Drilling wells are pictured in Los Angeles, California December 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
If you have had even a passing look at energy news since 2010, you are bound to have come across the term “fracking".
Fracking quickly turned into a hot topic.
For one thing, the fracking industry has helped keep oil prices low over the past decade, and low crude oil prices are undeniably good for the global economy.
It is estimated that shale gas alone has contributed approximately USD50 billion to the US economy so far.
By 2035, as much as 45% of the US's demand for natural gas may be supplied with shale gas, says the US Energy Information Administration.
But, chances are that you are also aware that there is a lot of controversy around the subject. After all, such is the way of the world that good things often come with bad.
Some environmentalists have been warning the public about certain externalities associated with fracking, with industry experts arguing back that procedures used in fracking are not, by nature, that different from regular oil extraction methods.
However, many may not be clear about what fracking—or old-school oil extraction for that matter—entails.
The mental image that most of us share is of a cartoon-like drilling rig from which crude oil is erupting skyward—presumably from a gigantic pool of oil hidden somewhere underground.
But, deep down we know that things cannot be that simple.
Most typical oil reservoirs are not a unified pool of oil, but rather millions of smaller pockets of oil inside a porous rock formation—a bit like a huge sponge soaked with crude oil.
However, at times, oil and gas can be trapped in shale rock formations deep below where there regular reservoirs are found, in which case conventional rigging methods will prove ineffective.
In fracking or—to be more precise—hydraulic fracturing, a high-pressure fluid (90% water) is pumped into oil wells to break the shale rock formations, letting the trapped oil and gas out.
Along with water, granular sand (9%) is also pumped into the well to settle inside the cracks and keep them open, so that crude oil will begin oozing out. Environmentalists are, in particular, worried that dubious chemicals used as additives in fracking fluids can contaminate underground waters or that tampering with rock formations can trigger earthquakes.
As such, regulators in many countries are busy devising a framework for the employment of fracking techniques.
The EU, for instance is in the process of putting certain principles in place to “ensure that the climate and environment are safeguarded, resources are used efficiently, and the public is informed."But proponents of fracking point out that there is not enough scientific evidence available, at this stage, to prove that fracking is causing hazardous seismic activity, and that therefore it can be regarded as safe at least in less populous area.
Fracking, after all, is not without its benefits. The technique has led to lower hydrocarbon prices, especially in the US, which make transportation and power generation more economical.
Fracking activities are currently underway in other places across the world.
The US is unlikely to stop fracking activity in the foreseeable future, as it is estimated that such a move will add USD4,000 to the average American family's annual cost of living, not to mention wipe out as many as 15 million jobs in the country, according to a research by the Heartland Institute.
Canada and China, are widely employing fracking techniques at present to produce notable amounts of shale oil and natural gas.