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Barry Stevens

Barry Stevens

Dr. Barry Stevens has over 25 years of proven international experience building technology-driven enterprises and bringing superior products and services to market ahead of the…

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The Benefits of Shale Gas Far Outweigh the Negatives of Fracking

Natural gas is a critical feedstock to many chemical production processes, and has many environmental benefits over coal as a fuel for electricity generation; over electricity and traditional heating fuels in the industrial, commercial and residential sectors; and over gasoline as a fuel for the transportation industry. Because natural gas has the lowest carbon content of all fossil fuels and not a mixture of other carbon containing compounds with other inorganic impurities, it is the cleanest “burning” fossil fuel, including lower emissions of sulphur, metal compounds, and carbon dioxide. But to produce natural gas from shale has some questionable environmental, safety and health risks. These environmental issues are the result of modern methods of subsurface extraction. Specifically, the unconventional methods involve horizontal drilling and “fracking” or more formally “hydraulic fracturing.”

Fracking is a current societal hot a button. Almost as pervasive as the subject of Climate Change! Both topics give rise to highly polarized groups with strong unwavering sentiments. These groups are mirrored by disbelievers basing opinions on perception and anecdotal information rather than facts.

Some may say the facts are generated by insidious conspirators, be it Big Oil, government officials, the commercial sector and the scientific community, who have a vested interest in hiding the truth. To some degree this may be a valid statement. But, as will be seen later in this discussion, there are some reputable, independent and impartial studies that can be used to understand the truth.

This discussion hopes to present an honest and unbiased viewpoint of fracking and horizontal drilling. If there is any bias, it’s towards a more realistic perspective of doing the right thing to achieve a cleaner and more prosperous world. This discussion is a continuation in part of “Natural Gas: The Cleaner Environment.”

Fracking is a process to unlock vast reserves of shale gas. In fracking, large volumes of water and sand, along with chemical additives, are injected under high pressure into a well bore to create small cracks (fissures) in hard shale formations that allow the gas to flow to the surface. Fracking goes back about 60 years.

According to Hydraulic Fracturing: History of an Enduring Technology, fracking is not a new technology. “It can be traced to the 1860s, when liquid (and later, solidified) nitroglycerin (NG) was used to stimulate shallow, hard rock wells in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Although extremely hazardous, and often used illegally, NG was spectacularly successful for oil well “shooting.” The object of shooting a well was to break up, or rubblize, the oil-bearing formation to increase both initial flow and ultimate recovery of oil. This same fracturing principle was soon applied with equal effectiveness to water and gas wells.

“Then in 1947 Stanolind Oil conducted the first experimental fracturing in the Hugoton field located in southwestern Kansas. The treatment utilized napalm (gelled gasoline) and sand from the Arkansas River. Since 1949, when fracturing was formally introduced, close to 2.5 million fracture treatments have been performed worldwide.”

Fracking made extraction of natural gas from shale layers commercially viable. Natural gas is tightly bound in the dense shale layers, and therefore, hard to release. Fracking both creates fissures in the rock and keeps them open for a sustained outflow of the gas. When used in conjunction with horizontal drilling, more surface area of the gas containing shale layer is exposed to the fracking fluid. This dramatically increases the yield of natural gas and shifts the economics to a much more favorable position.

How Fracking Works

The controversy over fracking has to do with health and safety concerns and the impact on the environment. These are by far not trivial issues. So what
 is it about fracking that raises these concerns? Fracking is subsurface, high pressure, water intensive and contains chemical additives. All of this sets the stage for groundwater contamination.

What can be reliably said of fracking comes from MIT’s Energy Initiative study. The study was a multidisciplinary effort carried out by a team of Institute faculty, staff and graduate students with advice from a board of 18 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups.

The study found:
• “….. only 42 documented incidents of such problems (water contamination), out of tens of thousands of wells drilled.”

• “….. the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable,”

• “…..  the small number of cases where there has been contamination, the problem has stemmed from improper cementing of the well casings.”

• “….. “The quality of that cementing is the area where the industry has to do a better job,”

Fracking wells are between 5,000-10,000 feet deep and uses between 3-5 million gallons of water per well. The fracking fluid is a proprietary slurry mixture consisting of no less than 98% water and sand. The remaining 2% or less includes 3–12 chemical additives most of which are commonly used with little or no health risks. Though several are classified as toxic or hazardous, only one – ethylene glycol (automotive antifreeze) can be harmful or fatal if swallowed.

Specifically, fracking fluid contains:

Fracking Fluid

The toxic or hazardous substances including their health from U.S. Material Safety Data Sheets are:

• Glutaraldehyde -  Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation (lung irritant, lung sensitizer).

• Ammonium persulfate  – Harmful if swallowed

• N,n-dimethyl formamide – Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, permeator), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation.

• Guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose – Severe eye irritant. Harmful if swallowed or inhaled, and in contact with the skin. Laboratory experiments have shown mutagenic effects.

• Ethylene glycol – Harmful or fatal if swallowed, harmful if inhaled or absorbed through skin, may cause allergic skin reaction, may cause irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, affects central nervous system.

Another concern with shale gas is the impact of local air quality and release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas with the ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide.

Potential emission sources include compressor engine exhausts and oil/condensate tanks, production equipment, well drilling and fracking engines, well completions, gas processing, transmission and the large number of supporting components such as pumps, flanges, valves, gauges, pipe connectors, compressors, and other pieces.

According to NatrualGas.org:

• “….. although methane emissions account for only 1.1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential.”

• “….. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself.”

• “….. in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation. The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity”.

• “….. In 1993, the natural gas industry joined with EPA in launching the Natural Gas STAR Program to reduce methane emissions. The STAR program has chronicled dramatic reductions to methane emissions, since that time”.

• “….  the increased use of natural gas in the place of other, dirtier fossil fuels can serve to lessen the emission of greenhouse gases in the United States.”

This does not suggest society should turn a blind eye. Far from it! According to a report issued by Southern Methodist University, cost effective control strategies are readily available that can substantially reduce emissions, and in some cases, reduce costs for oil and gas operators.

These options include:

• use of “green completions” to capture methane and VOC compounds during well completions,

• phasing in electric motors as an alternative to internal-combustion engines to drive compressors,

• the control of VOC emissions from condensate tanks with vapor recovery units, and

• replacement of high-bleed pneumatic valves and fittings on the pipeline networks with no-bleed alternatives.

The knowhow exists to minimize the environmental, safety and health risks of shale gas extraction. Some remedies include:

• intensifying on-site oversight,

• closing loopholes that exempt fracking from key federal air and water environmental regulations,

• toughening up the permitting process and ordnances,

• ensuring production companies follow industry best practices,

• implementing more air and water testing, requiring drillers to publically disclose the chemical additives used in the fracking fluid, which up to now was consider a trade secret,

• developing new rules over the disposal of the fracking waste water, and


• identifying cost-effective emissions control procedures.

In addition to the environmental and health benefits of natural gas over other fossil fuels, the final caveat to this discussion is the economic benefits from shale gas production.

Recently the IHS Global Insight reported:

“….. natural gas “shale gale” that began in the Barnett Shale is having “profound economic impacts” on the U.S. economy — creating jobs, reducing consumer costs for natural gas and electricity and escalating federal, state and local tax revenues,”

“….. shale gas development, after contributing $76.9 billion to the nation’s economic output in 2010, will add $118.2 billion in 2015 and $231.1 billion in 2035.”

“….. in 2010, the shale gas industry supported more than 600,000 jobs; that number will likely grow to nearly 870,000 by 2015 and 1.6 million-plus by 2035.”

“….. savings from lower natural gas prices, as well as associated lower prices for other consumer purchases, will add an average $926 in disposable income per household annually from 2012 to 2015 and more than $2,000 annually by 2035.”

“….. the shale gas industry and related jobs pay higher wages — an average $23.16 per hour — than those in manufacturing, transportation and education.”

“….. the boom in domestic gas production has held down natural gas prices and thus electric rates in Texas because gas is burned to generate much of the power.”

“….. as a transportation fuel, compressed natural gas is cleaner-burning and much cheaper than gasoline,”

As shown, condemnation of fracking makes little sense; control of fracking makes much sense. Societal issues are not black and white. Everything has risks. Our job is to manage these risks while exploiting the benefits of shale gas. Today, the U.S. and other countries of the world find themselves in a precarious “energy” position.

Renewable energy has yet to make a significant impact on our energy mix. Nuclear energy is more highly charged issue. Conventional hydroelectric is locked up in its own environmental constraints. Traditional fuels are continuing to increase in cost and adversely affect the environment and the health of the public. Other than natural gas, there are few viable choices for the near future.

Possibly not a fair comparison, but from 1899-2010 there were 3,513,897 motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S. In 2010 alone, there were 32,708 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. Based on these shocking statistics, it’s curious why the same people wanting to ban fracking are not calling for a total ban on?

Few are elated when they receive higher utility bills and pay more for gasoline at-the-pump. All want the most bang for their buck. All want assurance that electricity and heat is available upon the flick of the switch. If society was willing to pay any price for what they get while making significant sacrifices to their lifestyle and comfort, the equation might be in favor of clean and renewable fuels. But people for the most part are not willing to pay more for commodities like electricity and gasoline and change the way they live. That is a plain and simple fact.

In closing, it’s a desirable goal to rebalance our economy’s energy production and consumption from fossil fuels to cheap clean fuels. For this to happen, our government must enact a true clean energy policy and aggressively fund related programs. It’s clear that this is not in the cards. In the meantime, the U.S. has little choice but to leverage its abundant natural gas reserves as a transitional bridge until such time that our government “walks the talk.”

Shale gas is transformative and can play a major role towards achieving energy security, economic prosperity and a cleaner environment. This will buy time while renewable energy develops into an economically reliable source of energy. Until our law makers wake up to the realities of their fiddling while we continue to burn dirty fossil fuels, these environmental and health issues will continue to plague our society.

If there is a more realistic solution adoptable today without pain in the pocket book and lifestyle than pushing natural gas forward with adequate controls, please speak up.

By. Dr. Barry Stevens

Dr. Barry Stevens has over 25 years of proven international experience building technology-driven enterprises and bringing superior products and services to market ahead of the competition. He is the founder of TBD America Inc., a technology business development group. In this role, he is responsible for monetizing technologies and leading globally-competitive companies to higher levels of revenue, earnings, and growth. Please visit TBD's website at http://www.tbdamericainc.com and his blog at http://barryonenergy.wordpress.com

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  • Fred Banks on December 28 2011 said:
    Some of this sounds good, but there is not enough evidence available to convince really smart people that shale gas is a certificable 'game changer'. As a matter of fact, some of the persons using the expression 'game changer' simply dont know what they are talking about.I see no reason however to look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm going through my notes for a short course in energy economics, and I have more or less decided to stay away from this topic. There are some riddles here that need to be cleared up although, admittedly, some of the condemnation of shale gas sounds looney tune to me. Time alone will tell.
  • daj on January 01 2012 said:
    Here are a few things the author failed to mention. In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Per an April, 2011 congressional report (Committee on Energy and Commerce): "From 2005-09, 14 leading gas co's used fracturing products containing 750 chemicals, 29 of which are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act."Readers should know there have been hundreds of reports of contaminated water associated with fracking, but in Dec 2011 the EPA found the first official link between contaminated drinking water and synthetic fracking fluids. The industry responded as expected, just as it did when it was proposed that PCBs be banned in the 1970s: the EPA misconstrued the data, the link was not certain, it was based on questionable science, etc.There are plenty of red flags with regard to this technology, a precautionary approach if not a ban is well justified.
  • Ed Fry on January 01 2012 said:
    :D Fracking not new? And your point?? The Bush Administration and oil execs were well acquainted with "fracking" which is why they hid the damn thing in the energy bill as an exemption to the Clean Water Act. It was not casual. Not an accident. They knew how toxic fracking was. You can post all the silly cartoons you want of fake wells fingering neatly below the earth's surface, away from any water supply. It doesn't work that way. Fracking is so toxic that drillers would not go forward until they got legal immunity. And that's what Bush and Cheney gave them. Fracking is dangerous business and we could end up polluting the water for millions of people with no way to fix it. There is no Plan B to this damage. We need the gas. Yes. But we need the clean water more.
  • Skooter on January 02 2012 said:
    The way we conduct our lives at present requires the production of vast amounts of energy... Indefinitely! Because of such great demand for energy, we are biased toward ignoring possible adverse effects and external costs. If we were rational, we would live frugal lives, end continuous growth and err on the side of caution. Why? Because Fracking, along with our entire carbon based economy, is an EXPERIMENT. We don't know the end results. One very probable outcome of our behaviors, according to studies such as the Limits To Growth model, is an ecological Overshoot and Collapse. This is quite possibly the trajectory we are on. Fracking, at least to me, is just an indication of a Full Speed Ahead approach while approaching a narrow channel (i.e. Natural Limits). It just doesn't make sense! IMHO, We need to slow down.
  • alan davies on February 01 2014 said:
    1. "Fracking" of conventional vertical wells has indeed been done since 1947. However the 'fracking' currently being considered in the UK has not been done since 1947, it was developed around 1996 by Halliburton and is High Volume Slickwater Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing. Media claims that thousands of wells have been safely 'fracked' here is DELIBERATE OBFUSCATION and intentionally confusing the old type of 'conventional' fracking with the new 'unconventional' fracking.

    2. We do not have plenty of wide open space in the UK as they do in the USA. The population of the fracked areas of Wyoming for example is about 1 person per square mile, in Texas it is around 20. The population of the UK is around 1250 per square mile, in Sussex for example it is 430. If you believe any comparisons to the US that you are hearing from politicians you are being totally blindsided.

    3. It will not make our GAS cheaper. Unlike the US we are part of the EU and would be bound by their rates. We wouldn't suddenly be able to start selling gas to ourselves cheaper than, let's say Norway, already do. Our energy secretary has said himself that it won't lower gas prices. (However it will drastically lower the value of all homes near industrialised areas.)

    4.If you think fracking can be done with one "tiny drilling site" you have not done your homework. Fracking requires THOUSANDS of "tiny drilling sites" (which are actually at least the size of a football field) connecting roads, pipelines, compressor stations, water treatment plants, waste water storage- Infact massive scale industrialisation of the landscape - just take a look at some pictures of Pennsylvania or Texas http://commonsensecanadian.ca/birds-eye-view-texas.../

    5. The geology of the UK means that we have tight shale (unlike the US where it mostly loser shale) This means it will be harder to 'frack'. This means greater levels of chemical injection at greater pressures would be required to release any gas. All of this means greater RISK.

    If you haven't engaged seriously with this issue then here is a good place to start http://frack-off.org.uk/campaign-materials/science-and-data. The evidence from the USA as to the health effects and environmental devastation caused by fracking is growing by the week. Take a look at the Pennsylvania list of the harmed. (perhaps you would like to sit in a room with any of the 2,500 people on this list who've had their health affected and tell them that fracking is completely safe??)

    PLEASE be sure to always check who has funded papers on the safety of fracking. When you scratch the surface you will find that the peer-reviewed independent study, such as this http://www.news.cornell.edu/.../fracking-leaks-may-make... paints a VERY different picture than that our government would have us believe.

    We all live here and all depend on our most valuable resource which is NOT gas- it is WATER which comes predominantly from the chalk aquifers. Fracking uses VAST quantities of fresh water and then renders it unusable. It also risks contaminating water through leaks, accidents and spills.
    ( Again spend some time looking at the work of Dr Tony Ingraffea, as I can assure you he knows more about well integrity, and that all wells leak after a 5 year period)
    We have a responsibility to think seriously about this issue for the sake of our children. It is not enough to repeat lines from David Cameron and think his assurances are proof enough to make us feel safe.
  • Lil' ? on November 18 2014 said:
    Thank you for this article. It really opens your eyes to both sides, pros and cons.
  • Alex on October 24 2017 said:
    Thanks for this article it helped me for a lot of things

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