There are two great truths tied to hydraulic fracturing.
1. It has helped improve people’s lives by enabling the oil and gas industry to tap reserves that otherwise could not have been recovered.
2. It has unleashed dramatic public opposition.
I am disappointed to see public opposition to hydraulic fracturing,
because I think, for the biggest part, it is unfounded.
Hydraulic fracturing has become “fracking” in the common
parlance. To too many people, “fracking” symbolizes all that is
wrong with oil and gas companies and modern technology. It is
certainly associated with all aspects of unconventional resource
development, which depends on both horizontal drilling and
hydraulic fracturing to be successful.
It would be inaccurate to deny that there can be problems. But,
an objective look reveals that its benefits far outweigh its potential
risks. It is a safe, reliable technology that has proven highly
beneficial to society and it is being improved continuously by
operators and service companies. Many studies done by the US
Environmental Protection Agency (2015) and others have found
very small risks from the practice. Let us take a closer look.
Since the late 1940s, hydraulic fracturing technology has been
used in more than 1 million US wells to safely produce oil and
gas reserves that otherwise could not be recovered. While the
principles of the process have not changed in decades, modern
hydraulic fracturing relies on vastly improved technology and
processes to ensure its continued contribution to a safe, environmentally
responsible energy future.
Detractors claim that we do not know enough about fracturing’s
impacts and risks, despite decades of experience. Many who are
critical of hydraulic fracturing are actually critical of unconventional
well activity, oil and gas activity in general, and the use
of fossil fuels. To them, hydraulic fracturing is a focal point for
their broader objections.
Critics of the process have claimed multiple problems with
hydraulic fracturing, including:
◗◗ Earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing
◗◗ Pollution of groundwater with unknown chemicals
◗◗ Air pollution
◗◗ Surface spills
◗◗ Fugitive methane emissions
◗◗ Traffic and noise pollution
◗◗ Excess use of water resources
The idea seems simple enough. Pumping large volumes of
fluid underground at high pressures might cause earthquakes.
We all remember the 1978 movie, Superman, in which the
villain, Lex Luthor, tried to cause a giant earthquake in just
this way. Massive hydraulic fracturing can cause microseismic
events. Although these events could essentially be called earthquakes,
they are 1,000 to 1 million times too small to be felt at
Unfortunately, the “facts” supporting most of the complaints
about hydraulic fracturing have about the same level of scientific
supporting evidence as the movie.
However, in Oklahoma there has been a significant increase
in the number of earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and above,
approximately during the time of increased hydraulic fracturing
activity. What has caused this measurable increase
A careful study by Walsh and Zoback (2015) of increased
earthquake activity in Oklahoma clearly identified the source
of the problem: the injection of massive volumes of water into
basement rock. The study revealed that almost all of the water
volumes are related to saltwater disposal and enhanced oil recovery
volumes unrelated to hydraulic fracturing.
No studies have identified significant groundwater pollution
from the process of hydraulic fracturing; however, there may be
some potential risks to groundwater, primarily in older wells, as
a result of behind-pipe leakage. Of the few areas where such pollution
has occurred, almost all cases are older wells with poor
cement jobs or leaks in casing.
The industry needs to expand monitoring efforts for unconventional
wells, making sure that proper cement jobs are
always achieved and that well integrity is maintained. Horizontal
well completions have become sufficiently routine that
the technology to limit and detect potential leaks is widely
available. Distributed acoustic sensing using fiber-optic
cable is a relatively new technology that can monitor even
the tiniest leaks, well below levels that could pose a danger to
The disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing has
increased significantly. Water and sand are, of course, the largest
components of a hydraulic fracturing treatment—99.55% of
a typical Fayetteville Shale stimulation (Arthur et al. 2008). Oil
and gas operators and service companies continue to use some
chemicals to eliminate bacterial growth, add viscosity, minimize
corrosion, lower friction, etc. Anyone who is interested can go to
www.FracFocus.org to identify the chemicals used in any specific
well. Industry must continue to operate in a transparent and responsible
Another argument made by those opposed to hydraulic fracturing
is that fracturing dozens of stages in hundreds of wells
is a large-scale industrial process with related infrastructure
that may impact the lives of people living near areas where it is
occurring. Large truck traffic can impact the integrity of roads,
disrupt local traffic, and add to noise and air pollution. However,
industry can reduce or mitigate this impact. For example,
pad drilling—the practice of drilling multiple wellbores from a
single surface location—requires fewer trucks, leaves a much
smaller surface footprint, and alleviates a significant amount of
Many trucks that previously burned diesel fuel are being converted
to use natural gas. These conversions not only lower fuel
costs, but also decrease pollution.
While the demand for water for hydraulic fracturing is small
compared to that for agricultural use, it is important to minimize
unnecessary use of fresh water when there is a significant
demand for that resource.
Standard practices to reduce or eliminate the use of fresh
water now involve recycling of unconventional wastewater in
shale plays where disposal options are limited and sourcing
fresh water is difficult or expensive. Recycling not only provides
an answer to the disposal question, but also helps reduce an operator’s
fresh water sourcing requirements.
Using recycled water (both recycled flowback and produced
water) as either all or part of a fracturing treatment reduces
fresh water needs. By centralizing recycling treatment
and storage facilities, industry can deliver water to multiple
wells or locations efficiently. Operators in many plays not only
recycle water, but also use brackish (salty) water in lieu of
Ultimately, oil and gas development is a partnership among land
owners, regulators, operators, and integrated service company
experts, who work together to minimize risks, ensure environmental
stewardship, and efficiently recover energy resources.
Risk management begins with comprehensive reservoir
analysis and feasibility studies, which combine geological
features, rock properties, offset well experiences, regulatory
guidelines, and economic drivers (Meehan 2012). Teams of expert
engineers use the reservoir analysis and feasibility studies
to design and execute development projects that include
◗◗ Efficient well placement across the field to maximize
reservoir drainage and improve water management
◗◗ Proper well construction to ensure zonal isolation for the
life of the well
◗◗ Optimized hydraulic fracture stimulation treatments to
responsibly maximize production and economic returns
◗◗ Enhanced recovery technologies to delay production
declines and extend well life
◗◗ Safe and effective plugging and abandonment procedures
at the end of the well’s productive life
The performance of unconventional wells is highly variable.
There are some who believe that large statistical variations in
the production rates and recoveries from unconventional wells
are inevitable and unavoidable. This belief sometimes leads to a
commitment to “factory drilling,” in which hundreds of nearly
identically designed wells are drilled with a focus on reducing
well costs. Pad drilling plays an important role in this development,
because it reduces surface costs and enables reductions
in drilling, evaluation, completion, stimulation,
and production costs.
However, production and cost histories have shown that
even in some commercially attractive unconventional plays,
25% to 40% of all wells drilled did not achieve acceptable economic
A preferred approach is a more strategic and analytical one
that incorporates surface seismic, advanced petrophysics and
geomechanics, and reservoir engineering data into an integrated
model enabling operators to identify the most productive
areas and eliminate the drilling of sub-economic wells. This
holistic, data-driven approach helps operators screen and select
the best areas, and drill fewer wells, but ones that have the
greatest potential and the least risk. It also dramatically lowers
environmental impact while improving economics.
As the world looks forward to a distant but desirable future
with safe, renewable energy, the fact remains that today’s
energy demands can only be met with fossil fuels. This reliance
is almost certain to continue for many decades to
come, requiring significant increases in fossil fuel production.
Oil remains the largest primary energy source, with
coal in second place, and natural gas in third—but gaining
Hydraulic fracturing is essential for low-permeability reservoir
development. Unconventional wells may require 25
to more than 60 hydraulic fracture stimulations to generate
commercial results. Smaller hydraulic fracturing treatments
are used in higher-permeability wells as both a stimulation
and support for sand control operations.
The abundance of reserves unlocked through hydraulic
fracturing has contributed to drops in both crude oil and gasolineprices
(Fig. 1), saving consumers more than USD 2 billion
a week according to The Washington Post (Bump 2015).
Hydraulic fracturing also has contributed to a dramatic
drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
from fossil fuels in the US decreased 11% from 2007 to
2013 despite increased energy demand, largely as a result of
increased natural gas production and decreased reliance on
coal (EIA 2015). US production of oil and gas has increased
nearly 4 million B/D since 2008, almost entirely as a result of
drilling wells that have required hydraulic fracturing to produce
at commercial rates. Nothing other than global recessions
has decreased CO2 emissions as dramatically as has hydraulic
fracturing (ExxonMobil 2015).
We know a great deal about hydraulic fracturing and continue
research activity to make it even safer, cleaner, and
The resulting dramatic increase in safe,
affordable energy improves—and will continue to improve—
2015. Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic
Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.
US Environmental Protection Agency. www2.epa.gov/sites/
(accessed 30 December 2015).
Walsh, F. R and Zoback, MD. 2015. Oklahoma’s Recent Earthquakes
and Saltwater Disposal. Science Advances 1 (5). www.advances.
sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1500195 (accessed 30 December
2008. Arthur, J.D., Bohm, B., and Coughlin, B.J. et al.
Evaluating the Environmental Implications of Hydraulic
Fracturing in Shale Gas Reservoirs. http://www.all-llc.
(accessed 1 January 2016).
Meehan, N. 2012. Hydraulic Fracturing: An Environmentally
Responsible Technology for Ensuring our Energy Future.
our-energy-future-i-of-iii/ (accessed 30 December
Bump, P. 2015. Americans are Spending More Than $2 billion Less a
Week on Gas Than This Time Last Year (13 January 2015).
this-time-last-year/ (accessed 30 December 2015).
2015. Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions From the Consumption of
Energy. US Energy Information Administration. http://www.eia.
(accessed 30 December 2015).
2015. ExxonMobil Perspectives. Thanks, Fracking. ExxonMobil.
(accessed 30 December 2015).
King, G. 2012. Hydraulic Fracturing 101: What Every Representative,
Environmentalist, Regulator, Reporter, Investor, University
Researcher, Neighbor, and Engineer Should Know About
Estimating Frac Risk and Improving Frac Performance in
Unconventional Gas and Oil Wells. Paper SPE-152596-MS.
Originally published in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, February 2016