What Is Non-Hydraulic Fracturing?

Non-hydraulic fracturing is a method for extracting oil that does not rely on the use of water in the drilling process.

The primary reason for the development of non-hydraulic fracturing was to reduce the amount of pollution created by hydraulic fracturing and to increase the efficiency of the oil drilling process.

Key Takeaways

  • Non-hydraulic fracturing is an alternative to hydraulic fracturing that is seen as a cheaper and more environmentally sustainable method of oil extraction.
  • Unlike hydraulic fracturing, non-hydraulic fracturing is a method of oil and gas extraction that does not rely on injections of water into the oil well.
  • Non-hydraulic fracturing may permit oil and gas extraction in cold climates in which the water supply used in hydraulic fracturing may be frozen for much of the year.
  • From the perspective of the oil companies involved, non-hydraulic fracturing can help reduce operational costs by severing a project's reliance on local groundwater sources.
  • For communities, non-hydraulic fracturing prevents fracking liquids from entering the local water supply.
  • Today, a common approach to non-hydraulic fracturing involves the use of natural gas as the fracturing medium.
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What is Fracking?

How Non-Hydraulic Fracturing Works

Non-hydraulic fracturing is an innovation applied to the practice of hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing is sometimes shortened to hydrofracking, fracturing, or just fracking. Whereas hydraulic fracturing relies on large amounts of water in order to produce fissures and breaks in rock formations, non-hydraulic fracturing uses alternative methods to achieve the same result.

The use of non-hydraulic fracturing can help reduce the environmental impact of oil extraction. Hydraulic fracturing can harm the surrounding ecosystem, both through the fracking operation itself and through its waste products. Because hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of water and various fracking liquids into the oil well, there is a risk that those liquids might leak into the surrounding area’s water supply if certain breakages occur underground.

Another concern related to hydraulic fracturing is the large quantity of water that it requires in order to work. In areas where the supply of water in the ground is already relatively sparse, widespread hydraulic fracturing could cause disruptions to the water supply while also potentially affecting the quality of the remaining groundwater.

From the perspective of the oil companies involved, non-hydraulic fracturing can help reduce operational costs by severing projects’ reliance on local groundwater sources. In theory, non-hydraulic fracturing may even permit oil and gas exploration in freezing or sub-freezing climates in which the water used in traditional hydraulic fracturing is likely to be frozen.

Today, a common approach to non-hydraulic fracturing involves the use of natural gas as the fracturing medium. Rather than injecting fracking liquids and water into the well, this method involves compressing natural gas at the drill site and then injecting that compressed gas into the well to fracture rock formations. In order to keep the fissures open, the pressure from the gas must then either be increased or maintained at a constant level.

Special Considerations

The use of fracturing—whether it is hydraulic or non-hydraulic—has received a lot of criticism, especially from environmental conservationists. One area of particular concern has been the wastewater that is a byproduct of the drilling process. This wastewater can become contaminated by the fracking fluids used or by the oil or natural gas in the well. The practice of fracking can also result in the fracking fluids mixing with the oil or natural gas, which can make the materials difficult and expensive to separate afterward.

Fracking has led to the U.S. becoming one of the world's largest oil producers. Before fracking became a prominent oil extraction method in the U.S., the U.S. relied on a significant amount of oil imports. Though the U.S. has been an oil producer for a long time, its significant demand for the commodity made it heavily reliant on oil imports.

From January 2010 to January 2020, U.S. oil production increased from 167,529,000 barrels to 395,399,000 barrels, an increase of 136%. Hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S. increased by 1,204% from 2000 to 2015, which saw an increase from 23,000 hydraulically fractured wells to 300,000 wells. In 2015, fracking accounted for 67% of U.S. natural gas production. In 2016, it accounted for 69% of all oil and natural gas wells drilled in the U.S.