How Has Fracking Changed Our Future?

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A natural gas flare illuminates discarded vehicles and farm tools.

Natural gas flared as waste is a new sight on the Dakota prairie, where fracking—a way of extracting hard-to-reach oil—and directional drilling have sparked a boom. (Photograph by Eugene Richards)

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PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 11, 2013

T

he use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from the earth dates back to the 1940s, but only in the past few years has "fracking" become an energy buzzword, alluding primarily to the shale gas boom in the United States and all of the controversy that has accompanied it. Fracking-the high-pressure injection of water, chemicals and sand into shale deposits to release the gas and oil trapped within the rock-in recent years has been combined with horizontal drilling and other improvements in technology to harvest stores of gas and oil that previously were thought commercially unfeasible to access. (See interactive: "Breaking Fuel from the Rock")

The implications of this sea change are debatable, but the impact is undeniable. In the United States, oil production last year reached its highest level in 14 years, thanks in part to output from North Dakota's Bakken Shale, and is expected to keep rising. Natural gas production, already at new highs thanks to shale gas, is expected to grow 44 percent in the U.S. between 2011 and 2040. (See "Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.")

Now countries around the world, including China, the United Kingdom and South Africa, are eyeing shale development as the potential key to unlock a similar windfall of homegrown energy. Debate rages on about whether these worldwide reserves can be tapped safely, and whether environmental damage from fracking natural gas will outweigh the gains from using a fuel that is cleaner than oil or coal, but remains a fossil fuel nonetheless. A few viewpoints on both sides of the issue follow.

Positive impacts of fracking

"The United States is in the midst of the 'unconventional revolution in oil and gas' that, it becomes increasingly apparent, goes beyond energy itself. Today, the industry supports 1.7m jobs - a considerable accomplishment given the relative newness of the technology. That number could rise to 3 million by 2020. In 2012, this revolution added $62 billion to federal and state government revenues, a number that we project could rise to about $113 billion by 2020.2 It is helping to stimulate a manufacturing renaissance in the United States, improving the competitive position of the United States in the global economy, and beginning to affect global geopolitics." —Daniel Yergin, vice chair of global consulting firm IHS, in February testimony before Congress

"Natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our oil dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels. Natural gas is the critical puzzle piece RIGHT NOW. It will help us to keep more of the $350 to $450 billion we spend on imported oil every year at home, where it can power our economy and pay for our investments in a smart grid, wind and solar energy, and increased energy efficiency. By investing in alternative energies while utilizing natural gas for transportation and energy generation, America can decrease its dependence on OPEC oil, develop the cutting-edge know-how to make wind and solar technology viable, and keep more money at home to pay for the whole thing." —Pickens Plan, a site outlining BP Capital founder T. Boone Pickens' proposed energy strategy

"My town was dying. This is a full-scale mining operation, and I'm all for it. Now we can get back to work." —Brent Sanford, mayor of Watford City, a town at the center of the North Dakota oil boom, in "The New Oil Landscape" (NGM March 2013 issue)

Negative impacts of fracking

"According to a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed, shale oil and gas development poses risks to air quality, generally as the result of (1) engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, (2) emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment, (3) gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons, and (4) unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment-temporary storage areas. Similarly, a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed indicate that shale oil and gas development poses risks to water quality from contamination of surface water and groundwater as a result of erosion from ground disturbances, spills and releases of chemicals and other fluids, or underground migration of gases and chemicals."—General Accounting Office report on shale development, September 2012

"The gas 'revolution' has important implications for the direction and intensity of national efforts to develop and deploy low-emission technologies, like [carbon capture and storage] for coal and gas. With nothing more than regulatory policies of the type and stringency simulated here there is no market for these technologies, and the shale gas reduces interest even further. Under more stringent GHG targets these technologies are needed, but the shale gas delays their market role by up to two decades. Thus in the shale boom there is the risk of stunting these programs altogether. While taking advantage of this gift in the short run, treating gas a 'bridge' to a low-carbon future, it is crucial not to allow the greater ease of the near-term task to erode efforts to prepare a landing at the other end of the bridge."—from a study on shale gas and U.S. energy policy by researchers at MIT (also see: "Shale Gas: A Boon That Could Stunt Alternatives, Study Says")

"Oil is a rental business. ...When the industry goes south, and it will go south, they just walk away." —Dan Kalil, charman of the Williams County Board of Commissioners in North Dakota, in "The New Oil Landscape" (NGM March 2013 issue)

45 comments
Criostoir Doherty
Criostoir Doherty

ive a question..

why is shell advertising on national geographic?

Susan McBride
Susan McBride

I am constantly amazed at how many people take a rigid stance on a position without taking the time to understand it.  The oil and gas industry is full of very intelligent engineers, geologists, environmental scientists, etc. who are dedicated to the mission of extracting energy that we need to power our 21st century life, while at the same time leaving the earth better than they found it.  It goes on every day in this industry.  I recently took a field tour to Wattenberg, CO.  I was absolutely floored to see that the drilling area was surrounded by hay bales stacked 20 high in order to minimize both the sound and visual disruption to people that live in the area.  Every single piece of equipment that had oil or hydraulic fluid or anything that could possibly leak on the ground was parked on a metal pad.  My company VOLUNTARILY lists all of the chemicals used in its fracturing fluid on the state website, and by the way, the fluid is 99% water.  I know that we as a company are dedicated to reclaiming drilling sites by replanting natural grasses, indigenous trees and plants and leaving them even more beautiful than we found them.


Hydraulic fracturing involves three or four barriers of cement and steel pipe and is done a thousand feet below the water table.  The act of fracturing involves shooting bullet sized pellets (very small) about a foot and a half from the well bore.  When you stop and really think about that, a small bullet, a thousand feet below the surface, cutting into the earth about a foot and a half, it is clear that all of the hype around this issue is ridiculous. Technological strides are being made all the time in our industry to reduce emissions caused by operations and use more recycled water.


People who bash fracturing and the oil and gas industry have absolutely no clue what their lives would be like if they had to live without petroleum products.  It has allowed us as a nation to finally turn the corner from being dependent on the middle east for our energy needs.  That alone is huge.  The last two wars where thousands of young people lost their lives were predicated on our dependence on foreign oil. Fracturing is also allowing us to be competitive in manufacturing to bring jobs back to the US.


So, please get your facts straight before bashing the industry, which is made up of human beings just like you who have children and grand children and have every stake in making sure the world they live in is safe, beautiful and sustainable.


Thank you :)



daed lanth
daed lanth

We have to keep our deep water aquifers clean. IMO economy takes a back seat to environment every time. Growth is not forever; the NeoEcons need some dire classical study. 

Russ Katt
Russ Katt

It is just the Oil and Gas industry,  business as usual, there will always be conflict between surface rights and subsurface rights.  Oil and Gas industry always gets blamed for anything that happens, some time true some times not.  My experience is I have lost more prized breeding Stallions than anyone else and some with out even being there, but have also destroyed the basement of a landowners house.


Release of pollutants is not the way any energy company should be allowed to operate,  No matter if it is Tight gas and Oil or Conventional to Marine needs to be done in a safe, and ecological manner, no excuses, or not done.  



David Stegmann
David Stegmann

Like the `Gulf Oil spill", those responsible for the Fracking and who walk away with the Lions share of the profits are "from elsewhere".

In theory it is all OK, but when an error occurs, it can be a disaster and the people who suffer are the locals.

Also when the game is over, who picks up the pieces ?

It all boils down to accountability and today not many people shoulder their responsibility.

Nature is amazingly forgiving, but is finding it harder and harder to cover mans bugger ups !

William Wade
William Wade

The story of fracking is a short term fairy tale which ignores the depletion rate, the EROEI, and the lifecycle cost of the energy. Consumers have benefitted from the GOLD RUSH mentality of fracking in the short term but in the long term the consumers will pay the environmental and global warming costs of fracking.

jillo
jillo

Too bad this article doesn’t mention how the gas companies are legally “gagging” people from telling the truth about the health effects of fracking. That’s ok, right?

Dean
Dean

The Chinese bought Nexen. A company working in the oilsands. They don’t do any fracking. They drill into sand and inject steam to melt the oil and pump it out. Fracking wouldn’t do anything to the zone they are extracting. The Chinese are held to the same standards that all oil company’s are held to that working in the oil sands.

R. Thomas Nast
R. Thomas Nast

No one disputes that California’s tight shale oil holds economic promise. However, it has rapidly become a mixed blessing without adequate risk assessment , severance tax or impact fee and oversight regulations. The fact that our environmental oversight personnel are dangerously under-staffed and under-resourced only adds to the problem. As reported, California has enough well inspectors to inspect each well once every two years! California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) requires additional resourcing, staffing and re-focusing. The Division urgently needs a major augmentation and revision of their current regulations in order to provide their field engineers with more productive and less labor intensive tasking and oversight processes.

Right now, a “boom mentality” has taken over (just as it did in SD) and driven the current pace of fracking/acidizing for tight oil in CA dangerously out of control (in my opinion). The Division needs to catch up with the drillers (it has been almost 4 years and still no regulations ).

Bill
Bill

My wife and I owned a house in the country, by any ones opinion,for 26 years. While living there we enjoyed the purest and best tasting well water in the area. The water was tested several times over the years. To see if the water was changing or contaminated. We always got reports that were very good.We understood that certain minerals would be in our water. In the year 2010, there was a gas well less than a half of a mile away,that was fracked.. We immediately noticed, our water had changed.The water was terrible it smelled so bad and also changed color you couldn’t drink it,wash clothes, or shower or just be near it without gagging. We were from the same area,our place of 15 acres had belonged to my wife’s Grand parents. it is still in our family, but changed owner ship. The well fracturing procedures , in my opinion should be stopped and make these companies financially responsible for dropping newer water wells way deeper than usual. or not drill at all.

Meghan R
Meghan R

Oh and by the way- don’t count on it lowering our gas prices they want to export this gas to China and and we will continue to see an increase in prices. Read financial analysis on this policy see where we are heading. What a joke.

Meghan R
Meghan R

How about the fact the 1 in every 20 wells will be faced with cement failure and leaks? How about that fact that these Energy companies are buying our politicians and taking away our rights as citizens to be free from physical harm? The methane that we are buring off into the air is a greenhouse gas too. The science is bunk. EPA studies showed Benzene at 50x the allowable limit in these towns and their water, yet as soon as Obama started promoting this energy policy they made every effort to hide these results and lie. It’s sick and disheartening. It’s almost all of our representatives choosing these companies and their money over the citizens they swore to work for. Shame!

This is issue is representative of a much larger problem which is that this country is no longer for the people. Look up the studies(not the ones bought and paid for by Gas scientists) on alternative solutions such as combination Wind and Hydroelectric. We have energy sources available that can power the world without poisoning our water and our people but we need to make sure halliburton, the repubs and dems can make their money at the expense of our planet and our childrens future. I don’t know how these people sleep at night.

Peter Terezakis
Peter Terezakis

This article skips over the relationship between earthquakes and fracking. It also leaves out the multi-billion dollar investments by China and other countries into fracking operations in the United States as well as the $15.1 billion dollar acquisition by China of Canada’s leading petroleum producer AND China’s purchase ($2.1 billion) of Canada’s oil sands producing entity OPTI Canada Inc.

Given China’s environmental record, the quality of drinking water in the United States and Canada is at risk in both near and long term.

Has National Geographic become a public relations pulpit for the fossil fuel industry or was this article simply a naive lapse in critical thinking?

Amanda B
Amanda B

in order to prompt change we need to demand it.

jim lowe
jim lowe

anything like this needs to be monitored.will they do that or treat it like drilling miles beneath the sea.that worked out real well in the gulf right.monitoring will create jobs though.i still think that there are ways to power the world without killing it.the answers are not real tuff to do they just wont fund the oil cos.any more if we use them.we will meet lots of resistance on replacing oil though.long road ahead for that.good luck to us I hope.

Michael B.
Michael B.

It is scary what links people will go to to get power. I think it is real bad that people go to those extent just to get power.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Robert Thompson
Robert Thompson

This answer to whether or not fracking will change our future for the better or worse boils down to one fundamental question: will fracking inevitably always be environmentally destructive, or can the consequences of fracking today be completely prevented through strict monitoring policies and effective management strategies.

Vera Stinson
Vera Stinson

Fracking advocates are pushing this New technique for releasing natural gases trapped in the subsurface layers without a true understanding of what the consequences will be. Can we really care so little about the future of our water supplies? I know the U.S. is a water rich society, but we are using up our supplies faster than they can be replenished. A good example is the Oglala Aquifer.

Trey L
Trey L

Good gravy, where do you people get your ‘facts’?! I was on two frac jobs just this week. You people have no clue what you’re talking about. Wanna stop fracking? Sure, I hear Saudi would love to sell you their oil.

Daniel Vasey
Daniel Vasey

The negatives and positives mentioned in the blog are all short term. In addition, opening up new sources of fossil fuels must add to the amount of carbon dioxide that we will pour into the atmosphere before making the inevitable transition to alternative energy.

StillFascinated
StillFascinated

It stands to reason that fracking hasn’t changed “our energy future”, at all. Hydrocarbons are still a finite resource, and for all practical economic purposes, the effective price of oil hasn’t moved by a iota. Is it an environmental disaster in the making? Absolutely. But as far as energy production for a growing world economy is concerned, fracking is completely irrelevant.

Ellen Harrison
Ellen Harrison

The reason renewables haven’t taken over is the tremendous subsidies received by the oil and gas industries. And now with these, if gas is cheap, the push for renewables will once again deflate. Meanwhile the climate will continue to change.

Tejas
Tejas

I’m 12 and I hate hearig all of the awful things happening to the world because of fracking. The newer generation (us) has to but a stop to it. The stupid question that most adults answer completely wrong is: The Enviroment or Money.

UTC Ver
UTC Ver

Fracking should only be a temporary or short term solution. Other alternatives should be develop at the same time that we are using fracking. One solution could be the development of renewable synthetic methane using Sabatier reaction. Sabatier reaction uses carbon dioxide which could be harvested from the atmosphere with a method called “carbon dioxide air scrubbing”. Also, from methane, Shell, one of the gasoline company, is already producing synthetic diesel. They have four plants around the world and the biggest one is in Malaysia.

RC cola
RC cola

(Addition to comment before)
We need to use our resources that are open to us, not having to hunt for them and destroy earthen material in the process

RC cola
RC cola

I believe fracking is for the worse, as it is destroying our environment even worse than it already is…after awhile, if we continue to rip up the grounds just to get a bit of oil/fuel, fracking will almost be like a relative to strip mining. We cannot have this happen to our environment if we are to ever have generations to come and appreciate the lands they live on.

Tommy
Tommy

“We cannot rule out human extinction as a possible result of Anthropogenic Global Climate Change–that’s not me talking that’s NASA, Stephen Hawkings, a recent U.S. Military commission on climate change, and on and on.”

I would have thought that it is patently obvious that the world WILL end one day, probably when the sun implodes, so all this man-made-global-warming horse manure will be superfluous.
The “soothsayers” who keep harping on about ” clean, sustainable energy”, when what they really mean is wind farms and solar panels covering every square foot of the earths surface, will destroy the human race long before “climate change” which has been occurring for milennia.
Shale gas WILL happen because it MUST happen.

Lesley Anderson
Lesley Anderson

From what I have recently studied the most grievous problems with fracking is that by the Bush 2005 Clean Water Act pushed through by Dick Ceney (Halliburton a player in fracking and his baby), chemicals added to the water and sand pressured into the earth a mile down to fraacture the shal, do not have to be revealed to any review agency at all. They are exempt. That is like drinking a potion from the hands of a known poisoner.

Also, as per the Marcellus shal fracking in W.Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, most waste treatment plants are unable to filter the sludge completely before it is recycled into streams. In PA. the pollution is not removed it is only diluted. and this includes things like lithium.

There is also some evidence that any bringing up of methane to the surface of earth means it will stay in the air during the day and fall back to earth at night. Methane in the air is 3X what it was 300 years ago. It is released by puncturing earth’s crust as well as earthquakes and volcanoes.

The world is watching the US to see how we fare. I hope small communities will pass ordnances to prohibit fracking, as has been done in Pittsburgh, PA and other towns.

AuntieNatGas4Ever
AuntieNatGas4Ever

“Field Trash” beware! (That’s the jargon used by your superiors.) You’re working with nasty, cancer causing, chemicals. Silicon sand lacerates the lungs. Frack fluid or flowback is highly radioactive as stated by the USGS. Trade-off of quality air & everybody’s water for what? Money? Is sacrificing your health worth the pay? The US is already fracking in 30+ states & it’s going on all over the world where there are over 600 shale plays. There are many, many sides to this story….ask the victims.

Steven Vaux
Steven Vaux

Don’t be so negative, Robert – it is happening right now here in Europe. The UK government has programmes for insulating existing housing stock and this is financed by energy corporations. There is a scheme for partially financing solar PV and solar thermal installation on existing houses. Many roofs are now showing these panels as people take advantage the scheme.

Our building specifications have been upgraded so the houses and commercial buildings were are building now and in the future will be more energy efficient.
We have wind turbines cropping up all over the windy places – both onshore and offshore.
Electric vehicles are appearing on our roads and many companies run electric vans in London.

As oil and gas runs out fossil fuels will retreat to the last bastion of air and road transport. Shale gas is a minor, but useful, diversion. Consumption is the big problem. We will probably be the only Earth species to consume its own life support system. Shale gas moves us a step closer to the end game. Science will keep the ball in play but commerce will have to run with it in the end.
No point in having pots of money and an oil job when the planet is going down the tubes!
We have enough sunlight to power many planets.

Gerald
Gerald

Thank you Robert. Seams like too many people watch one biased and poorly made documentary and they become experts on the subject. Two sides to every story.

Robert Mack
Robert Mack

If the renewable energy sources or the idea of them is so darn plausible why hasn’t it happened. I am sick and tired of hearing about them and not seeing to much happen to make it real. The oil and gas industry in North Dakota is big and I see a lot of good that it has done not just here but for people all over.Our country can do this right if we would get off our duff and proceed with a postive outlook… but no we gotta keep on bickering and think it to death…thats what other countries would like to see us continue to do and here we are…could of would of should of right into their game……happy now.. I think its sad that so many scare tactics are being thrown around and so few witness the good.

Grandpa
Grandpa

I want the way that will let us look our grandkids in the eye years from now. Why is it we find $trillions to fight wars, but there never seems to be enough to make a huge push on clean, sustainable energy?

Chris Rush Dudley
Chris Rush Dudley

We cannot rule out human extinction as a possible result of Anthropogenic Global Climate Change–that’s not me talking that’s NASA, Stephen Hawkings, a recent U.S. Military commission on climate change, and on and on. I wonder if all the ‘free’ market folks will begin to question the underpinnings of their philosophy when they, finally, realize they can no longer deny climate change and, further, that they’ve been repeating a lie sold to them by the wealthiest among us. I wonder what they will tell their children? How do you explain that your job was more important than your child’s air, water and health?

Al Garnier
Al Garnier

Well that’s the dirty little secret. To frack one hole it takes a volume of fresh water equal to the size of a small lake. The chemicals used pollute the fresh water that can never be reused. Considering that our fresh water supply is limited and salt water can’t be used because it corrodes the equipment used, we are draining life giving lakes of fresh water by the fracking activity while polluting the ground water.

Gerald
Gerald

Fracking, like any other method of extracting energy has its advantages and disadvantages. Look at other viable energy sources and weigh the pros and cons. Ask people in Japan how they would feel about natural gas power as opposed to nuclear. I am a fracker and I see first hand how it can be improved. I can tell you that in Canada it is environmental responsible. And getting better every day. Also all that fresh water that supposedly doesn’t get replaced? That stuff literally falls from the sky.

Melisa
Melisa

I work in the industrial oil field as a medic and i am appalled at the trees cut down and not replaced, the incredible amount of water used for fracing, yet it keeps us employed and gives us opportunities we couldnt have without this Oil and Gas industry. I am concerned about the effects on the earth and mankind in the future from the chemicals used and the water wasted.

Kathleen
Kathleen

We know why, by who or whom, what the consequences are if it is continued (from lots of money to be made to lots of ecological distruction as well as lives of all species; HUMAN AND OTHER ANIMALS, around the world .), and where fracking takes place. The question is what to do about it, it is not simple answer , because quitting one energy source induces another. I,personally want to see this stopped, but how?

Nenad
Nenad

Ordinary American people are big buck hostages in their own country by number of “elite” families which would not care less if every single American would die as long as they could live and preserved and increase their fortune no matter what. One can say it is not about families it is about corporation but who own those corporations? If this is not yet obvious for many maybe it will be in relatively near future.

KL
KL

Despite billions in government subsidies alternative energy has yet to prove viable, popular among consumers or significant as an actual alternative to fossil fuel. The “subsidies” the fossil fuel industry receives are called deductions for business expenses, the same tax write offs that every business gets. The market, meaning energy consumers, will decide which forms of energy are viable, not greens or government bureaucrats who haven’t the slightest idea how the marketplace operates.

Harinam
Harinam

Oil shale production will do some damage. The good news is that if it at least partially replaces oil (like now), he human species may survive.

DARA BORTMAN
DARA BORTMAN

There are so many other problems with fracking as well: it causes earthquakes, it’s been found that over 60% of wells leak over time, it contaminates nearby wells and streams, the millions of gallons of run-off is filled with carcinogens and other deadly chemicals that need to be put somewhere (right now there are acres and acres of open pits filled with it and normal waste water treatment plants are not equipped to handle the high level of contaminants), nearby landowners are experiencing rashes, breathing problems, pets and animals dying and their property values are plummeting, and there hasn’t been a conclusive study of the health effects of all this completed yet. There’s some great information and some great illustrations in this story: http://www.thenation.com/article/171504/fracking-our-food-supply#. I can’t understand why we’d sacrifice our drinking water for a transitional energy source that’s estimated to only last a couple of decades while decimating our environment and, potentially, our health. There are alternatives that are safe and viable. Take away fossil fuel subsidies (federal subsidies are over $40B/year) and renewable energy sources are already a parity…with no sick children left behind…

Criostoir Doherty
Criostoir Doherty

@Susan McBride would these be the same engineers that worked for BP during the gulf of mexico oil spill..i dont think they left it better than how they found it...


Maggie Henry
Maggie Henry

@David Stegmann Why on earth is it ok for the greed and stupidity of  "landowners" to enrich themselves while poisoning theentire community? We are going to be rich, I tell you, RICH!

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