Apr 19, 2016 - 11:45am

Why is Fracking a Dirty Word? An Explainer on America’s Shale Energy Boom.

Senior Editor, Digital Content


A hydraulic fracturing site located atop the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania.

For some people—especially presidential candidates—fracking is a dirty word that brings up fears of contaminated ground water. But for many people they simply don’t know much about it other than it’s riled up environmental activists, energy advocates, and politicians. They don’t realize the incredible effect fracking has had on American energy production.

If you are one of those people, want to know more about what fracking is, and wondering what the debate is about keep reading. If you don’t, watch this.

What is Fracking?

Fracking creates tine, micro cracks in rocks deep underground, so we can get the oil and natural gas trapped inside it.

Before fracking became widely used, companies drilled vertical holes into underground pools of oil and natural gas deposits. But geologists knew there was more energy down there, trapped in rock called shale.

Think of shale like a slice of birthday cake, only if you took a bite into it you would crack your teeth.

Oil and natural gas are trapped in these rock layers.

That energy was out of reach until entrepreneur George Mitchell combined two technologies--horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and changed the course of American energy.

Now, instead of looking for pools of oil and gas, we have the ability to go get the energy that’s locked in the shale.

How Does Fracking Work?

A drill goes down vertically thousands of feet underground then turns ninety degrees and goes horizontally thousands of feet further to get into the shale layers that contain oil and natural gas.

The well is cased with steel and cement to prevent fracking fluid, oil, and natural gas from escaping. 

Tiny cracks are then created in the shale rock. Fracking fluid--mostly water and sand--is pumped into the well under high pressures to expand the cracks and keep them from closing. This releases oil or natural gas is which then pumped to the surface.

Here’s a video of what happens.

Is Fracking Safe?

Yes, states and industry have developed regulations and practices to ensure that fracking is done safely. Take one state, Pennsylvania. It requires a desk-full of state and local permits before a drill can touch the ground.

The biggest fear used by critics is that fracking fouls ground water. You may have heard stories of people lighting their faucets on fire from methane—natural gas—that leaked into it supposedly because of fracking. But these are just stories that have been thoroughly debunked.

In fact, scientists at Yale University, the University of Cincinnati, and elsewhere have found no evidence that fracking contaminates drinking water. Even EPA, no cheerleader for fossil fuels, concluded in a 2015 draft report that fracking has not had “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water.” The final version of the report released in 2016 reaffirmed that fracking is not a threat. Current and former top officials at federal and state environmental agencies agree.

How is Fracking Helping America?

In 2013, University of Texas-San Antonio Professor Thomas Tunstall proclaimed at a TED Talk, “Shale oil and gas development is in the process of literally transforming global markets and local economies at the same time.”

That’s an understatement. Fracking has skyrocketed American energy production, boosted local economies, made the U.S. an even better place for manufacturing, and changed the global energy landscape,

The biggest benefit is the dramatic increase in domestic oil and gas production. Oil production grew by 88% since 2009, and natural gas production increased by 36% in that same time span.

For local communities, the energy boom spurred tremendous economic growth. Hotels, apartment complexes, and “mancamps” were built to house the workers working the oil fields. Restaurants, bars, and stores also prospered from those workers.

And it has created jobs.

In North Dakota home of the oil-rich Bakken Shale, the February 2016 unemployment rate was 2.9%, well below the national rate. The state faced the dilemma of having too many jobs with not enough workers to fill them. The worker shortage got so great that, a home supply retailer resorted to flyling workers from Wisconsin into North Dakota every week.

Jobs are also being created by shale gas development. In Pennsylvania home to the Marcellus Shale, six counties where 751 natural gas wells were drilled and fracked all had less unemployment than the state average in 2014.

An Institute for 21st Century Energy study projects that by 2020 3 million jobs will be supported by shale energy development, rising to 3.5 million by 2035.

Consumers have been also won with fracking. Not only are gas prices this summer expected to be their lowest since 2004, but a 2015 Brooking Institution study found that “the shale gas revolution led to an increase in welfare for natural gas consumers and producers of $48 billion per year.”

Like consumers, industry has seen their energy costs fall, and since many materials are derived from oil and natural gas, they’ve also seen their supply costs go down. This has prompted domestic and international companies to build new factories in the U.S. According to the American Chemistry Council, 738,000 new jobs will be created and supported by 2023 because of plentiful natural gas.

From a global perspective, it’s a whole new energy ballgame. Since 2012, the U.S. has been the world’s top petroleum and natural gas producer.

The U.S. is now becoming an important energy exporter. The 40-year-old oil export ban ended in 2015 and American crude is being sold on world markets.

Natural gas is also being exported as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shipped to customers worldwide. In fact, the prospects of natural gas are so good that the Energy Information Administration projects that the U.S. will be a net natural gas exporter by 2017 and remain that way through 2040

Why Are Some People Against Fracking?

Some of it has to do with the name, “fracking.” It’s an odd word that prior to the shale boom, was best known as something blurted by Battlestar Galactica characters.

Some of it has to do with not being familiar with the process and the safety processes employed when it’s being done. Hopefully this explainer helps.

And some of fracking’s opposition comes from people who reject fossil fuels of any type and have the mistaken belief that we can have a prosperous, modern economy without them. They're wrong.

From the energy it safely provides to the jobs it supports, fracking makes our lives better every day. It isn’t something to be afraid of, and no one should cringe when they hear it. Fracking is an American success story we should be proud of.

Note: This was updated to include the final 2016 EPA fracking report.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.