Fracking: an Inside Story

(Part III in a series on ‘fracking’. See parts I and II here.)

While it arouses considerable loathing, fracking is in some senses an absolute gift to protestors. The slogans practically write themselves: ‘no fracking way’, ‘frack off’, ‘Lancashire’s not for Shale’, etc. In this regard the anti- brigade are shooting fish in a barrel. They also benefit from a home team advantage at public meetings, where their concerns about the quality of drinking water and the risk of earthquakes seems very reasonable, compared to the position of ‘big oil’.

"Get the frack out of Sussex"

I hope this gentleman is sufficiently clothed, but… um…?

Fracking has an interesting but hardly admirable pedigree. Consider the story of the three businessmen who, in 1864, formed the Dramatic Oil Company: they took out a lease on a property in Pennsylvania, hired staff and set about drilling an oil well. All did not run smoothly, but presently oil was struck and a modest amount was obtained. Seeking to increase the yield, the investors decided to ‘shoot’ the well – to detonate a large amount of gunpowder at depth in order to fracture the surrounding rock. That’s what you did back in 1864, hydraulic fracturing being unknown until 1949… but the blast ruined the well, and ended oil production at the site. This would be nothing but a tiny footnote in the history of the US oil industry, but for the identity of one of the three investors: John Wilkes Booth, who would soon assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If he hadn’t lost the modern-day equivalent of $90,000 on his oil venture, perhaps he’d have stayed in Pennsylvania, and away from Ford’s Theater.

When gunpowder didn’t pack enough punch for the ‘shooting’ of oil and gas wells, there was nitroglycerin: a ‘torpedo’ containing perhaps a couple of hundred litres of the substance would be lowered down the well, and detonated. Nitroglycerin continued to be used until 1990. There were also three experiments in releasing gas from shale through the use of nuclear devices. First there was Project Gasbuggy (29 kilotons) in December 1967; then came Project Rulison (43 kilotons) and Project Rio Blanco (three devices at 33 kilotons each). Conducting twenty-seven nuclear tests between 1961 and 1973 for the purposes of demonstrating non-combat uses for nuclear explosives, Operation Plowshare certainly marks an interesting phase in US history… and one that I’m glad I didn’t have to witness. The three tests that were done for the purposes of fracking showed a very poor return on investment – and yielded a short-lived, radioactive gas supply that was never used commercially.

I learned about John Wilkes Booth’s history as an oil investor, and about atomic fracking, courtesy of John Midgley at a meeting of the Craven & Pendle Geological Society last week. His presentation ‘Fracking – a Geological Perspective’ contained much else besides, and our interest is in hydraulic fracturing rather than in more exotic, explosive solutions to wells running dry… but I enjoyed the history lesson all the same.

Now, I’ll attempt to reproduce more of what I learned from the speaker…

Mr Midgley’s stated aim was not to promote or condemn fracking, but to talk about “how it sits in the current energy landscape”, and as such it matched my hope to learn more about the science and engineering involved.

The speaker had a lot of experience in the industry, and had been fracking overseas more than 25 years ago. One example that he gave involved fracking with acids, to stimulate oil wells by dissolving carbonates, in the Middle East. As I have written before, not all fracking involves shale gas; in fact Mr Midgley reported that “you can frack any well” (and sometimes it happens unintentionally).

He was careful to distinguish between resources and reserves, and commented that the media often fail in this regard. Resources are estimates of the total quantity of oil and gas physically contained in a deposit, while reserves are the subset that can be extracted, subject to technological and economic constraints. Thus, we need to be careful with language when discussing the UK’s shale deposits.

So how big is this gas bonanza that we can anticipate? The shale deposits in the USA are massive, compared to ours. It’s a big country (obviously) with thick seams that are easy to access both physically and legally. Gas quality was also said to be better in the US. Basically, every attempt to prospect for shale gas in the UK has been a disappointment, and the UK has yet to see a single fracked gas well that is commercially viable. Between our less generous deposits and more difficult legislative environment (including far-reaching company liability) UK shale gas looks like something of a hardscrabble proposition.

The UK has three main areas where shale gas might be mined: the Weald basin in the south of England, the Bowland-Hodder formation in the North, and the Midland Valley in Scotland. In the same way that Murphy’s Law dictates that military operations inevitably take place at the intersection between two maps, each on a different scale, studies of the UK’s shale beds seldom use the same unit of measure, but Mr Midgley did his best to interpret the data for us, juggling “barrels” and “trillion cubic feet”. His assessment was that the Weald Basin wouldn’t be exploited because it’s relatively small and “too many policymakers live there”, and that the Bowland-Hodder formation (in what Lord Howell of Guildford called the “desolate north”) was the most promising of the remaining pair, for reasons of logistics, although it in no way resembled the attractiveness of the US gas fields.

Prospective shale gas fields

Anticipated shale gas in the Bowland Basin (BBC news)

Is it worth doing at all? Mr Midgley reported that fracked gas has a good calorific value and requires very little post-processing. In response to an audience question along the lines of “Should we leave it in the ground until later?” he felt that the time was right to commence fracking as it offered a supply of gas for approximately 50 years – if used to top up declining volumes from the North Sea and “keep the lights on” as politicians like to say. Thirty years, he felt, would be sufficient to buy time during which a new generation of nuclear plants could be constructed.

Amid these sometimes gloomy assessments, the audience learned a great deal about the business of drilling for oil and gas, such as how you steer a drill bit, and gauge its position below ground, and what you can and can’t do at the bottom of a very deep hole. We learned about the differences between biogenic and thermogenic methane (something it’s very important to understand before taking everything in Gasland at face value) and about the super-hard, super-expensive form of concrete that is used to line a bore, and how very difficult it is to control (and measure) the integrity of that bore. No apologist for the industry in this regard, Mr Midgley frankly admitted that over time, all wells will leak. He weighed this knowledge in terms of social need versus social impact.

shale gas pad drilling

The presenter scoffed at the idea of drilling ever being as precise as this…

I was interested to see Mr Midgley make reference to the Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1994) and the idea that an acceptable near-future energy mix must be socially just and environmentally bearable, as well as commercially sound. While many people have expressed concerns about the environmental pedigree of fracking, the speaker observed (based on his own career in the oil and gas industry) that much of Britain’s gas comes from nations with highly questionable politics and human rights. This is an interesting thought; we talk about “conflict diamonds” but there is no equivalent dialogue about “conflict gas” and we are quite happy to buy our energy from countries that aren’t democracies. All we tend to hear are the oft-voiced concerns that the present deteriorating relations between the EU and Vladimir Putin’s Russia might result in limitations being placed upon the gas supply from that country.

The audience, of course, consisted primarily of geologists. (Interestingly, the older ones tended to occupy the lower tiers of the auditorium: is this merely expedient, due to hearing loss, or do geologists instinctively mirror the formations that they study?) Anyway, there were some highly pertinent questions from the audience, including one about NORMs: Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials. When you liberate something from below ground, you will often acquire a side-order of radiation. That’s troubling enough where gases such as radon tend to migrate out of the Earth’s crust over time and build up in your basement, but radiation is also a significant issue where fracking fluid is concerned. After the fracking operation, much of the liquid comes burping back out of the ground when you release the pressure, but what do you do with what the industry calls “produced water”? Of the 16,000 cubic metres of water invested in a well, you might expect to get 12,000 back… complete with chemicals such as salts, friction reducers, scale inhibitors, biocides, gelling agents… and a dose of radiation. While some of these things can be removed, Mr Midgley reported that the radioactivity of the fluid was not addressed on site – although it might be diluted, or used in an application where radioactivity is not considered to be an issue. (The example given was that if used in roadmaking, any contamination in the water will be moot since it will be mixed with a naturally radioactive shale material.)

In terms of the quantity of water expended to obtain gas, Mr Midgley dismissed it as “about half what’s used by a golf course in a year”. I’ve heard this analogy before: Brian Dunning reported something similar, although it would appear that a US golf course gets through more water. I think I’d like to know more, though: presumably the water sprinkled on a golf course is a reasonably wholesome runoff, and it remains a part of the water cycle; it doesn’t get locked away far below the water table. But do we even want to get used fracking water back? I simply don’t know. This article suggests we need to do more, though.

Not everything our speaker had to say was accurate, though, if I’m any judge. For example, in endorsing a nuclear future he dismissed wind turbines on the grounds that they “require more carbon than they sequester”, and said that the construction of solar panels was impractical because of the rare earths required for their construction.

With CO2 emissions for wind power ranging from 14 to 33 tonnes per GWh of energy produced (White, 2007), and a typical Energy Return on Investment of 16:1, this blanket dismissal of wind energy was simply wrong. The claim that solar panels require rare earths in their construction is likewise garbled: you might well raise a concern that manufacturing masses of wind turbines is going to require vast quantities of neodymium, the rare earth used in their magnets… but solar panels require silicon (which is relatively abundant, and not a rare earth). I don’t expect a person to be an expert in every field, but a speaker from the oil industry doesn’t do himself any favours when he stumbles like this in his assessment of alternative technologies.

Make of that what you will, but it was a very interesting and at times entertaining evening, and I’m glad to have attended. There were one or two things to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I was impressed with Mr Midgley’s frankness on key issues such as well integrity, and the short useful life of a well.



Elkington, J. (1994) Towards the sustainable corporation: Win-win-win business strategies for sustainable development, California Management Review, Vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 90–100

White, S. W. (2007) Net Energy Payback and CO2 Emissions from Three Midwestern Wind Farms: An Update, Natural Resources Research, Vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 271–281


4 thoughts on “Fracking: an Inside Story

    • Thanks Adam. That’s another minor strike against Fracking, as it’s another causal link between the industry and earthquakes. (Admittedly, rather small quakes.)

      Geologists I’ve spoken to generally agree that Fracking can provide the ‘lubricant’ that triggers an earthquake – the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, if you will. Whether they can trigger a seismic event that wasn’t already predisposed to occur is another matter. Only with good science can we weigh the risk against the energy benefit.

  1. Hello,

    I was referred to this item by someone asking if I had been fairly represented.

    I am pleased to say, yes I am. It is good to see a fair and in context representation of one of my talks as well as constructive criticism (which I will take on board).

    As an update, my stance on wind power is starting to shift. I am involved in research on overcoming intermittency with geological storage – Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). This geoengineering alters the carbon economics and life-cycle assessment massively, especially when the compressed medium is hydrogen compressed into depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs for enrichment.

    At the moment I’m still of the same opinion on solar PV (photo-voltaic), but in fairness I’ve not reviewed the research for a couple of years. I still think the implementation life-cycle of environmental damage and concomitant social impact to exploit raw materials is still too great, and the economic implementation of domestic solar in the UK could well be the next PPI scandal as maintenance costs exceed revenue over the life of the contract. However, as I acquire more data and our world evolves, I’m open to change my views.

    Thank you for holding this out to a wider audience.

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