Fracking Reality Check

November 17, 2011 | 3 Comments

Many people, the media and press included, are getting progressively more misinformed about oil and gas field reservoir fracturing.  So lets have a big picture review of what the situation is before making silly conclusions.

Frack Off Photo of Fracking Protest Site. Protestors that stormed Cuadrilla’s well site November 2, 2011 said fracking destroys the environment. Click image for the largest view.

Petroleum field hydraulic fracturing is simply forcing fluids and tiny sand sized solids into cracks the pressure creates.  Fracking can be visualized by putting a soft rock in a vise and squeezing it until it breaks apart.  With sedimentary rock like sandstone and shale a vise makes a fine demonstration.

Petroleum is found in sedimentary rocks, which are rocks made from ancient piled up sediment, buried, squeezed and heated until the deposited dirt, sand and organic material simply reforms into a rock.  This isn’t the rock of the earth’s crust like granite and basalt that hold us up out of the hot magma below.  Try putting a granite or basalt rock in the vise and difference will become very clear.  Fracking sedimentary rock isn’t so very hard.

The next thing to keep in mind is sedimentary rock is almost always above the crust rock, unless the crust was broken up and tectonic forces folded the crust rock over the sedimentary rock.  This can be seen in mountains where the crust roils up and falls back over the rock that was above it.  Mountains are regions where the crust is fracturing and fractured from tectonic pressure already released.  Rock fracturing is a natural process that makes soils and sands, which makes life as we know possible.  It’s going on all the time, enhanced by water, air and motion reducing rock to smaller sizes for soil building.

In almost all fracturing situations the fracking work is quite distant from the tectonic plate crust rock.  Even when it’s close though, the pressures needed for the vise effect in the crust rock are very different.  Thus the question about fracking causing earthquakes can be laid to rest; the mechanics and energy involved in the situation simply aren’t there in petroleum field fracking.  Moving or breaking up a tectonic plate with a few trucks and pumps seems, well, silly.

On the other hand, a tremor felt at the surface is a different thing.  Being on site at a fracking job will demonstrate the energies involved.  The trucks, pumps forcing the fluids down and solids are all there with workers operating the process.  While the ground up close to the hole does tremor a bit, the trucks stay put, the people walk around and the process goes on.

A Saturn rocket from the moon shot days released vastly more energy than a fracking job, shaking the air and ground for much greater distances.  One needed to be miles away from a Saturn rocket shot, that energy was being disbursed at ignition into the ground, but from lift off the energy went through gasses and the air before going into the ground.  They were very impressive energy release displays shaking the air and putting tremors into the ground – but no earthquakes.

Tremors are not earthquakes.  For our purposes here an earthquake would be a tectonic plate moving enough to cause a tremor we can measure, and the energies released can be at a scale to destroy buildings, change features of the surface and kill and injure people. These are energy releases that make a Saturn rocket look tiny.

Fracking comes nowhere close to such an energy release.

There is a ‘but’ in all this.  Remember, sometimes a gas or oil deposit is in a mountainous region.  Some mountains are so old they are buried and the surface is now flat.  Mountains are crust forced up, tilting and breaking up the crust into smaller pieces.  Those pieces range in size now from clay particles to as big as a mountain.  Fracking very well could trigger one of those pieces into moving a little bit – and when that happens a tremor sensed locally could be quite impressive if the chunk of rock is big enough and is moved enough.  The other ‘but’ is the rock is buried under thousands of feet of soil and rock and isn’t going to go far or for very long.

Humanity has been releasing energy into the surface of the earth for over a century.  Explosions in mining have set off tremors that up close were very damaging.  It comes as no surprise that pouring energy into the earth is going to have consequences.  But from a reality perspective with some sense, the likelihood that petroleum reservoir fracturing or mining explosions are going to kill us, destroy our property, or cut California off from North America just isn’t within humanities’ grasp of energy management – far far from it actually.

But localized geological circumstances can make explosions and fracturing more noticeable.  There can be a case made for stopping a fracturing job if the surface property is at risk, or an effort made to prevent surface damage.

With over a million petroleum fracturing jobs complete it appears three have induced a seismic event, the latest in England not long ago.  The Brits already knew that the area was apt to have surface seismic events – mining explosions had already shaken the surface. It seems clear there are bits of tectonic crust that can be moved in the area. So consequences can be predicted and precautions applied.

For the other 99.997% of the work, not a worry or concern in sight for tremors and earthquakes.


3 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on November 18, 2011 8:36 AM

    A fraking process is noisy and obvious. So, anything unusual gets blamed on the fraking.

    In certain parts of PA, the water contains large amounts of Methane. That was documented in the 1970’s. But, since they began fraking a few years ago – suddenly people are blaming fraking for the methane. In the propaganda tool ‘Gasland’ – a landowner sets the water on fire. It’s a great scene – but it has nothing to do with fraking. It has to do with disolved Methane in the water.

    Here in NC, the well water at Camp Lejeune is bad. For years, people blamed it on leaking jet fuel storage tanks and they were certain the Marines were covering up the truth. But, the state finally discovered a private dry cleaner was pouring cleaning fluid down his well. That was the real problem.

  2. danindenver on November 19, 2011 6:15 AM

    Sorry, who, exactly is the author of this?

  3. just on February 12, 2012 3:48 AM

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