Fracking: An Introduction
The pace at which on-line technology is developing is as nothing when compared to the changes the energy sector is currently under-going. The practice of hydraulic fracking, which appeared on the horizon around seven or eight years ago is, like a force 12 side-wind, sweeping commonly held assumption about the energy market off its perch.
Few, if any, could have predicted that extracting gas locked deep under-ground and compressed in tiny particles amongst hard-rock formations would alter the landscape of an energy market within such a short period of time.
Hydraulic fracking is sending fissures, both literally and figuratively, through the energy sector and has the potential to change tightly held assumptions about security of supply. The repercussions from this new method of gas extraction could be as significant as the seismic movements, some allege, fracking causes.
A word used by industry and geologists long before a PR consultant had a say in marketing the product, fracking suggests (as it is supposed to): fracture, breakage, cracks, disintegration.
Hardly, a word inspiring confidence in those unfamiliar with the technique. Opponents of fracking have certainly made the most of the word using it to colourful effect in order to illustrate their point: Frack-off, a UK opposition group being just one such example.
In the United States unconventional gas is marketed as “Natural Gas”. Technically this is correct. The gas extracted from the layer of shale does, indeed, fall under the definition of natural gas. Many, however, argue that there is absolutely nothing natural about blasting hard rock, deep-underground, in order to release static gas trapped between hard rock.
From an EU perspective nothing could be more pertinent than shale gas extraction. On 20 December 2012 the European Commission launched a consultation process on hydraulic fracking with a view to presenting a set of proposals to the European Parliament and the Member States in the course of 2013. To do justice to this vast policy area EU Perspectives is going to post a series of four pieces relating to fracking that reflect the Greek elements of earth, water, air and fire.
To begin with, though, a brief background on what fracking actually is.
Compared to the US Europe has barely scratched the surface of hydraulic fracking. What fracking there is is purely exploratory and, as yet, non-commercial. The same can not be said for the United States where, according to the American Petroleum Institute, over one million wells have now been drilled. A 2011 report by the US Environment Protection Agency states suggests, “There were 603 horizontal gas rigs in June 2010, an increase of 277 from the previous year.” Exact figures are hard to come by but what can be said with certainty is that fracking is developing apace in the US.
Fracking itself is nothing new and has been practiced in various parts of the world for a number of years. The Royal Society notes that in 1875 a well to extract shale gas was drilled in the UK. Given the difficulties posed with the extraction of shale gas it was commercially unviable and thus discussed in all but the most learned of industry circles or within the most scholarly of academic conferences. The successful commercialisation of hydraulic fracking is the real game changer.
New techniques now allow energy companies to achieve what many considered to be the impossible. Put simply, hydraulic fracturing involves drilling as low as is needed to reach a layer of rock known as shale. The depth varies depending on the local geology and the depth at which the layer of shale is to be found. Typically though the hole drilled will be below 1000 m. Once the desired depth has been reached the drill is turned side-ways and a horizontal hole is then bored which follows the horizontal line of the natural shale layer. The horizontal hole can be anywhere between 1.2 km – 3 km long.
The site on which drilling for unconventional gas is located is referred to as a Pad. One site or Pad will typically have six to ten operational wells on site. Each well extends in a different direction from the site, covering an area of up to 250 hectares underground. Given that the Pad site above ground is between 2 – 3 hectares an underground network covering 250 hectares is considerable.
Once drilled the holes are encased in cement and sealed with steel casing. The steal casing and cement are then perforated, a sudden surge of water (in which chemicals and sand are mixed) is then blasted into the space under high pressure causing fissures in the shale rock formation. The shale gas is then released allowing the gas to flow up to the well-head.
So successful is hydraulic fracking that the US, for the first time in years, has a secure supply of energy and is expected to be completely independent of energy imports within the coming years.
With hydraulic fracking a fairly recent phenomenon it is little wonder that its exact implications are unknown, possibly mis-understood, by both industry and environmentalist alike. In the absence of more empirical data there appears to be a swift polarisation of opinion between those “for” the technique and those utterly “opposed” to hydraulic fracking in Europe regardless of its potential benefits.