Thomas D. Gillespie
Professional Geologist, Bethlehem, PA
Pennsylvania has a history of natural resource development that runs all the way from Frick to Frac(k) according to this Professional Geologist.
Ah, Pennsylvania. My glorious home state. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Old Glory, the country’s first oil well, birthplace of US Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Portland Cement, Harley Davidson, Martin Guitars, Easter Peeps, and home to that pre-eminent neo-climatologist, Punxatawny Phil. It is also the hub of what could be the world’s most productive shale gas play in the form of the Marcellus and Utica Formations, as well as some other gas/oil bearing formations with lesser potential. Also one of the central locations for that modern day eco-terrorist, the ‘fractivist’ who would have you believe that everything bad in the world is caused by hydraulic fracturing.
How Did Frac(k) Get A Bad Rap from Enviros?
So. How did hydraulic fracturing get such a bad rap? It bears none of the earmarks of despised innovations/technologies; it’s neither a new technology nor is it difficult to understand. Yet the entire population of the world has been scared into a state of near immobility about this “new and mysterious” form of Earth rape.
Let me just digress a bit and take you through some background.
This all started quietly in Pennsylvania back in about 2004 or 2005 when Range Resources combined a couple existing technologies and drilled-stimulated a horizontal natural gas well in the Marcellus Shale in Mt. Pleasant, PA. The Marcellus is one of the many Devonian Age (416 to 359.2 m.a) black shales found around the world. A black shale is one in which there is a high organic carbon content, and one which was deposited in an anoxic environment (no free oxygen).
Because the carbon (from dead but formerly living things) was not exposed to oxygen, it did not decompose, which is the process whereby aerobic (air breathing) microbes ‘decay’ organic tissues. Compress the sediment and squeeze the water out and cook the organic matter with the heat of orogeny (mountain building event) in the absence of oxygen, and you get petroleum hydrocarbons in their myriad manifestations, including methane – natural gas.
Geologists have known for decades that the Marcellus Shale (and others like it) contained a LOT of natural gas, and possibly other petroleum related goodies. There was just no way to get it out of the ground. Shale is a very porous rock (many open pore spaces between the mineral grains) but it has a very low permeability (the pore spaces are not well connected at all, so even though it can hold a lot of gas or liquid, there are few, or no, open flow pathways by which anything can escape). So, here we are, 360 million years later, and all the gas from nearly 60 million years worth of dying marine life is still locked away in the shale.
In hydraulic fracturing we pump water under very high pressure into the Marcellus (or similar) Formation which opens existing micro-fractures in the rock along specific, non-horizontal orientations. The fracturing zone is between 4,500 and 9,500 below the ground surface and more than 4,000 to 9,000 feet below the deepest water supply aquifers. More on this later. The fracturing extends radially outward from the six-inch horizontal well bore to distances of 350 feet.
So, for each linear foot of well bore we can fracture 385,000 cubic feet of methane-laden rock. With well bores of 6,000 linear feet within the Marcellus Formation, we can extract the natural gas from 2.3 billion cubic feet of rock – and we typically have between six and 12 wells at each well site. Now you have a good picture of just how significant the Marcellus Shale is in the energy future of America, we recover about 1.5 – 1.7 billion cubic feet of methane from each 1,000 linear feet of well bore.
My little, independent exploration and development company represents a fraction of a percent of the total Marcellus region and we will have approximately 550 wells with an average borehole length of 6,000 ft. with those volumes of methane flowing out of the each and every well pipe under its own pressure over a thirty to fifty year period. For scale, our operations area is in north central Pennsylvania and occupies a space on the image a little larger than the size of the dot on the letter ‘i’ in the word Pennsylvania.
Just to astound you even more about the staggering energy potential in the Marcellus Formation alone, despite fracturing that much rock, we only recover about 30% of the methane trapped in just the fracture zone. When we count all the areas which we can’t reach because of the limits of technology and other factors, the latest estimate is that we will reclaim about 15% of the total gas volume contained in that one formation. When (not if) we improve our recovery technology we will have energy to spare.
The water we use to fracture the rock is combined with sand which keeps the newly opened fractures from closing again under the very high lithostatic pressure (weight of the rock above the fracture zone). The sand remains in place (it is called a proppant because it props the fractures open) and the water is squeezed out by the pressure and is recovered at the surface (called flowback). Because the sand has a high permeability, once the water is recovered there are pathways to the low atmospheric pressure at the Earth’s surface and the natural gas will flow out and up where it is collected and sent to a kitchen near you where you ignite it and release the solar energy which fell on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. It’s rather like a battery – you put energy in and forget about it until you need it, and there it is.
The Big Bang Theory of Frac(k)ing
Okay. With that little bit of background, let’s get on with it.
So, what happened between 2005 when this all started with a whimper, and 2010 when it became the environmentalists’ equivalent of the Big Bang? Well, if you examine the shale gas revolution from all angles, there was no choice for environmentalists but to demonize it in some way, shape or form. Environmentalists each have their own particular axe to grind, but they all have one thing in common; they all HATE the petroleum industry, and they can’t wait for the fossil fuel age to end. They all, of course, do everything in their power to expedite the end of the hydrocarbon epoch. And they have been spurred in this, to no little extent, by people in the energy sector themselves.
For the past forty years or so, environmentalists have been reaching for the Holy Grail of hydrocarbon hatred: the ever-dangling carrot of the “decline curve” of proven petroleum reserves. Ever since M. King Hubbert predicted in the 1950s that there would be a petroleum production peak and an inevitable decline of oil and gas reserves, there has been a never-ending parade of prognosticators pronouncing the pending pratfall and ultimate collapse of the fossil fuel driven ecological disaster which was the 20th Century. Much to their collective chagrin, however, petroleum reserves have refused to heed King Hubbert’s hypothesis and have grown. For example:
However, with the assurance that we were going to run out of the stuff anyway, and with such seemingly achievable targets as preventing drilling in “sensitive and pristine ecosystems” such as the Arctic, which would only prolong the inevitable, environmentalists planned to force the phase out fossil fuels one by one to ease the pain of withdrawal resulting from the ultimate death of dirty energy dependence incurred by a misdirected culture which had a gasoline pipeline taped to its nose and a toxic discharge pipe as a catheter at the other end. With the help of celebrities, perhaps this might happen even within their individual lifetimes. They had all but killed nuclear power in the 70s and 80s and they were chipping away at the edges of fossil fuels.
This is not ancient history. The current administration has systematically targeted coal as the first of the fossil fuels that must go. It would be followed by the rest – in good time. We were in the process of extricating ourselves from a couple very costly and messy wars which, it was claimed, had fossil fuels at their core. The country was disgusted with our dependence on foreign oil. The populace was ripe for the next big push to “renewable” energy sources, and might even be willing to make a few sacrifices to reduce our dependency on doubly nasty imported petroleum.
What the Frac(k) Just Happened?
And then…. as if out of no-where… came SHALE GAS!!!!! What began in 2005 in Pennsylvania was assessed and it was determined that our natural gas reserves, and consequently our fossil fuel reserves, are HUGE. That cleanest of all fossil fuels, at a stroke, eliminated the decline and fall of the fossil fuel empire. It had every advantage to counter claims that fossil fuels were the bane of all life. It is, in fact, clean burning, it is cheap, it is home-grown, it WILL make the United States energy independent by the year 2021 and it even results in a smaller “carbon footprint” than all other fossil fuels and has the potential to allow the U.S. to achieve far lower CO2 emissions – in fact, with increased natural gas use, we will do better than the arbitrary and pointless CO2 reduction targets established by the U.N. IPCC.
Contrary to King Hubbert’s prediction, and to the utter dismay of environmentalists everywhere, the fossil fuel reserve estimates rose yet again! And the cost of energy in the U.S. fell – again. Suddenly, costly, taxpayer subsidized wind and solar projects were not very attractive – literally and figuratively.
The cult of anti-fossil fuel environmentalism was DEAD. With natural gas being the “White Knight” of energy there was no way to demonize it. Unless . . . the very process of Shale Gas extraction could be shown to be unsafe.
That would do it! This new method of extraction – hydraulic fracturing. It’s bad. It must be bad. It uses water. There are, dare we say it, CHEMICALS, added to the water. The rock is broken so those CHEMICALS can get into our water wells. Those untrustworthy oil companies will spill it and it will ruin our streams.
Now, unlike last year, when the fossil fuel industry is discussed, the focus is NOT on climate change. It is not on oil spills. It is not on air pollution. It is on Frac’ing! After a recent Congressional public meeting the Congressmen said the word he heard most was “Fracing.” Without coming out and admitting that what they really want is to eliminate the use of ALL fossil fuels, which would wreck civilization, environmentalists are simply unable to dismiss the widespread use of natural gas. As I said above, it is the cleanest and most environmentally friendly of all known energy supplies (if you think wind and solar are environmentally friendly you need to understand them a lot better). So, to achieve the un-admitted end point, a campaign was launched to demonize the extraction process itself.
So far it has worked in New York State where there is ABUNDANT Marcellus and Utica natural gas. A state where farmers sit poor and worried north of the state line while their neighbor farmers, literally feet over the line to the south, get rich. It has worked in the E.U. where large shale gas reserves lie dormant below countries which have no other energy resources and are completely dependent on imports. It has worked in Washington D.C. where the federal EPA is tying itself into knots trying to figure out how it can insert itself into what is, after all, a states’ rights issue, so it can stop, or at least slow, the shale gas juggernaut.
“Anti-Fracking” [SIC] is the mot jus. NO! It is not ‘fracking’. It is fracing, or if you must, frac’ing. Please don’t argue. We invented the term. WE get to decide how to spell it. No-one argues with the computer or music industries that the correct spelling of the term ‘disc’ is d-i-s-k so please don’t argue this point.
This reminds me of the ‘anti’ attitude toward one of the older reviled industries of Pennsylvania – the steel industry. U.S. Steel in particular. Andrew Carnegie’s company. In that case, it was not only the industry, but the people who ran it who were hated. Not Carnegie himself as much as his second in command: Henry Sawyer Frick. You know – the man who ordered the Pinkerton guards to open fire on protesting steel workers.
We had the coal age Frick, and now the gas age ‘Frac’. I like to think we are acting more in the public interest than Frick did – but we are Frac’ers.
Editor’s Note: Interested readers can access the original version of this article at Tom’s blog, In Suspect Terrane, here, and access many more insightful articles.
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