Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing of Shale Gas Formations in the United States

Article excerpt

I. The History & Process of Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing has a long history and was first developed in Sweden in 1878 and was used for offshore drilling during the 1930s. The current version of the hydraulic fracturing technique in existence today was first used in 1947. However, it was not commercially used until 1998 (Cummans, 2012). The practice has been used across the United States and at almost every site that it was introduced; controversy has surrounded the prospects for pursuing the gas extraction project. Hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to extract oil and gas that were economically inaccessible and is used in areas with tights sands, shale, and coal bed methane formations.

A. Brief History

This examination will focus on the practice of hydraulic fracturing technology in extracting shale gas. There are thirty-one states in the continental United States which have significant shale gas reserves or where the oil industry has shown interest in shale gas development (CEEP, 2012). According to the Environmental Working Group, since the year 2000, approximately 120,000 wells were drilled by oil and gas companies and 270,000 wells were drilled since the 1980s (Horwitt, 2009). According to the Energy Information Administration, it is currently estimated "that the U.S. will rely on shale gas for roughly 45% of our energy needs by the year 2035" (Demelle, 2011).

Shale gas extraction occurs in shale formations composed of many thin layers. Shale is a sedimentary rock and is compacted together tightly under natural pressure. The largest hydraulic fracturing opportunities in the U.S. lie in large shale play formations, some of them being Barnett Shale in Texas, Bakken Shale in North Dakota, Haynesville Shale in Louisiana, Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin, and Raton Basin in Colorado (Cummans, 2012). There are large shale plays with smaller, significant shale plays throughout the United States. Figure 1 shows current and prospective shale plays in the lower 48 states.

B. Procedure

Hydraulic fracturing involves spreading the fractures in a rock layer using pressurized fluids in order to release oil and gas that isn't economically viable to extract using traditional drilling techniques. First, a mile long vertical hole is drilled, and then a half mile long horizontal branch is drilled. A small package consisting of ball-bearing-like shrapnel and light explosives is sent into the drilled hole and detonated. The shrapnel punctures the bore hole allowing small perforations to open up in the pipe. Up to seven million gallons of slick water, "sand mixed with large volumes of freshwater that has been treated with a friction reducer such as a gel" (Harper, 2008), is pumped in the hole to fracture the shale rock, causing shale gas to be released. The water blasts through those perforations in the pipe into the shale at a force of more than nine thousand pounds of pressure per square inch and shatters the shale for a few yards on either "side of the pipe, allowing the gas embedded in it to rise under its own pressure and escape" (McKibben, 2012). Once the water is injected into the ground, it is then contaminated from exposure to oil and natural brines.

B. Economic Aspects of Hydraulic Fracturing

A. Benefits

Economists at Citigroup report that hydraulic fracturing will create up to 3.6 million new jobs by 2020 and will increase economic output in the United States by 2-3% per year (Foxman, 2012). There are many areas throughout the country that have been proposed for the practice, which would generate jobs. The practice also led to reduced reliance on foreign oil, has been a boon to energy-intensive industries like metals manufacture and fertilizer production, benefited the energy industry, and boosted the water-treatment business due to cleanup of recovered water (Trecker, 2012). Cheap natural gas displaced coal and is America's top source for electricity. …