is recovered by pumping water down the hole, and then sucking it back out again, along with such hydrocarbons as are displaced by the water.

The resultant slurry, consisting of oil, condensate, water, mud, rock fragments, and all manner of other disgusting goo, is then shipped to a refinery to be separated.

The refinery is essentially a giant-sized version of the fractionating still that your neighbour (if you live in New Zealand where it's legal) uses to make home-brewed spirits. The slurry is boiled, and the various different fractions separated from one another, and from the unwanted suspended solids that have come up with them. One of the fractions to be separated is of course the water itself, which is purified through complete steam distillation by the refining process.

Hydrocarbon fractions, which vary depending on the nature of the original oil, of which there are Heinz 57 varieties - 'crude oil' is a pretty broad term, covering a wide range of different blends of fermented dinosaur juice - are separated according to molecular weight and thus boiling temperature. These range from heavy bunker fuel (marine diesel) through to very light spirit fractions. Blends of petrol (gasoline) are made to standardised recipies, from some of the middle-to-lighter fractions.

The very heaviest, gooiest, stickiest, leftover crap - along with the mud, rock bits, and other solids - goes off to become bitumen and other road-building substrate.

All good so far. But there comes a point in the life of every well when simply pouring water down the hole, and then slurping it back out again, ceases to provide a return in terms of hydrocarbons. This is because there's only so far that water will permeate into bearing strata under the force of gravity alone. At this point there are two things the drillers can do - cap the well and walk away, or do something else to cajole the strata below ground to give up more of its precious fuel.

In a bygone era, where easily extractable oil was plentiful (and indeed even now in some regions where it still is), simply moving on to the next site and drilling another hole was the cheaper easier option, and drillers didn't bother with fracking.

But with the passing of time and increasing demand, more well owners in more jurisdictions began to look for ways of doing the 'something else' in order to improve the viability of their wells. In fact in the US in particular, since the 1970s, many wells previously declared 'dry' have been opened up again and are producing hydrocarbons once more, thanks to the availability of fracking. Just as an aside, the 1970s were nearly half a century ago.

One way to achieve this 'something else' is to break up the bearing rock, making cracks and fissures within it, effectively opening up larger channels into which water can be pumped and then retrieved, retrieving at the same time more of the target hydrocarbons. As mentioned above, this was originally done by way of dropping explosives down the hole. Later, it was discovered that pumping water in under very high pressure, along with sand in order to keep the cracks and fissures open, was a much safer, more predictable, and more productive way of achieving the same end.

The related development of side and slant drilling enabled fracturing to be undertaken horizontally across the plane of a given strata of bearing rock, greatly increasing the area that could be opened up for extraction, and hugely increasing yields.

Today around 65% of oil and gas wells worldwide currently employ fracking to one degree or another. In New Zealand fracking has been employed for more than 25 years.

The fact of the matter is that all oil wells have either already been fracked, or they are going to be fracked, depending on where they are in terms of their productive lifespans.

Opponents of the process claim that fracking may contaminate groundwater or cause small earthquakes. No, fracking doesn't do that. Where groundwater pollution can occur, is when the separation of waste fracking water from desirable hydrocarbons is allowed on site, rather than at the refinery, and when said waste fracking water is not disposed of properly. Separation on site reduces transport costs from the source to the refinery, but such separation cannot be undertaken to anywhere near the degree of cleanliness as is possible in a fractionating column.

And humans are humans, and will always look for ways to cut costs and corners, and when they do, things inevitably go wrong. This writer is of the opinion that things first went wrong when regulators allowed drillers to undertake on-site separation in the first place, and the reversal of that decision would probably cure every conceivable claim that gets leveled at fracking - rightly or wrongly - overnight.

When coarsely separated waste fracking water, still containing a not inconsiderable proportion of pollutants, is disposed of improperly and illegally, it can find its way into surface and groundwater supplies. This is a failure of compliance and enforcement, not a result of fracturing in itself, which cannot and does not interfere with drinking water aquifers, because of where various substances exist, relative to one another, in the layers of the earth beneath us.

Photo Credit: Frontiers of Freedom

In general, hydrocarbons are most commonly found far deeper than the zone in which groundwater is located, and far shallower than the depth at which seismic activity occurs. In seven years in the irrigation industry I dealt with literally hundreds of clients' water bores, not one of which ever struck oil. It is uncommon for water for irrigation or drinking to be tapped from more than around 300m deep.

Conversely oil and gas wells are most commonly drilled at depths from between 1300 - 1500m down to 2000 - 2500m.

Seismic activity is uncommon at depths shallower than around 3000m. There are exceptions of course, the February 2012 quake in Christchurch being a notable one; earthquakes do occur from not far below the surface (1 - 2 km in rare cases) down to as much as 700km deep. Less than 70km is considered to be shallow, and the greatest frequency of occurrence lies between 10km and 20km.

Collapse or settling within fractured strata may result in underground movements of rock which are detectable by seismometers. These are more akin to mineshaft cave-ins than anything else, and are not in any way the same thing as tectonic plate movements.

Again, in some parts of the world, drillers are permitted to dispose of waste fracking water by drilling yet more holes, and pouring said water down them. And in some places, this practice manages to intersect with previously unknown shallow weak intersection zones, referred to by anti-frackers as fault lines (which they're not, in any techtonic sense), the lubrication of which, with massive quantities of slippery water, is bound to lead to trouble. But again, small slippages initiated by such dumping are minor and localised, do not involve the movement of continental techtonic plates, and would not occur at all, if the aforementioned dumping wasn't permitted in the first place.

And as for the occasions when it does occur - of more than 30,000 wells in the US, where horizontal fracking is actively employed, and where waste water is allowed to be re-injected into the ground, 8 instances of detectable 'seismic' movements have been recorded. Eight out of thirty thousand - and all eight because someone didn't follow the rules allowing re-injection, the allowing of which was a foolish move to begin with.

Inadequate disposal of fracking water may also account for some people discovering gas coming out of their water taps, to the degree that they can light the stream with a match. But there are also places in the world where natural gas finds its own way to the surface and is detectable in water supplies, and where that has been the case for centuries, with or without petroleum extraction - just as there are plenty of places, including on at least one beach on Stewart Island, where crude oil naturally seeps to the surface. Oh, and at least one example of 'fracking made my tap water light up and burn' turned out to be a fabrication on the part of a US TV News Station, who piped bottled LPG into a homeowner's plumbing in order to put on a good show for the cameras.

Personally I have little time for either ignorance or hysteria, and the combination of both, on the part of elected representatives whose duty it is to know better, I find completely repugnant. One can perhaps forgive misguided Greenies and biased journos for being both ignorant and hysterical, given the obvious personal challenges they have to live with. But regulators and lawmakers have a deeper responsibility, and it does fall to them to undertake a basic learning of the simple truths of science and history where matter such as this are concerned.

They are these:

1. Hydraulic fracking is not new, even if the latest iteration of concerned young people have convinced themselves that it must be, because they've only just heard of it. It has been standard practice for nearly three regenerations of humankind. Every new generation didn't invent sex or drugs either, despite their absolute conviction that such must be the case.

2. Fracking does not cause earthquakes, as evidenced by the fact that it hasn't been doing so for seventy-plus years.

3. Fracking does not turn drinking water flammable. There are no monsters under the bed either.

4. Every bad thing blamed on fracking will go away, if you simply tell the drillers that they have to send everything they take back out of the hole to the refinery, rather than dumping half of it in the nearest forest / lake / river / new hole in the ground, in order to save a bit of coin on the trucking or pipeline costs.

I have no doubt whatsoever that, following the December 12 election in Britain, Boris Johnson's new majority Conservative Government will waste no time in lifting this "effective moratorium" on fracking in the UK, just as I have no doubts that the sorry collection of fools who comprise the New Zealand Government, who have their heads buried so deep in ideological fairy dust that they actually believe their own ludicrously infantile propaganda about the world no longer needing fossil fuels, will not lift the ban on exploration for new oil and gas.

But no politician, anywhere, has any excuse for not learning and understanding the basics of this very simple, very old, very mainstream, very established, and very safe, method for extending the productive lives and output of existing and planned oil and gas wells.

And no, this article has not been sponsored by Big Oil. I keep living in hope that they might flick me a few unsolicited donations - but I'd be saying it anyway, because my own personal moral code tells me that ignorance keeps us all living in the Dark Ages, and the Truth must Out.

In fact, most of my time right now is taken up by the active promotion of wind energy, and my next foray, which will accompany that, is hydrogen.

But it galls me beyond measure to see idiots, led by fools, and supported by ignorant propagandists, promoting lies and bullshit as if they were truths, when in fact they are anything but.

Richard Prosser

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