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inFact: All About Fracking

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Published on Sep 4, 2013

Fracking has been a standard practice in natural gas mining for a long time, but documentary films have caused some laypeople to question its safety. How justified are these fears? http://infactvideo.com

A lot of natural gas mining is easy; you drill a hole, the gas comes right up. But once you get down deep enough, between around 1.5 and 6 kilometers deep, the pressure is so high and the rocks are so tight that the gas can't move to your borehole.

The standard solution to this is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Water is pumped down into the deep shale at really high pressure, just like a hydraulic ram, and splits open the fissures. Then sand is mixed with the water, and gets distributed throughout the cracks to prop them open. The water is pumped back out, and now the gas can freely flow to the borehole.

The controversy comes mainly from the fact that about 1/2 of 1% of the fluid consists of lubricants and surfactants, needed to get the sand through the system and into the fissures. Opponents believe that these agents can poison groundwater supplies, or even worse.

The most dramatic criticism of fracking was this scene from the 2010 shock-doc Gasland, by avant-garde stage director Josh Fox. It showed a family whose tap water was actually flammable, and Fox blamed the fact that fracking was used in the area.

An investigation into this family's well, which was ignored by the movie, discovered that their well had been drilled directly into a shallow natural gas deposit. This is common and not a problem if the well is properly vented. Theirs wasn't, so gas got into their water.

How do we know it had nothing to do with fracking? Water wells range in depth from a few meters to a few hundred at the very deepest, but fracking takes place kilometers deeper, past numerous layers of bedrock. Years of study have proven what geologists have always known: there's just too much distance of solid rock between the two regions for any seepage to take place. Since the fracking fluid is removed right after the sand is inserted, there isn't even any fluid there that might seep.

Instead, it's best to understand the real concerns with fracking. These include surface spills, just like we have with maple syrup trucks or gasoline trucks; and of course the disposal of the fracking fluid, usually done into ultra-deep wells.

Just remember: whenever you hear non-experts claim to have discovered something shocking and sensational unknown to science, you have very good reason to be skeptical.

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