Fracking is a slang term for hydraulic fracturing, which is the process of creating fractures in rocks and rock formations by injecting specialized fluid into cracks to force them to open further. The larger fissures allow more oil and gas to flow out of the formations and into the wellbore. It is easier to extract oil and gas there. Fracking has resulted in many oil and gas wells attaining a state of economic viability due to the level of extraction that can be reached. It has also allowed drilling firms access to previously difficult-to-reach sources of oil and gas.

Key Takeaways

  • Fracking is a slang term for hydraulic fracturing, which is the process of creating fractures in rocks and rock formations by injecting specialized fluid into cracks to force them to open further.
  • Fracking increases the rate at which water, petroleum, or natural gas can be recovered from subterranean wells.
  • Fracking also helped to revitalize local economies in some parts of the United States.
  • Most of the opposition to fracking revolves around its potential negative impact on the environment.
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What is Fracking?

Understanding Fracking

Fracking is an extraction technique for oil and gas wells in which rocks are fractured artificially using pressurized liquid. The process involves drilling down into the earth and injecting a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand, and thickening agent, also called "fracking fluid," into a wellbore to create cracks in rock formations. Once the hydraulic pressure is removed from the well, the remnants of the fracking fluid hold the fractures open, making it easy to extract the oil and gas inside. Fractures can also exist naturally in formations, and both natural and human-made fractures can be widened by fracking. As a result, it is possible to extract more oil and gas from a given area of land.

Fracturing shallow and hard rock wells to extract oil dates back to the 1860s. During that time, nitroglycerin or dynamite was used to increase oil and natural gas output from petroleum-bearing formations. In the late 1940s, petroleum engineers used fracking as a means of increasing well production. In 1947, the practice of hydraulic fracturing started as an experiment by Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation. The first successful implementation of the process took place in 1950. Since then, fracking has been performed worldwide on oil and gas wells.

Although the process of fracking has been around for some time, it became more widespread and politically controversial early in the 21st century.

The term "fracking" was also used extensively as an expletive in a television show, Battlestar Galactica. This different use of "fracking" or "fraking" went somewhat beyond that show, appearing in other television programs and the debate over hydraulic fracturing. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing sometimes try to transfer the negative connotations of the expletive "fracking" to the hydraulic fracturing process. For instance, they might accuse supporters of hydraulic fracturing of "fracking the Earth."

Advantages of Fracking

Fracking increases the rate at which water, petroleum, or natural gas can be recovered from subterranean wells. It has also allowed the extraction of unconventional oil and gas resources from low permeability sites where traditional extraction technologies fail. Fracking as a method for oil and gas extraction is also more economically viable than conventional or horizontal drilling. In the United States, domestic oil production has grown significantly with the introduction of fracking. The process has driven down gas prices and offered gas security to both the United States and Canada for about 100 years.

Fracking also helped to revitalize local economies in some parts of the United States. In particular, many parts of the country that historically relied on industries like steel and auto manufacturing to generate jobs turned to fracking. The success of fracking after 2008 helped the economies of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other industrial states with oil resources recover from the financial crisis.

Disadvantages of Fracking

Most of the opposition to fracking revolves around its potential negative impact on the environment. Fracking typically produces methane emissions, which reduce air quality. Furthermore, methane gas contributes significantly to global warming. Fracking also consumes billions of gallons of water each year that might otherwise be available for human consumption. Moreover, wastewater from the fracking process can leak into surrounding water sources and contaminate drinking water. Finally, fracking can potentially lead to earthquakes. However, there is controversy over whether the earthquakes are directly caused by fracking or caused by the disposal of wastewater generated by the fracking process.

Fracking is also a relatively costly way to extract oil, so its economic viability is threatened whenever oil prices fall too low. For instance, the dramatic decline of oil prices in early 2020 caused concern about permanent damage to the fracking industry. In general, oil prices respond strongly to shifts in supply and demand. That means we can expect additional sudden price changes in the future. As a practical matter, it is also difficult to find new uses for the specialized equipment used for fracking.