Fracking innovations enhancing energy independence

“Energy independence,” long an empty promise gladly served up by crafty politicians eager to curry favor with unwitting voters, might be a lot closer than even the most starry-eyed dreamer could have imagined only a short time ago.

The country is in the grip of what has rightly been called the “shale energy revolution.” It is a revolution because it overthrows the existing order and casts aside long-standing assumptions about America’s energy future. It’s all about shale — fine-grained sedentary rock composed of mud, clay and silt — and our newfound ability to convert it to affordable energy.

In the space of a few short years, the United States has become the world’s largest producer of natural gas. In 2000, shale accounted for just 1 percent of U.S. natural-gas supply. By 2011, it was 25 percent, and by 2030 it could easily be 50 percent or more. Once burdened with some of the highest natural-gas prices in the world, the United States is now a low-cost producer of a fuel that provides Americans with roughly 25 percent of their electricity.

Hydrocarbons exist in plentiful amounts in the extremely low-permeability — or tight — shale beds that underlie much of the United States, but these resources were not economically recoverable. What has changed is our ability to get at them and extract them in a commercially viable and environmentally responsible fashion. Two companion technologies — multi-staged hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — have made this possible.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” was first employed in the late 1940s and has undergone significant refinements over the decades. It involves injecting water, usually mixed with high-viscosity additives, at high pressures into either oil or gas wells. This result is a fracturing of the rock in the wells, unlocking the gas and oil resources contained in the shale.

Horizontal, or directional, drilling is a substantial improvement over traditional vertical wells, because it enables one rig to extend its drilling activity in several directions simultaneously. When the global price of oil quadrupled is less than a decade’s time, the previously expensive practice of horizontal drilling suddenly made economic sense in shale reservoirs. The more holes that were drilled horizontally, the cheaper and more reliable the process became. More sophisticated steering equipment was developed, better drill bits were fabricated and state-of-the art drilling rigs were built to handle the more challenging conditions of operating within a 20,000-foot-deep hole.

More than a million wells have been “fracked” since the technology was introduced more than six decades ago. Fracking takes place a mile or more below drinking-water aquifers and is separated from them by thick layers of impermeable rock. While concerns have been raised about the water that flows back to the surface after fracking has taken place, here, too, experience and innovation are leading the way in dealing with “flow back.” Additives containing the BTEX-family of chemicals have been eliminated from the product lines used in fracking. BTEX — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes — are the volatile organic compounds found in petroleum. And diesel, once a staple in fracking, has been replaced by much more environmentally friendly mineral oil. Technology doesn’t stand still. Today’s innovations, which are making fracking cleaner and safer, will be superseded by tomorrow’s breakthroughs.

States with energy-rich shale formations are now developing regulations to guide the extraction of oil and gas. In Ohio, for example, Gov. John Kasich, the state legislature and the state’s Department of Natural Resources are working on a regulatory structure that will enable the state to take advantage of the abundant oil and gas contained in the Utica Shale. States have taken the lead in regulating fracking and related energy-extraction practices — and rightly so. The geology and hydrology of shale formations not only differ from state to state, they vary widely within the states. As noted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which has years of experience overseeing fracking in the Marcellus Shale, the exact “blend” and proportion of additives used in hydraulic fracturing “will vary on the site-specific depth, thickness, and other characteristics of the target formation.” This is not a practice that lends itself to a national, one-size-fits-all regulatory approach administered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Innovation and intelligent state regulation of fracking are already starting to put some glitter back into the Rust Belt. Youngstown, Ohio — all but written off a few years ago — is on the rebound thanks to the Utica Shale. Human ingenuity, and the prosperity it brings, might yet lead the United States to energy independence

Cohen is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in a special advertising section for The Hill.