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It’s not that new: Cracking the myth of fracking

Fracking is now a household term, albeit a very poorly understood one.

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to promote the flow of fluid and gas to wells. It is even used in some water wells to increase the flow to the well.

Basically, it involves injecting the well with fluid at high pressure to break (fracture) the rock surrounding the well, thus allowing the well to be accessible to a greater volume of the surrounding rock.

It is not a new technique. In the early days, dynamite was used to break the surrounding rock. What could occur is the creation of a small area of very broken rock, that could close off pores or fractures into the surrounding rock, limiting the flow to the well. Technology has improved dramatically.

Nor is the controversy surrounding fracking new. The San Juan Citizens Alliance asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the effect to groundwater in the early 1990s. By the late 1990s, there was growing pressure from communities and individuals for oversight of the practice. Because of this pressure, which soon had a legal aspect, the practice was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in what became known as the “Halliburton Exemption” during George W. Bush’s second term.

The Safe Drinking Water Act is meant to protect drinking water sources from pollution, and all other types of underground injection of fluids are regulated under the act. Fracking was given a unique and scientifically unfounded exemption.

Fracking has become a household term, and a highly charged political issue, because of advances in both hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies. The combination of these advances has allowed the development of shale gas and oil. With the ability to drill down to a specific geologic formation and then horizontally through the formation (like following one layer of a layer cake), combined with more powerful fracturing techniques, vast new gas- and oil-bearing formations are now being developed.

Shale gas and oil has been heralded as the biggest change in gas and oil development in many decades, has changed U.S. politics of oil and has completely changed the debate about gas and oil development at local, state and national levels.

The term “fracking” is now used in at least three ways. One is limited to hydraulic fracturing in the narrow and technical sense. Another refers to shale oil or gas development, in its entirety, but as a separate and distinct thing from all other gas and oil development. A third is to describe all gas and oil development. Much confusion in the public debates about fracking comes from these various uses.

Virtually all gas and oil wells are hydraulically fractured, and have been for decades. Hydraulic fracturing has affected surface and ground water. Gas and oil development has affected air quality, water quality and public health.

Call it what you want, it is a powerful technology used by a politically powerful industry. Without proper regulation and oversight, its power will be abused.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.