You’ve read about a process that’s bringing abundant natural gas and petroleum to market while reducing costs to US consumers. Expect more discussion as President Trump’s energy plans emerge. Hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, “fracking” for short, applies horizontal drilling techniques followed by pumping high-pressure liquid into petroleum-rich shale deposits, typically at depths of more than a mile beneath the surface.

The slurry, containing grains of sand, forces apart thin layers of shale (resembling a deck of playing cards), releasing hydrocarbons locked in the dense matrix. Oil droplets (and gas) coalesce and are pumped to the surface, separated from “production” water that comes up with the oil, and trucked to a pipeline head or rail terminal for shipment to refineries or gas distribution networks.

If done incorrectly, petroleum and natural gas production have the potential to cause adverse consequences to land, water and air and to public health and safety. Federal and state agencies together are responsible for monitoring these activities, and if necessary, enforcing regulations limiting air and water pollution connected with drilling of producing wells and shipping oil and gas product.

Still, opponents of fossil fuels conduct vigorous campaigns to stop fracking operations. The voice various objections, some factual, others highly exaggerated. Fracking is blamed for poisoning wells and contaminating ground water with methane (a flammable, but non-toxic gas) and other substances.

It is also blamed by some for having increased the number of minor earthquakes recorded in Oklahoma and Ohio. With little evidence to substantiate it, the critics predict fracking may lead to major earthquakes capable of severe physical damage in areas where it takes place. The claims fall apart when they are closely examined.

The documentary “Gasland” assailed fracking operations in western Pennsylvania, the location of its earliest application in gas formations. The claims, including contamination of local drinking water, later proved false. Subsequently, reporters uncovered more facts proving plaintiffs’ claims seeking large settlements were frivolous. Another documentary “FrackNation” focused on contentious proceedings in a Pennsylvania courtroom bringing to light discrepancies in the narrative.

After losing, opponents of fossil fuels redirected attention to the oil fields of northwestern Oklahoma. There, numerous minor earthquakes were making headlines, suggesting that fracking may increase earthquake activity in and adjacent to oil producing fields. But opponents obscure clear distinctions between fracking and other unrelated activities.

A Stanford study found earthquakes were connected not with fracking operations per se, but with deep-well injection of liquid wastes from a variety of sources. Quakes were most closely connected with disposal practices of wastes from conventional oil production or from industrial or municipal wastes unrelated to fracking.

Investigations by the U.S. Geological Survey suggest injecting liquid wastes into deep strata increases pressure that may trigger weak quakes. Geologists previously suggested that inducing minor quakes may beneficially release the buildup of strain along fault zones and thus pre-empt strong damaging quakes. Oklahoma and other areas where fracking and horizontal drilling take place are some of the most geologically stable regions of the North American continent. But a fault zone lies north and northwest of Oklahoma City that may account for the enhanced seismicity associated with pre-existing deep-disposal wells in that portion of the state.

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USGS scientists and regulatory agencies have developed protocols prescribing disposal wells within critical distances of known fault zones. State agencies closely monitor mini-quakes and may request fracking operations be suspended in the immediate area (epicenter) of repetitive quakes. No recent Oklahoma earthquake has caused extensive property damage, although a 5.6 magnitude quake near a small city resulted in local damage and awakened residents.

Since 2014, large numbers of minor quakes (3.0 or less on the Richter scale) have been recorded in above-referenced Oklahoma. Major quakes are rare in the center of the US. The New Madrid (Missouri) earthquake of 1812 (estimated magnitude 7.8) overlies a deep fault system. Quakes of 3.0 or less are not felt by humans.

Although fracking has no demonstrated adverse effects, opponents of fossil fuels — in the spirit of “keep it in the ground” — continue their well-funded campaigns impugning the industry and anyone else who dares challenge them. It is incumbent on the mainstream media to pursue the truth wherever it leads and accurately inform readers about fracking.

William D. Balgord, Ph.D. (geochemistry), heads Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Middleton, WI

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