The “fracking” lie about clean gas

From the blog

Some basic facts about Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing also called fracking is a modern technique for getting natural gas out of the ground. President Obama talks about “clean-burning” natural gas. Some experts claim that USA can extract enough gas from fracking to power this energy hungry nation for 100 years. However, there is a darker side to story.

  • Many of USA’s 500,000 oil and gas wells use fracking. Each fracking well needs 400 large truckloads of water every day, putting a strain on scarce water resources in dry regions.
  • The water is mixed with 300+ dangerous chemicals and sand and pumped underground, when it comes back up with the oil and gas much is left in toxic ponds. From here it can pollute land, air and water and cause cancer and other illnesses in people, animals and plants.
  • Fracking wells leak methane to the atmosphere. This is a strong green house gas. Therefore natural gas from fracking probably creates even more climate change than coal.
  • Fracking may cause earthquakes.
  • Most fracking wells run dry in a few years. Therefore drilling must continue at a feverish pace to keep production going and the talk about 100 years of supplies is probably very exaggerated.
  • If the enormous investments in fracking had been used to build windmills and solar power, we would be much further on the road towards a green economy and production that does not destroy nature and people.

The mirage of USA as the new Saudi Arabia of oil and gas

The US Energy Information Agency expects that USA in 2013 will become the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. The energy content of these two fuels will equal 25 million barrels of oil per day. In just 5 years US production has increased more than 30%.

The reason is rapid expansion of oil and gas extraction from shale rock using “hydraulic fracturing” technique known as fracking. Some energy “experts” talk about USA as the new Saudi Arabia of energy production.

Listen to what the US environmental agency – EPA has to say: 

Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future. The U.S. has vast reserves of natural gas that are commercially viable as a result of advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies enabling greater access to gas in shale formations. Responsible development of America’s shale gas resources offers important economic, energy security, and environmental benefits.

This sounds good but what is this “fracking”?

Here are two definitions of fracking from the on-line urban dictionary:

1.      A new way of extracting oil from shale gas deposits via hydraulic fracturing.

2.      A polite substitute for “fucking”.

The other view of fracking

Many people living near fracking wells in USA see the “natural gas” boom as a disaster. In his films Gasland and Gasland 2, Josh Fox, tells about the devastating effects of fracking. In a famous scene he shows how “water” coming out of the tap in his house can burn because it is contaminated with natural gas.

So what to think?

The origin of oil and natural gas?

Coal, oil and natural gas are fossil fuels. They come from plants and organisms that lived millions of years ago. Geological movements pushed them underground. With the right pressure and temperature buried biomass turn into coal, oil or gas.

If the biomass is pushed more than 2500 meters underground a process called “cracking” will start that turns it into oil. When the material reach down more than 5000 meters the cracking will break it down further to natural gas.

Because oil and gas are lighter than the underground rock they will “try to” move upward over time. But a lot is stuck, scattered in such small amounts that it will never become feasible to bring the fossil fuels up to the ground for use. What interest oil companies is, of course, the “assessable” oil and gas.

If the rock is porous and has cracks, oil can move upward in some cases until it reaches the surface such as in Canada where there are large areas of so-called tar sands, sand mixed with heavy oil. Gas being an air will in such case leak slowly into the atmosphere.

However, often oil and gas on its way to the surface meets a layer of hard rock, called a cap rock, which will stop it from moving further up, instead it will assemble in an underground deposit.

A large deposit is the oil drillers dream. Under the Persian Gulf the world’s largest deposits of easily assessable oil and gas can be found, because this area has a very solid layer of cap rocks. This is why wars have been fought over oil and gas in Iran, Kuwait and Iraq.

A short history of oil production

Modern extraction of oil started 150 years ago in Pennsylvania, USA, when Edwin Drake drilled and found oil that could be used commercially. Soon there were many other drillers. The most famous was Nelson Rockefeller.  He also owned the railways that transported the oil. He used this control to get hold of most of the American oil and around 1900; he became the world’s first billionaire. (If we adjust for inflation 1 billion USD in 1900 is equal to 400 billion USD today). Rockefeller’s old company, Standard Oil, is today called Exxon. It is the most profitable multinational company in the world.

When gas in the old days was found together with the oil, the gas was of no use, as it could not be transported. It was instead burnt off in a huge flame to avoid explosions. In the last 50 years, however, natural gas has become very valuable as gas pipelines and ships for transporting compressed natural have been developed.

For many years USA was the world’s largest oil and gas producer, but in 1970 the production peaked, production started to fall and Saudi Arabia and Russia became larger producers, i.e. until the “fracking” boom of the last few years.

How to get the oil out of the ground?

When the oil driller reaches a big deposit, the underground pressure will for some time push the oil and gas out of the ground, but when there is not enough pressure, the flow will stop. At this stage there is usually 90% of the oil left. Therefore techniques have been developed to get some of the remaining oil out, such as injecting water or air into the well to increase pressure, heating the oil underground or adding chemicals that make the oil flow faster. With these methods it is usually possible to get more than 50% of the oil out.

An aggressive technique used already in 1800s, was to detonate dynamite in the oil well so as to fracture the rock whereby the oil could flow through new cracks in the rock. But often this method did not yield much oil.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Traditionally oil drillers look for oil and gas in porous rock such as limestone and sandstone where oil and gas can move more easily. Shale is another type of rock that is relatively soft, but with few cracks. Therefore oil and gas in this rock is widely scattered and previously it was regarded as in assessable

Around 2000, some oil companies started to drill for oil and gas in shale rock using a new method.

They first drill down to the layer of shale rock. From here the drill is turned 90% and continues horizontally through this layer for one or more km. From the same platform 12 holes are drilled that moves horizontally in each their direction, like one direction for each hour on a watch.

Next comes the fracking. It is called hydraulic fracturing because it uses water, large amounts of water pumped down under high pressure. To this water is added sand and a strong cocktail of chemicals. The sand functions as sandpaper opening up cracks in the rock. The chemicals react with the oil so that it flows better and releases natural gas. The liquid is pumped back up now full of oil and gas.

The development of fracking in USA

USA today has 515,000 oil and gas wells. Some energy experts within the oil business proclaim that by using the fracking technique there are enough natural gas reserves to power USA for the next 100 years. President Obama, who does not deny global warming, said in a speech in August 2013:

“Now even as we’re producing more domestic oil, we’re also burning more clean-burning natural gas than any country on earth. And again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but we should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because in the medium-term at least, it can provide not only safe cheap power, but it can only help reduce our carbon emissions.”

Obama tries to tell us that “clean-burning natural gas” will “reduce our carbon emissions”. The official statistics also shows falling US CO2 emissions because more energy comes from natural gas. However, this statistic is flawed because it does NOT include gas leaks from the fracking wells. In reality shale gas probably produces MORE greenhouse gasses than coal. (More about that later).

The reality is that USA is drilling new fracking wells at a feverish pace. In 2000, USA had 340,000 oil and gas wells. By 2011, the number had increased to 515,000. That was an increase of 50%. Some communities with a lot of new fracking activity have become boom towns, where newly arrived men live in temporary dormitories earning quick money, spending Saturday night in local bars and night clubs .

Fracking is toxic

When oil industry claims there is so little pollution from fracking that we don’t need to worry, they are in denial of the facts. To keep a shale gas well going it needs 400 large truckloads of water every day. This water is mixed with more than 300 chemicals and pumped underground to get the gas and oil out of the ground. Many of these chemicals are very toxic. When the mixture is pumped back up it has absorbed not just oil and gas but also mercury, uranium, lead, radium and other toxic substances.

When oil and gas have been taken out and some water is recycled into the well, the poisonous leftover mixture is dumped in large ponds, which keep growing. Sometimes there is a leak and poisons get into rivers or into groundwater. If a local municipal water treatment facility wants to clean the water it is difficult because the chemicals used in fracking are company secrets that the authorities are not allowed to know.

Birds that dive into the toxic ponds may die from the pollution. The smell from the ponds can be very bad for neighbors and some get cancer and other illnesses.

When local people affected try to get compensation from the oil companies they usually only get something if they sign a promise never to talk about their experience with journalists or others. Hereby the oil companies try hide bad stories from the public.

When there is a big storm and flooding in an area with fracking, poisons from numerous fracking ponds is spread to a wide area with unknown consequences, as happened in Arizona in September 2013, when the state had its biggest rainfall in 1000 years.

Fracking may cause earthquakes

Another danger from fracking that the oil companies don’t want you to know about is that it can cause manmade earthquakes. Fracking softens the underground rock. This might provoke an earthquake, and many smaller earthquakes have been registered in areas with heavy fracking activity.

The protest movement against fracking

In many communities with fracking or where fracking is planned, local people get together to protest. New York State has a big potential for fracking. Here the protests have lead to a temporary ban on all fracking.

The problem is that fracking may pollute the Hudson River than runs to New York City and could destroy the drinking water supplies for 10 million people. The environmental cost for people of a big fracking accident in New York State would therefore be catastrophic. But oil companies have not given up and continue to lobby for development of fracking.

Until now fracking has been used mostly in USA and Canada, but oil companies want to start in Europe. France has banned fracking and other countries have tight rules, but in Northern England so-called “exploratory” fracking has been started, but also here is a growing movement against the practice. China is in dire need of more energy and has big reserves of shale gas underground. However, deposits are mostly in the dry interior of country where it might be impossible to get hold of the water needed for fracking.

Fracking is not a Bridge to a Green economy but a Bridge to Hell

Fracking can create serious pollution of land, air and water and may even create earthquakes. Yet, Obama is proud of this energy source and talks about “clean-burning natural gas” that reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses.

While coal does not releases greenhouse gasses until it is burnt, natural gas or methane is itself a potent greenhouse gas. 1 kg of methane creates 100 times more global warming than 1 kg of CO2. This means that even a small leak of natural gas during extraction will contribute a lot to global warming.

If just 3.2% of the natural gas is leaked to the atmosphere during extraction, then use of the natural gas produces the same amount of global warming as coal. The industry claim the leakage is less than 1%, but independent experts estimate the leakage to between 4% and 8%, which makes shale gas even more dangerous for our climate than coal.

Obama is careful in his wording. He says: “clean-burning natural gas”. It is correct that natural gas during the burning process is cleaner than if coal was burnt, but it is DENIAL when he uses this as an argument for fracking, because even though the burning of the gas is cleaner than coal burning, the production of shale gas creates a lot of toxic pollution and the total amount of greenhouse gasses is in all likelihood greater than from burning of coal. 

The reality is furthermore that cheaper natural gas from fracking has slowed down development of wind and solar energy in USA, and probably also in other countries because USA now exports more cheap coal because of its rising production of natural gas for own use.

Some of the fracking supporters call the technology “a bridge fuel on the road towards a greener future”, but the fact is that shale gas is not a bridge to a green economy.

It is a bridge to the Hell of relentless climate change.

Fracking is not a 100-year fairy tale

When climate change deniers have lost the arguments, and reluctantly must concede that greenhouse gasses do in fact create global warming and climate, they turn to the economic argument, which sound something like this: “We cannot stop burning fossil fuels, because then our economy and our society will collapse”.

The supporters of fracking echo this argument. Yes, they know that natural gas from fracking releases some greenhouse gasses, but USA and the world needs cheap fuel.

Some of the experts believe that there is enough shale oil and gas to fuel USA for 100 years without having to import any fuel. Despite the little problem with greenhouse gasses oil companies, the US Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama want us to fell good and happy about fracking and the falling price of natural gas in the USA.

But is this a 100-year fairy tale?

The fossil fuel companies can earn a profit on shale oil and gas because they have received multiple tax breaks from the US government, have benefitted from research done at universities for government money, pay very little for the right to drill – and are never forced to pay the real environmental cost of fracking. Instead local people, plants and animals are left to suffer.

Investments in fracking have been enormous. USA has over 500,000 oil and gas wells. Saudi Arabia that produces almost as much oil and gas does so with only 3,000 oil and gas wells. This is because very many of the US wells are not very productive despite the highly praised and very expensive fracking technology with horizontal drilling.

The talk about energy for 100 years is more sales talk than reality. Whereas many traditional oil wells can be in operation for years before they slowly decline, a fracking well has a short lifetime. After 3 years the average fracking well produces only 10% of the volume when it started. Therefore new wells have to be drilled all the time to keep up production.

Oil companies begin by drilling the most promising sites. When these are taken, they turn to less attractive locations. This means that over time it becomes more difficult to find a good spot to drill.

In some of the older shale gas fields that have existed for several years this is already happening. It is likely than the whole fracking business will be in decline only 10 years from now, leaving USA and other countries with serious pollution problems and huge misinvestments that could have been used to build a better future but now have made the future for all more uncertain. 


Those who praise shale gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing as a “temporary” solution to global warming and climate change are in denial of the grave environmental problem and in particular of the greenhouse gasses released. Furthermore, shale gas is a very shortsighted investment that yields fortunes for some over few years and then leaves a destroyed landscape behind.

If all this money had been invested in wind and solar power our common future would now look a lot brighter.


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