Hydraulic fracturing started out as an "exploding torpedo" back in 1865. Today, nearly 150 years later, the actual process has made giant technological strides, but now, it's the topic that's explosive.
Over the holidays, I was part of, or aware of, several conversations about fracking.
From my speaking and writing on the topic, from radio interviews with listener call-ins, and private conversations, I know that when the topic of fracking comes up, reactions are often explosive -- even to the point of causing family feuds. People react dramatically because of a lack of understanding about the process -- with the biggest concerns being about water, chemicals, and flaming faucets.
There are accusations that fracking is taking billions of gallons of water out of the hydrologic cycle -- which poses an exacerbated problem in the arid Southwest.
The process of hydraulic fracturing has advanced from the first nitroglycerin "torpedo" that was shot down a well hole on April 25, 1865, and well acidizing that was used in the 1930s to enhance productivity, to the modern mix of high pressure, water, and chemicals that began in 1947 in Grant County Kansas -- and it continues to evolve.
In a piece addressing water used in fracking, The Economist describes the process this way: "Water injected at high pressure into rock deep underground during the process of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking,' often returns to the surface as brine, having picked up a lot of salt on its journey. It is also contaminated with chemicals from the fracking process itself."
Today, less and less freshwater is being used. A typical frack job can use 2 million to 3 million gallons of water and lasts about 3 days. The procedure can result in decades of oil or gas production.
With the development of new technologies, the fracking process can be done with brackish water that may be as much as ten times as salty as seawater. Producers in west Texas are fracking with the brackish water from the Santa Rosa aquifer. They are then recycling the produced water -- a byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling, and the flowback water -- the fluid pushed back out of the well during fracking. Both forms of wastewater have historically been trucked to underground disposal wells.
Now, instead of trucking wastewater to a remote location, mobile systems can treat the water onsite and condition it to meet almost any specification the driller wants --resulting in a reduction of expensive truck traffic. The portable systems can treat 20,000-30,000 barrels of water per day.
These new water solutions can reduce the total dissolved solids in the water from as high as 200,000 to below 200. For reference, the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for drinking water is 500. The same water can be recycled and used over and over again.
The result of these new procedures is, according to The Economist: "Clean water …pure enough to be used for irrigation, or even drinking water. …Alternatively, it can be re-injected into the ground during the next frack."
Rather than taking water out of the hydrologic cycle, the oil-and-gas industry is actually often taking formerly unusable water, using it in fracking and then cleaning it up to a level where it can be introduced into the cycle as either irrigation or drinking water.
Many companies are developing revolutionary water treatment processes that neuter one of the biggest arguments against fracking.
In a Christmas conversation, I was asked: "Why do they need chemicals? Why don't they just frack with water?"
I explained that the so-called chemicals are needed to provide lubrication for the tiny particles of sand that hold open microscopic cracks in the "fractured" rock that allow the oil or gas to escape. "As a woman, I am sure you've had your fingers swell. That makes it hard to get your rings off." She nodded. "What do you do then?" I queried. "Soap up my hands," she replied.
That is the role the chemicals play in the fracking process. But those chemicals are now mostly food-based and can be consumed with no ill effects -- both Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper and CNBC's Jim Cramer have had a drink.
So, even if the chemicals did somehow defy geology and migrate several miles from the fracked well through the layers of sedimentary rock to the aquifer, they are not harmful.
Stories about flaming faucets are real, but they have nothing to do with fracking. Natural gas, or methane, was found in water wells long before any fracking was done in the area. In fact, it was the gassy smell that often alerted explorers to the potential oil and gas in the region. Oil-and-gas drilling didn't cause the flaming faucet phenomenon.
Lies about hydraulic fracturing are rampant. If fossil fuel opponents can spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about fracking -- with the goal of causing a federal fracking ban, they can virtually stop oil-and-gas development in America, as it is estimated that 95 percent of producing wells have been fracked. Without American ingenuity and increasing production, gasoline prices and utility bills will skyrocket. Economic ruin will reign. America will, once again be beholden to increasingly hostile foreign sources.
A fracking conversation shouldn't be explosive. Today's hydraulic fracturing is really benign, American technology that is ecologically sound and economically advantageous. Keep these facts in mind. Not everyone will listen -- but if more people know the truth they can help de-fuse the explosive conversation.