What hath fracking wrought

March 26, 2012

New technologies are riderless horses. They have a mind of their own and go where they want.

Someone invents the personal computer and forty years later you spend hours each day surfing the Internet. Travel agents die like flies, software engineers are born. Some people become gamers, others invent avatars. Outside Las Vegas, soldiers sit in darkened rooms piloting drones with joysticks, raining hellfire down on Taliban fighters a world away.

Disruptive technologies don’t care what you think or who you are. They’ll sweep you up and drag you along, your foot trapped in the stirrup, your head banging the ground. Or, like a ghostly sniper, they’ll infiltrate the edges of your life, then take over the whole darn thing.

That’s where we are with hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling, downhole telemetry, 3D seismic, and the host of related technologies that have unlocked shale gas and “tight” oil plays like North Dakota’s Bakken field, where more rigs are at work than in Saudi Arabia.

Recent history teaches that geology rocks and science rules. The sexy rocks in petroleum geology have always been porous sandstones and limestones—easy formations willing to surrender the goods. In contrast, black shales, the original wellspring of all petroleum wealth, have been overlooked, even though geologists knew them to be everywhere. Yes, you could drill them, and a few did, but generally you were pouring sand down a rat hole.

That world has been overthrown. If Prudhoe Bay’s startup in 1977 was the energy equivalent of a sugar high, sending two million barrels per day gushing south, the “shale gale” has been a hit on a crack pipe. Since 2000 the equivalent of four million barrels per day of new natural gas has hit the market. Two Prudhoes, and no one saw it coming!

Like all revolutions, this one has had unanticipated consequences. It’s crashed the price of natural gas, saving your family $200 this year alone. It’s idled 10,000 uneconomic coalbed methane wells in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It’s triggered a leasing frenzy across Colorado’s Front Range, where the Niobrara play is the hot new ticket.

The blowback is everywhere. Cheap natural gas has enabled utilities to close dozens of sclerotic, polluting coal plants. In response, coal companies propose to export surplus coal to Asia, enabling the Chinese energy appetite to nibble on Wyoming and Montana. Fracking has put a dagger in the nuclear renaissance, and created headwinds for renewables. Fracking, in consort with weak regulations and gutless politicians, is the reason that Pinedale, Wyoming and Vernal, Utah now have worse wintertime smog than L.A., New York, or Houston.

You may say you want a revolution, but generally you don’t. Predictably, fracking—the high-pressure injection of massive amounts of water, sand, and toxic chemicals a mile underground, a technology first developed to unlock Rockies tight gas—has sparked controversy.

It is nearly impossible to turn on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or FOX TV, without finding someone either deploring or celebrating its arrival. Fracking took a whirl in Obama’s State of the Union address. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper records industry-penned radio announcements extolling its safety. Conferences are held, talks are given, arms are waved.

But there’s a key difference between the IT revolution, and these disruptive inventions in oil and gas. The former took over your brain, colonized your internal geography, left you with an iLife. The latter threatens your water, air, the land and wildlife you love, perhaps even your democracy.

Amid the hullabaloo, the larger story has gone missing. With little discussion and less thought, with barely a peep of civic protest, modern technology had married ancient geology. What a fateful union! For this power-struck duo has enshrined oil and gas extraction, harpooning the Earth, as the dominant land use on our continent.

Since year 2000, oil and gas companies have leased a staggering amount of land in the Rockies, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio. Add it all up, and the industry now holds drilling rights to at least ten percent of the Lower 48, more land than is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, more land than we will plant in corn, wheat, and soybeans, about ten times as much acreage as we’ve paved, given over to oil and gas for at least 50 years to come. In Colorado, for example, Encana, Exxon, and a company called Williams own a Yellowstone Park-sized chunk of land in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.

Nearly 50,000 oil and gas wells will be started in the U.S. this year, more than in all other nations combined. Roughly ninety percent of them wouldn’t be spudded unless their target zones could be fracked. Like it or not, and many of my friends seem not to, this technology has become one of the underpinnings of our civilization, as central to it as the cell phone or computer.

Tighter regulations of fracking and indeed the entire petroleum industry are both imminent and long overdue, but this particular horse is long gone from the barn, and rapidly galloping worldwide.

Tags: Consumption & Demand, Energy Policy, Fossil Fuels, Industry, Media & Communications, Natural Gas