About that “We’ve been fracking for 60 years” thing.

If you have been following the fracking debate, odds are, that at some point, either during a glitzy television commercial or in an energy industry press statement, you were reassured that hydraulic fracturing is “an old, time-tested technology” or a process that “has been used for over 60 years”. These claims instill a confidence in the industry and this method of energy production because, by now, it would mean that best practice is in place to limit any possible environmental degradation whilst pursuing energy security.

I fell for it too.

When I first started researching unconventional gas development, Mr Bonang Mohale, the chairman of Shell South Africa repeatedly assured audiences that his company has been fracking “for 60 years, in over 1.1 million wells, in the USA alone”. In support of economic stimulation, job creation and a response to South Africa’s energy crisis, I welcomed this news and repeatedly boasted the fine track record to concerned farmers in the Karoo:

“These companies have been fracking for three times as long as I’ve been alive, I think you’ll be okay Oom.”

But soon after I arrived in the United States, the origin of fracking and the main country currently carrying out the process, I realized how the Karoo community and many others had been duped.

Truth is, we’re talking about an entirely different drilling destination and a new type of technology to take us there.


Since the 1800s, conventional drilling would simply drill down into existing pockets of gas. These deposits had been formed after hydrocarbons had moved from the original formation, up towards the subsurface and become trapped against an impermeable layer of rock.

A typical conventional, vertical well in Pennsylvania; click to enlarge (pic:  Jolynn Minaar).

A typical conventional, vertical well in Pennsylvania. (pic: Jolynn Minnaar).


With hardly any stimulation, these pockets produce a constant supply of gas for 20 to 30 years. Now, with dwindling resources and expanding demand, we’ve reached what Michael Klare has called “the era of extreme energy” whereby traditional energy production moves into hard-to-reach reserves revealing inadequacies in technology as companies encounter unexpected hazards and all the while increase the risk for greater environmental damage.

Case in point: unconventional gas drilling. Now companies are stretching down deeper and then out horizontally to the shale gas that is trapped in its original formation – a flat, relatively impermeable layer of rock.

The latest method of shale gas extraction via high volume, slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing; click to enlarge (pic: Jolynn Minaar).

The latest method of shale gas extraction via high volume, slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing. (pic: Jolynn Minnaar).


High volume, slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing in action; click to enlarge (pic: Jolynn Minaar).

High volume, slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing in action.(pic: Jolynn Minnaar).


Figuring out how to achieve this has certainly been a bumpy road. At one stage, nitroglycerine was used to try and explode shale formations. Think Acme Corporation and the Road Runner. And, right up until the 70s, the US government, under the Energy Research and Development Administration, tried to frack shale wells with atomic bombs. Colorado’s Western Slope was the testing ground for a 43-kiloton “Project Rullison” nuke in 1969 and the triple 30-megaton series that followed in 1972. Think atom bombs more than twice as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. These experiments did more than obliterate the shale, the gas was far too radioactive to use and now the Department of Energy has to babysit those wells for the next thousand years.

The point is, how can one claim that the technology has been time-tested since the 1940s, when the US – the origin of fracking – was still experimenting with underground Hiroshimas up until the 1970s?

Again, as with the confusion around the true definition of ‘fracking’, it comes down to clever wordplay.

It is true that hydraulic fracturing has been used since the 1940s to develop gas or oil in conventional sources. But, there’s “hydraulic fracturing” and then, there’s “multi-stage, slickwater, high volume hydraulic fracturing from subhorizontal wells in an unconventional source”.  According to Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering from Cornell University, this shift in technology started in the 1990s and only once it became viable in the early 2000s did it take off.

Slickwater high volume hydraulic fracturing is distinguished from conventional drilling by substantial technological differences and an increased risk of encountering technological shortcomings and causing environmental damage. Underground, this is a far more aggressive technique with laterals extending in various directions from the vertical well. It requires up to 100x times more fluid which in turn requires more fresh water and chemicals which in turn requires a much larger surface area to accommodate this multi-pad drilling, which then, in order to break even and meet energy forecasts, requires substantial tracts of land that were once natural ecosystems to make way for the swift drilling advancement.

So, to return to Mr Mohale’s claims, we are no longer looking at 60 years nor millions of wells worth of experience. Instead, with roughly a decade’s experience in around 20 000 shale gas wells in only 4 or 5 major shale plays, most would argue that the technology is still in its nascency.

Even the former Vice President for Mobil Oil Corporation expressed his fears around this nascent technology to me. In an interview for Unearthed, Lou Allstadt admits “it seems as though the processes and chemicals being used were done pretty hastily, it was rushed and does not seem well thought out. You dont just take something and increase it by 100 times and hope that it works.”

His concerns are shared. In 2011, the chief marketing operator for Schlumberger, one of the largest companies performing the fracking operations in the US, acknowledged that “the process being used in North America cannot be used overseas” because “they first have to find a better way to do it”.

Sorry Oom. I guess my early optimism had the better of me.


Originally posted on Green 24.

Jolynn Minnaar is the director of the upcoming South African fracking documentary Unearthed. She has spent over 18 months researching fracking and has interviewed close to 400 people on all sides of the debate – from the heads of multinational energy companies and US Senators to hydrogeologists and specialized engineers; from workers in the field to communities living in the gas drilling areas. After filming throughout South Africa, in the US, Canada and the UK, she is at the forefront of information on shale gas extraction and has already presented her findings at various conferences both locally and abroad.


For more info: info@un-earthed.com
or follow @jolynnminnaar on Twitter.


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