Oh, Fraque! Changing Public Perceptions

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

I spend a lot of time in downtown Sacramento, the capital of California, and I walk a lot. Something is different. Not since Climategate, the BP spill or the Japan Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami and Fukushima disaster, has something in earth science captured the public’s attention at the local coffee shop and just about every downtown intersection.

I am not referring to the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times or the Bakersfield Californian – but there it was, on the cover of the Sacramento News and Report, the local free newspaper one can find on just about every corner downtown, and on the cover in bold letters:


The article was somewhere between advertisements for bartenders and card dealers, medicinal marijuana and entertainment and relationship building. When earth science reaches this level, it must be big. What in the frack is going on, I ask myself.

Hydraulic fracturing technology was pioneered in the mid-1940s by Halliburton, and arguably questionable as to its early success. But since then, Halliburton states that over 1.1 million separate and successful “frac jobs” have been conducted, and the public has benefited with over 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas provided to the American consumer as a result of this technology.

In addition, nearly nine out of 10 onshore oil and gas wells require fracture simulation to remain or become viable.

With the growth in the unconventional energy resources, notably gas shales and tight sands, some are boldly claiming we are now in a position to argue against “Peak Oil” and we are going to uncap the spigot, increase jobs and state and federal revenues and provide a real path to clean and affordable energy in the future. The problem is that the general public and proponents of renewable and alternative energy have a different perspective.

Before we can define what we are talking about, we must first figure out how best to spell it and apparently, this is controversial as well.

“Fracing” is short for hydraulic fracturing. It is said that in an attempt to control the debate, anti-fracing groups prefer the term “fracking” (spelled with a “k”) because of its negative connotations (i.e., smack, whack, profanity, etc.) – similar to the term “Peak Oil.”

Simply defined – and with a wide choice in source material ranging from The Dictionary of Oil Terms to the Urban Dictionary – I decided to go with something in between, Wikipedia, which defines hydraulic fracturing as the natural propagation of fractures in the subsurface caused by the presence of pressurized fluids (i.e., as in the natural case of the formation of dikes and sills), albeit on a much smaller scale, which allows gas and oil to migrate from source rocks to reservoir rocks.

“Induced” hydraulic fracturing, or what is commonly referred to as a frac job (aka, fracking, fracing, fraccing, the F-word, or whatever), is when fractures in the subsurface strata are generated from a well bore drilled into reservoir rocks that ultimately increases the extraction rates, thus enhancing the recovery of gas and oil.

Then there is formation fracturing, explosive fracturing, refracturing, vertical fracking, high volume hydraulic fracturing, and fracturing simulation. Apparently, there is a whole lot of fracing (my preferred spelling) going on.

The technological advances in horizontal drilling and fracing has opened up shale deposits across the country and globally, bringing interest in large-scale drilling to new regions.

My case in point, being a Californian, I was not pleased to hear that we have fallen from third to fourth place in oil production and now we are behind North Dakota – I have nothing against North Dakota, but North Dakota! The petroleum refining industry, as we know, has its birth in downtown Los Angeles, when Doheny discovered the Los Angeles City oil field and developed a market in changing coal-powered engines for trains to combustion engines powered by oil. North Dakota!

Growing up in the Los Angeles Basin near Hollywood, one gets accustomed to news, and in the movie industry, being mentioned in any capacity, good or bad, is good; however, in the energy and resources arena, maybe not so good. Environmental risks always require evaluation and assessment, and certainly there are risks with fracing. It seems that after 60 years of fracing, the process is now under fire from all directions – whatever ails the world today, it’s due to some frac job.

The environmental risks when fracing in some cases could include adverse impact to air quality; contamination of groundwater with radioactive elements such as radium, radon and uranium; migration of gases and chemicals used to frac to groundwater; surface spills; earthquakes induced by fracing; casing and seal issues; and even climate change!

Fracing in an old well versus a more recently installed well can be problematic. Release of gas into shallow groundwater zones, and well casing seals and cement issues can also cause concern. Let’s not exclude what some have referred to as “negative externalities” pertaining to the side effects of economic activity that negatively affect others and leads us directly away from renewable energy alternatives.

Then there is the question as to whether we are talking about seismically-induced earthquakes via EPA approved underground injection of waste water into deep disposal wells instead of fracing related to oil and gas production.

If that is not enough, there is this business consultant who has taken on the jargon and telling us where and when to “frack” to solve business problems – a means to identify cracks in your organization by digging deep!

Now I am usually all for earth science being on the front page, and in my view such episodic occurrences provide a unique opportunity for earth scientists to engage, educate and inform the public as to the importance of what we do, how we do it and how we proceed in avoiding adverse environmental consequences.

This is no easy challenge, even among our professional community when the engineering and science is progressing faster than we are – but it is a necessity, and as earth scientists we have an obligation and responsibility to reach out to our stakeholders, which includes the public.

Oil and gas exploration and production has moved past the days when all Jed Clampett had to do was simply aim his rifle and shoot toward the ground.

We seem to be spending a lot of time worrying about how the process and technology is spelled, and less time educating the public and demonstrating how society benefits.

What is EMD doing about all this frac stuff?

EMD, in concert with DEG, is organizing a Geoscience Technology Workshop on “Hydraulic Fracturing: New Controversies and Key Plays (including Niobrara),” set Aug. 13-15 in Golden, Colo.

The workshop is designed to be more technology-based and less emotional, and will cover the development of policies and regulations on oil and gas activities, as well as improve our industry’s understanding of how to avoid confrontation and improve hydraulic fracturing practices to eliminate any potential hazards to the public and environment.

The term “fracking” did not start with the controversies that exist today. The term made its appearance around 1981 in an Associated Press story, with continued usage in trade journals throughout the 1980s.

I am fine with dropping the “k,” but more importantly, let’s concentrate on what is important – outreach, education and developing a sound energy policy that benefits society and protects the environment.

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Division Column-EMD Stephen M. Testa

Stephen M. Testa is EMD President-Elect. He is currently serving as Executive Officer of the California State Mining and Geology Board since August, 2005. Testa is a Past-President of the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), the AIPG and the Los Angeles Basin Geological Society.

Division Column-EMD

The Energy Minerals Division (EMD), a division of AAPG, is dedicated to addressing the special concerns of energy resource geologists working with energy resources other than conventional oil and gas, providing a vehicle to keep abreast of the latest developments in the geosciences and associated technology. EMD works in concert with the Division of Environmental Geosciences to serve energy resource and environmental geologists.

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