If a person had to use one word to explain Americas enormous success with extracting natural gas from shale, that word would be fracking.
Thanks to new advances in the drilling technology called fracking short for hydraulic fracturing natural gas production is growing dramatically in the lower 48 states. Shale gas accounted for 2 percent of U.S. natural gas production a decade ago. Today it is nearly 30 percent and rising, and it has given the nations economy a big boost.
In the fracking process, fresh water, sand and chemicals are injected deep underground under high pressure to split open the shale in order to release large amounts of natural gas from these porous sedimentary layers. Fracking typically takes about four days, but gas production from the well may continue for 40 years or more.
Contrary to popular belief, fracking is a decades-old technology. It has been used safely thousands of times around the country to improve the productivity of conventional gas wells. But fracking has just recently emerged into national prominence because of its pairing with horizontal drilling a combination that has allowed oil and gas companies to effectively tap for the first time extensive shale formations like the Marcellus that underlies 50,000 square miles from New York to West Virginia.
The initial economic benefits from gas production in the Marcellus Shale have been quite noticeable, but there is so much more to what the shale gas boom can mean to our economy. We cant let well-meaning environmentalists who oppose fracking but who are often short on facts hijack the future of shale gas development. These critics claim that fracking poses an unacceptable risk to fresh water supplies, which normally occur just a few hundred feet below the surface down to about 1,500 feet depending on what part of the nation is under consideration.
Hydraulically fracked wells typically reach 7,000 feet or more below the surface to encounter the layer of shale holding the trapped gas at that depth. Therefore, a barrier of several thousand feet of impermeable rock exists between the deep fracking location and the shallow groundwater reservoirs. In addition, all gas wells have thick layers of steel casing cemented in place to create a solid divider between gas production and the environment.
Critics concerns over the disposal of fracking fluids that return to the surface with the produced gas should be addressed also. Companies that drill into the Marcellus and other shale formations are now recycling up to 100 percent of the wastewater, allowing the flowback fluid to be treated and reused in other wells. This reduces the need for more freshwater and increases the efficiency of the process immeasurably.
Oil production in Texas and North Dakota has also benefitted from fracking, and the technology is now being used to produce oil in the Utica Shale in Ohio. But its with natural gas that the benefit from fracking has been greatest. Its success has led to a sharp drop in the price of gas in the United States, benefitting consumers, without compromising environmental safety. Today the price of domestic natural gas is less than a third of what gas costs in Europe and Asia.
In fact, enough natural gas is being produced from shale formations in different parts of the country, ranging from West Virginia and Pennsylvania to Texas, that a number of energy companies are seeking governmental approval to export almost one-fifth of the supply in the form of liquid natural gas (LNG). Exporting some of the gas will help control our nations ballooning trade deficit and stimulate greater shale-gas production, providing a much needed stimulus to our economy and the job market.
Here in the Northeast, electric utilities are claiming clean-burning natural gas as the fuel of choice for new power plants. While coal has long been the nations electricity-generation mainstay, the high cost of curbing sulfur, mercury and carbon emissions from burning coal has elevated the importance of using natural gas.
Now that gas prices are relatively low, some of our nations trucking and bus fleets could shift to natural gas and reduce our costly dependence on imported oil, which is more than $500 million a day. Proposed legislation to achieve this is pending in Congress.
Most importantly, there are signs that the availability of inexpensive natural gas is revitalizing U.S. manufacturing. The chemical industry needs large quantities of natural gas as a feedstock to make plastics, fertilizers and many other products. Chemical companies, both American and foreign, are making multibillion-dollar investments to build ethane crackers and other petrochemical facilities in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Also, new steel mills are expanding to help meet growing demand for steel drill pipe and casing needed in drilling wells. This is the kind of investment and job creation the U.S. desperately needs.
A determination to make full use of shale gas resources by lifting a moratorium on fracking in New York will help stimulate the economy and generate revenue and jobs. When cheap natural gas is used in electricity production, consumers benefit and air quality improves.
When gas is used as a transport fuel, U.S. dependence on oil imports decline. When the availability of gas stimulates investment in U.S. manufacturing, jobs are created. And when gas is exported to markets in Europe and Asia, the U.S. economy is strengthened.
Thats why boosting natural gas production will go a long way toward enabling America to maintain its leadership role in the world economy while avoiding the instability that high energy costs and shortages can engender.
The writer is a retired petroleum exploration geologist with over 20 years exploration experience in the Gulf of Mexico both onshore and offshore. He resides in Sackets Harbor.