MARQUIL, “Fracking Explained”, 2010
“Fracking”, or Hydraulic Fracturing, is the propagation of fractures throughout rock (‘Fracturing’) as a result of the introduction of a pressurized fluid (‘Hydraulic’). Simply put, Fracking is when rock cracks and breaks because some sort of liquid is pumped through it at high pressure.
Fracking can happen naturally, and often does – most rock contains evidence of natural hydraulic fracturing activity. “Fracking”, as a concept, is as natural a process as earthquakes and volcanoes (and, in fact, can be caused by both).
But most of the time, when people say “Fracking”, what they are referring to is a man-made process known as Induced Hydraulic Fracturing, which is mainly used to aid in extracting natural gas and oil.
Most everyone knows where oil and gas originate from – that is, deep beneath the earth, gathered in pockets trapped between layers of rock. The ideal situation for oil and gas miners are big whole pockets in somewhat soft rock – easy for their machines to get to and suck out all at once. Sometimes these layers and pockets aren’t cooperative, and exist as smaller, spread-out pockets in harder rock.
So, the solution they’ve come up with is to drill down, blow holes in the rock, and pump fluids into it to shatter the rock layers and let the oil and gas flow more freely and therefore more quickly and efficiently into the miner’s machinery.
But, there are several catches – one major one is that the fluid mixtures used in this process are highly toxic and/or radioactive, and tend to seep into groundwater (the stuff we drink). Another is that as much as 8% of the natural gas being extracted by a fracking operation will leak into the atmosphere over the lifetime of the well – and methane, if you didn’t know, is a greenhouse gas. Thus, a “fracked” well is fundamentally contributing to climate change. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that in some situations, fracking can even cause small earthquakes.
Here’s a cute New York Times animated diagram that shows the fracking process and describes some of its hazards:
I also want to link to the guy who did the awesome cartoon at the top: http://www.empirewire.com/frackingportfolio.html
(Before I end this, I want to add an interesting footnote: between 1961 and 1977, during Operation Plowshare – a US government project to assess whether or not nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful demolition, construction, and agricultural purposes – methods were examined whereby natural gas could be ‘stimulated’ with nuclear devices. In other words, the same thing that fracking does, but with nukes. Fun stuff!)
(P.S., Obviously Operation Plowshare never went anywhere. But hey, we tried!)
– Patrick Benjamin