Okay I really hate fracking jokes but I couldn’t think of another post title. Coming up with titles: officially my least favorite part of blogging.
Tuesday night I went to hear Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell give a talk on campus about fracking in the Marcellus Shale. His theme was “myths and realities,” which I thought was a great theme considering the conflicting statements of “fact” we hear from both industry and environmentalists–they can’t all be right, so some of these statements must be myths! Dr. Ingraffea pointed out some of the most often repeated myths and explained what kernel of truth they came from.
(Quick background information on the Marcellus: Gas shales are one kind of unconventional natural gas deposit, which basically means they are more technically difficult & more expensive to extract gas from than conventional deposits. The Marcellus Shale is a major shale gas deposit found in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and some other states I can’t remember off the top of my head… but those are the big ones. Last year New York put a moratorium on horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the method used for extracting gas from shales, but it’s still going on in other states and is expected to accelerate rapidly. But more on that in a minute.)
Anyway, Dr. Ingraffea is a fracture expert and also worked in industry for a number of years, so I was interested to hear what he had to say.
The first myth he covered is actually one of the more compelling statements I’ve heard from industry: hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a proven and well-understood technology that’s been used in the industry for over 40 years. This is true in a way, but not relevant to the drilling being done in the Marcellus, and Dr. Ingraffea explained why.
There are basically four technologies or strategies involved in the method used for drilling in the Marcellus, which he summarized as “High-Volume Slickwater Fracking from Long Laterals“:
- High-Volume: Fracking in unconventional deposits requires MUCH higher volumes of fracking fluid to be injected than required for conventional fracking. How much higher? In NY state the limit for a single well is 80,000 gallons of fluid. This is sufficient for conventional fracking but rules out the high-volume fracking needed to extract gas from the Marcellus… because according to Dr. Ingraffea, in PA the average volume of fracking fluid used in a Marcellus well is 5.5 million gallons, or over 68 times the maximum used in conventional fracking.
- Slickwater: The high volumes of fracking fluid needed must be injected through a casing that’s on average 5-7 inches in diameter. To reduce the force needed, the injected water is made “slipperier” (I know, slipperier water, what?!) by the use of additional chemicals that are not needed in conventional fracking.
- Directional drilling: On average the Marcellus is only a few hundred feet thick, so vertical wells would be kind of pointless. Instead, wells are drilled down to the depth of the Marcellus and then drilling then continues horizontally. In addition, the Marcellus is already naturally heavily fractured, so when we talk about fracking it’s really re-fracking, or reopening of existing joints. These existing joints have a consistent orientation, so wells are oriented perpendicular to the joints to maximize production. (I just Googled up a storm looking for a good illustration of this but couldn’t find one… sorry).
- Multi-well pads: Kind of goes along with directional drilling… if your wellbores are going out laterally from where the well is drilled, it makes sense to put a bunch of wells on the same pad and then have their wellbores go out in different directions.
I’m a firm believer in the value of responsible development of natural resources. (I feel like a lot of people or organizations on both sides of the argument say that as some bullshit statement and really only mean half of it–or else have some bizarre definition of “responsible” or “development”–but really, I am). But as an average citizen it can be hard to get a sense for how “responsible” specific development activities are, and also what more responsible practices might be technically and economically feasible (i.e. I often wonder, is there a real tradeoff that has to be made here between resource development and environmental stewardship, or is industry just being cheap?)
Anyway, really interesting talk. I wish I had time to write more, but I need to do actual work now.