Fracturing Regulation Applied

By Wiseman, Hannah | Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Fracturing Regulation Applied


Wiseman, Hannah, Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum


INTRODUCTION

Since the drilling of the first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, (1) a long and profitable history of fossil fuel development in America has unfolded. Throughout this history, there have been bursts of attention to both the positive and negative effects of domestic development. (2) Few energy issues have sparked as much recent attention, however, as a once little-known technique called hydraulic fracturing--also called fracing, fraccing, fracking, or hydrofracking. (3) Hydraulic fracturing exists in many forms, but its central purpose is to crack the formation surrounding an gas or oil well to encourage more gas or oil to flow through the well. (4) The technologies used to coax open these cracks in the formation vary widely; the common technique of hydraulic fracturing in coalbeds, (5) for example, is substantially different from fracturing in densely-packed shale and tight sands formations. (6) The type of fracturing that has attracted the strongest recent interest from media organizations, academics, agencies, and politicians is the process applied to shales and tight sands, which is called "slickwater" (or slick water) fracturing. (7)

Energy companies developed slickwater fracturing in the 1990s in the Barnett Shale of Texas and have since transferred the technique to shales around the country. (8) In most cases, developing a shale well requires construction of a well pad, which is the site that hosts the well and associated equipment; drilling and casing the well, often using horizontal drilling techniques; (9) punching holes in small segments of the well far beneath the surface; and pumping a solution of water and chemicals down the well at high pressure. (10) This process forces the solution out through the perforations in the well, fracturing the surrounding formation and expanding any existing fractures. (11) While conducting a slickwater fracturing operation, operators also pump a proppant, such as sand, into the well to prop open the fractures and allow oil or gas to flow up through the well's production casing--a tube inserted into the well for the purpose of isolating the oil or gas and allowing it to flow up the well. (12)

The specific technique of slickwater fracturing varies substantially among formations and among wells within one formation. Engineers at well sites drill different well depths, fracture wells at different pressures, and apply a variety of chemical types and quantities based on many factors, including the density and composition of the formation being fractured. (13) Despite differences among specific slickwater fracturing techniques, the process as a whole has fundamentally changed American oil and gas production. It has made fracturing the norm in gas development, (14) encouraged new horizontal drilling techniques, (15) and enabled abundant production of shale oil in certain areas of the country. (16) In reshaping the domestic energy landscape, the technique has introduced several new stages to the development process, requiring larger volumes of water (17) and new types of chemicals. (18) Just as importantly, it has allowed operators to drill thousands of new oil and gas wells, thus expanding the impacts of traditional drilling to new sites. (19)

As fracturing has allowed more wells in new formations to be drilled, the sheer increase in well numbers has led to a range of environmental effects that can begin long before the actual fracturing occurs. As with any type of oil or gas well, a developer must construct a well pad and a road to the pad, (20) drill the well, (21) store drilling wastes at the surface in a pit or tank, and then dispose of these wastes. (22) Water for drilling must be withdrawn from surface or underground sources, or, if not withdrawn on site, piped or trucked in and then temporarily stored. (23) As described in more detail in part I, drilling fluids and muds may spill on the surface of well pads, produced water may spill during transfer or leak from a surface pit, and oil from drilling equipment may leak onto well pads. …

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