The hills are alive with the sound of fracking


Bad news, anti-frackers. The hills are alive with the sound of fracking.

According to a recently published report by Leonardo Maugeri, an energy expert at the Kennedy School of Government, fracking isn’t just for shale oil and gas any more. It seems that everyone in the oil patch is doing it — and what’s more, they’ve been doing it for years.

Interesting guy, Maugeri. From 2000 to 2010 he was senior executive vice president of strategy and development for the Italian oil company Eni, the sixth-largest multinational oil company in the world. He’s currently Roy Family Fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

His report “The Shale Oil Boom: A U.S. Phenomenon” makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in understanding the shale oil industry, instead of just sliming it.

It also contained this inconvenient little factoid that bespeaks volumes about the on-going fracking controversy:

In 2011, 95 percent of both the horizontal and vertical wells drilled in the United States were fracked.

In other words, fracking is a routine part of oil and gas well completion these days. The wells that aren’t fracked are the exceptions.

Maugeri got that factoid from a 2011 report produced by the National Petroleum Council, an industry trade group. The report, titled Prudent Development, was prepared by the council at the request of then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The council’s report also mentioned in passing 1) that fracking was first used in 1947, and 2) about 1 million wells have been fracked in the United States since then.

In other words, the American petroleum industry is dependent on fracking for its continued survival and competitiveness.

In other words, without the use of fracking, the domestic oil and gas industry, which currently is increasing production of both gas and oil hand over fist, would instead peter out over the next 10 or 20 years.

And also in other words, those who advocate a ban on fracking are in effect calling for the shutdown of the domestic oil and gas industry.

Shutting down the domestic oil and gas industry is the real agenda of the anti-fracking movement, and chances are that a lot of the anti-fracking activists — especially the movement’s peace and justice/ Occupy Wall Street militants — wouldn’t bother to deny it. Fracking is just a convenient pretext for attacking the industry, not because fracking is particularly dangerous (which it isn’t), but because hardly anyone outside the oil and gas industry had heard of fracking until recently, so it could be portrayed as a sinister new threat, instead of a 60-year-old technology that is a crucial step in drilling nearly all new oil and gas wells — and which has been used safely for decades. (The few accidents that activists have tried to pin on fracking have almost all been traced to shortcomings in other steps of the well drilling process — usually improper casing and cementing of the well.)

It isn’t just fracking that made the shale oil and shale gas booms possible. It was the use of fracking in combination with the newer technology of horizontal drilling that was the real breakthrough.

The American oil industry is totally committed to horizontal drilling; according to Maugeri, 90 percent of the drilling rigs in the country have the capability to drill wells horizontally, often for as much as two miles. Those horizontal laterals can then be fracked in multiple places, vastly increasing the amount of oil a single well can access. This technology has not only made the shale boom possible, it is being used to squeeze more oil out of conventional deposits and additional oil from supposedly depleted fields.

Vertical wells, in contrast, pass through an oil bearing formation top to bottom and are typically in contact with 100 to 200 feet or less of pay — which is only enough surface area of a single frack stage.

Still, that didn’t stop oil companies from drilling — and fracking — more than 20,000 vertical wells in Weld County during the 40 years prior to the current oil and gas boom in the Wattenberg Field.

Those wells don’t seem to have had much adverse impact. Weld County is and has been for years the fourth-most productive agricultural county in the country. And they haven’t kept Weld County from becoming one of the fast-from Page 8 er growing residential counties in the state (current population about 250,000). That rather strongly suggests that the activists’ narrative of the harmful effects of oil drilling and fracking is more imagined than real and ludicrously over-blown.

The real question is why are we even having a discussion about fracking? When a technology has been used a million times over the space of 60 years, and its use has been so uneventful that its very existence remained off most people’s radar until activists started hyperventilating about it, there isn’t much reason to doubt its safety.


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.