Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Four Questions about Fracking

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Four Questions about Fracking

Article excerpt



It is difficult to think of a more timely or important topic than horizontal hydraulic fracturing and its impact on the environment. It is especially useful to have an exchange of views on this subject now, before the statutes, regulations, and court decisions start to roll in. Law professors--I cannot speak for anyone else--have a strong proclivity for backward-looking analysis, dissecting what should have been done after the basic direction of the law is set and the courts have spoken. It is much more useful to weigh the pros and cons of different approaches at an early stage in the evolution of an issue, although admittedly, it is also more risky. So I congratulate the Law Review on organizing today's conference.

Before I begin, it is appropriate to say a few words by way of background about horizontal hyrdrofracturing, of "fracking" for short. This will be familiar to many of you, but there may be others in the audience who are relatively unversed in the subject, and some context may help in following the debates on the various panels to come.

What exactly is fracking and why is it different from ordinary oil and gas field production? I am not a petroleum engineer. But let me offer my understanding, expressed in lay terms, for what it is worth.

Traditional production of oil and gas involves drilling a vertical pipe from the surface to an oil of gas reservoir in the ground. (1) Because of the weight of the rock and soil above it, the oil of gas is under great pressure. Once the pipe penetrates the reservoir, that pressure causes the oil and gas to rise through the pipe to the surface, where it can be gathered for commercial use. Reservoir is a bit of a misnomer here. Sometimes there is literally a pool of oil or gas trapped in a hollow space between sedimentary layers of rock in the ground. But often conventional oil and gas deposits are embedded in permeable rock. In order to extraer it, however, the rock must be sufficiently permeable that oil and gas will flow through it, into the pipe and up to the surface, once the deposit is penetrated by the pipe.

Petroleum engineers have long known that there is a great deal of oil and gas in the ground that is trapped in rock that is not permeable, and hence cannot be extracted by simple drilling of a vertical pipe. (2) In the parlance of the industry, the fissures that contain the valuable material are too "tight" to flow. These engineers have long sought a way to open up these fissures to let the trapped oil and gas flow out.

One technology for doing this, known as hydraulic fracturing, has been around for about sixty years and is now routinely used to enhance the production from conventional oil and gas wells. (3) Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping a fluid, sometimes called "slick water," down into the well under great pressure. The fluid is mostly water mixed with some proppant like sand or small ceramic balls plus a small amount of lubricating chemicals. (4) The pressure from the water fractures the rock, and the sand props the fractures open. The fracturing fluid, or most of it at any rate, is then pumped out, and if all goes well the oil or gas flows out behind it.

The recent innovation, which is responsible for all the stir, consists of combining hydraulic fracturing with a relatively new technology, horizontal drilling. This consists, as the name suggests, of drilling down vertically and then, at some point, turning the drill bit and moving horizontally through a seam of rock. (5) Much of the oil and gas in the ground that is trapped in nonpermeable rock is found in relatively thin seams of coal or shale. A couple dozen years ago, a number of independent gas producers started fiddling around with the idea that you could combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, and this might be a way to extract gas from these thin seams of coal or shale. …

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