Fracking for a better tomorrow

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Technological innovation is one of America’s hallmarks. And our world-leading domestic natural gas industry is one of the best examples. It is puzzling then why some oppose new shale gas production here in the U.S., even when we possess the best and safest technology to recover some of the earth’s most prolific gas reserves. Fortunately, at a time when the U.S. is in dire need of jump-starting its economy, a triumphant story has managed to unfold—the re-emergence of natural gas and hydraulic fracturing.

Widely-reported from the Rocky Mountains to Houston to Washington, D.C., the story of massive activity in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal wells- a type of well architecture used to recover hard-to-get, unconventional reserves—and shale gas production here in the U.S. is a spectacular display of America’s technological innovation and commitment to maintaining a reliable, domestic energy base. This underscores two important points. First, hydraulic fracturing is an environmentally safe, highly efficient method to increase America’s domestic energy production. And second, natural gas is the bridge to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.

As recent discoveries have proved, natural gas’ potential is enormous. For example, look no further than the Paris-based International Energy Agency’s 2009 World Energy Outlook. While some observers were skeptical of the oil forecasts, it was the natural gas analysis that shocked even the experts. According to IEA, the long-term global recoverable natural gas resource base is estimated at more than 30,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf). In a huge upward revision, this estimate more than doubled the IEA’s 2008 forecast of 14,000 tcf.

America’s slice of this substantially enlarged pie is impressive, as well. As analysis by Texas Keystone Inc.’s Greg Wrighstone illustrates, the evolution of Marcellus Shale recoverable natural gas has skyrocketed in a very short period of time. From about 1 tcf of natural gas only five years ago, it has grown to over 500 tcf. This now makes the Marcellus the second-largest contiguous accumulation of natural gas in the world, behind only the combined Iranian South Pars and Qatari North fields. Moreover, the Haynesville Shale formation that sits below Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas only a year ago was thought to contain just 30 tcf of recoverable reserves. Now, however, that estimate is 300 tcf, making Haynesville the world’s third-largest natural gas play.

It certainly hasn’t taken major industry players long to recognize the tremendous potential of these new opportunities. Chesapeake Energy, America’s second-largest natural gas producer, states, “Based on its geoscientific, petrophysical and engineering research during the past two years and the results of three horizontal and four vertical wells it has drilled, Chesapeake believes the Haynesville Shale play could potentially have a larger impact on the company than any other play in which it has participated to date.”

Unfortunately, a number of environmentalists and policymakers have taken a stand against hydraulic fracturing; drilling that is necessary to recover much of the shale gas reserves in the US. Although media has paid a lot of attention recently to hydraulic fracturing—”fracking” for short—domestic energy producers have been employing this production method commercially in the U.S. since 1949. Opponents of fracking contend that this production procedure can potentially pollute near-by water aquifers. Since its creation, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency has not received a single, substantiated case that conclusively linked fracking to water pollution. Even more telling, EPA’s last comprehensive report on hydraulic fracturing in 2004, “Study of Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Wells on Underground Sources of Drinking Water,” found that the technique “poses little to no threat” to water supplies. At a time when our economy continues to inch toward recovery, misinformed activism should not prevent the safe deployment of hydraulic fracturing that will strengthen our economy and provide for lower energy prices for businesses and consumers.

At current consumption rates, IEA estimates suggest the world’s supply of natural gas could last almost 300 years. That said, we need more natural gas production here in the US, and hydraulic fracturing is the way to make that need a reality. America’s energy producers are using technology that incorporates the latest in drilling and steering techniques and implementing the spacing and placing of many large hydraulic fracturing treatments necessary for environmentally-sound operations. Coupled with the fact that natural gas is by far the cleanest of all fossil fuels, the answer is clear that increased domestic production of unconventional natural gas is essential for America.

If policymakers fully realize how safe and capable fracking technology is, and what the resources it produces mean for America’s economic well being, our nation will be well-positioned on the bridge to a cleaner and more secure energy future.
Dr. Economides is a professor at the University of Houston and editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune.