The energy surplus created by hydraulic fracturing has had a wide-reaching ripple effect. With shale gas expected to reach 65 percent of the natural gas supply within the next two decades — up from 2 percent in 2000 — crude oil prices are forecast to drop by 30 percent, according to some analysts. Drops in well yields, however, threaten to make this energy renaissance a short-lived one.
Fracking, as the process is more commonly known, works by releasing trapped oil and gas from shale through water pressure. Thus, the quantity of the hydrocarbon available for extraction was limited from the start. With many “vintage” wells more than three years old, recovery rates as low as 5 percent threaten drilling operations. In the Louisiana Haynesville formation, for example, production rates have dropped 27 percent from 2012 levels, reports Reuters, leading many drillers to experiment with more “radical” concepts.
One such experimentation involves “re-fracking,” a new technology which seeks to increase pressure in low-producing frack lines. The Canada-based Encana Corp. invested $2 million to “re-frack” two of its wells in the Haynesville formation earlier this year.
Besides energy availability, there are significant financial reasons to attempt this. The availability of fracked fuels is drying up the biofuel industry and driving the cost of corn downward — something that bears the potential of reversing the spike in food costs in recent years. The high production of shale gas and oil domestically is creating a situation in which the United States may be able to meet its energy demands internally and actually become an energy exporter.
The “re-fracking” process is being attempted in two ways: First, in wells that have a low density of diverting cracks, or “fracks,” new fracks can be introduced to better promote hydrocarbon release. Some drillers have come to believe that a tighter cracking pattern and the introduction of new fracturing points are needed to promote well profitability.
Encana is taking an opposite approach: Instead of creating more holes in the well, the company is plugging up underperforming ones. Using diverting agents — small plastic balls that will be injected into the well with high pressure water jets — the company seeks to block older, low-pressure fissures in the well’s wall, while keeping younger fissures — which would typically be farther away from the well’s mouth — open. By limiting the number of exits the hydrocarbons have to escape, the company is hoping to increase terminal pressure at the well’s mouth.
The difference between the two approaches highlights the notion that this technique is still highly experimental, with final results yet to be known. While initial runs with re-fracking have produced significant improvement in yield — Texas-based Exco Resources Inc., for example, has claimed a 1.4 million cubic feet of gas per day increase from a 2010 re-fracked test well — it is unclear how long the benefits will last or what effect the process may have on a well’s stability.
David Martinez, senior manager for Encana’s Haynesville development, told Reuters that the re-fracking process cannot be controlled as precisely as fracking, and the company will be collecting data from the five wells scheduled to be re-fracked this quarter.
News about the expansion of this technology — which has been deployed in several wells throughout the Bakken Oil Field — comes as the Oklahoma Geological Survey recorded 20 small earthquakes across Oklahoma in just one day. With Oklahoma only averaging two earthquakes of a magnitude of 3.0 or greater per year from 1978 to 2008, this unprecedented increase in seismic activity is thought to be due to fracking.
Specifically, the earthquakes are thought to be the result of “wastewater injection” — the process of pumping wastewater from the fracking process deep into the ground for disposal. (This also leads to the possibility of groundwater contamination.)
Across the nation, fracking regulations generally tend to be weak and scarcely enforced out of fears of harming the fledgling industry. This has resulted in gross oversights in regards to environmental protection.
In 2013, for example, Ohio — one of the nation’s largest fracking states — opted to only require a small fraction of the waste processed through the state’s treatment facilities to be tested for contamination. This is despite the fact that thousands of tons of hydrofracking radioactive waste are sent through the state’s facilities — much of which comes from outside the state — to end up in old gas wells and in landfills.
Most of the waste product never sees any testing. Gov. John Kasich’s bid to have the waste tested by the state’s Department of Health was blocked by the state Legislature through lobbying from the gas and oil industry toward keeping testing the responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources, which has neither the experience or manpower to deal with radioactive waste. This change was added to the state budget bill at the last moment — as discovered by ProPublica — to avoid public debate.
With a 2011 economic study suggesting that oil and gas drilling will add over 200,000 jobs to Ohio in coming years and generate billions of dollars in investment, Ohio, like many other states, is eager to partner with and assist the fracking industry. This has led many to believe that the state is knowingly coloring the fracking debate in favor of the oil and gas industry.
With re-fracking still in its infancy, there are no regulations on the books to ensure the safety of the process. However, the idea that the gas and oil industry can openly experiment with a potentially more dangerous technology at a time when politics are preventing adequate protections regarding existing technology have left many to wonder if economic security is being prioritized over people’s health and well-being.
“When you let politics rule in the face of scientific determination, it’s an unconscionable position to take,” said Julie Weatherington-Rice, an adjunct professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University. “In the process of doing that they’ve put the population of Ohio at risk.”