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Fracking a feat of engineering

I recently watched the documentary film FrackNation, an exposé of environmentalist deceptions surrounding the technology of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). One section of the film gives a nice overview of how the technology of fracking works — and it’s really impressive.

With a series of cartoon-like diagrams, the film lays out how fracking unlocks natural gas from rock. The rock in question is called “shale” and is found about a mile underground. In order to reach it, a well-head is set up and a hole is drilled “200 school buses deep,” into which water under high pressure with a mix of sand and chemicals is sent. The hydraulic pressure of this “fracking fluid” creates tiny cracks in the rock, releasing previously inaccessible natural gas. It only takes three days to frack a well, and after that, a steady stream of natural gas will flow back up to the well-head for up to forty years.

As the film explains, even though this technique of natural gas extraction has been around for many years (I learned that the first frack well was drilled in Kansas in 1947), there has been a recent breakthrough in drilling technique. Hold on to your helmets because the invention is a game-changer.

It used to be the case that the drilling could only go straight down into the ground beneath the well-head. If there was more shale underneath a farm down the road, a new well-head had to be built down the road to access it. The latest invention is a drill bit that can take a sharp turn once underground. The drill goes down and then makes a ninety degree turn, drilling out horizontally for up to a mile. The horizontal hole plunges right through the middle of a layer of shale rock, like a bent straw in a giant birthday cake, accessing an entire layer of frosting. After hydraulic pressure creates the tiny cracks, those cracks are held open by the sand contained in the fracking fluid, and the natural gas released is then slurped into the horizontal hole and back up to the well-head on the surface.

From a single well-head, many of these underground straws can be drilled shooting out radially to unlock natural gas. That means fewer well-heads are needed and more shale can be accessed, regardless of what is on the surface above the rock.

It also means that what used to be known as just “the ground” across huge swaths of the United States is now suddenly valuable. According to some estimates, the gas contained in shale rock could power the world for hundreds of years or more.

Fracking is a controversial environmental topic, and FrackNation digs deep into that controversy. The film is mainly a (much-needed) response to another documentary on the subject, one that contains some sensational footage that needed to be unmasked.