Peter J. Wampler, PhD – Hydraulic Fracturing “Fracking”

Associate Professor of Geology, Grand Valley State University
View more information about Peter Wampler.


Hi. My name is Dr. Peter Wampler, and I’m a geology professor at Grand Valley State University. And I’m going to talk to you a little bit about fracking.

A bit about my background. I worked in the mining industry for several years and worked on drilling rigs. Kind of familiar with that aspect of geology. And so I’m going to share with you what I know about the geology of hydraulic fracturing and also a little bit about the process that they use to recover oil through hydraulic fracturing.

This fracking, basically, is referred to as unconventional gas recovery, because you’re not just collecting gas that’s already out of the rock. It’s being generated by your process of fracking. You’re actually fracturing the rock, propping it open, and that’s what allows you to recover the gas. So the shale at the surface is typically brittle and fractured, and all the gas has already been released from most of the shale at the surface. It’s only when you get deep into the ground that the shale still retains the gas. And that’s why the fracking is necessary to get that gas out, because the gas is bound up into very, very small pores in the shale. In order to get it out, you have to fracture it, prop it open, and allow that gas to seep out. Essentially what the fracturing does is it increases the permeability of the shale so you can recover the gas from the shale. And that fracturing process is sort of enhanced by what are called proppants. And it has the root word prop, which you can think of propping a door open. Well, essentially you’re propping open the fractures after you create them with hydraulic pressure. So you create hydraulic pressure, and then you use what is called proppant. And this is what a proppant looks like, essentially. They’re much smaller than this in reality. They’re very small things, the size of very small sand grains. And those are injected with the liquid, basically, hydraulic pressuring. And they prop open the fractures so they don’t close again. And that allows the gas to slowly seep out and reach the drill rig and reach the pipes that recover the gas.

There are also chemicals that are injected. And that’s one of the controversial aspects of fracking. Because of the chemicals that are used…There’s a wide variety of them used. And they vary in their toxicity. They vary in what they use, everything from what would be like antifreeze in your car to all kinds of different types of chemicals, are used for different purposes in the fracking process.

And just to give you an example of what the shale looks like when it’s in the ground, this is sort of what shale looks like. And you can notice it’s not very fractured. This particular one’s not fractured. But in the image that I’ve shown here, this is actually shale at the surface. At the surface, shale is usually quite fractured. It falls apart, very brittle. But at depths of thousands of feet in the earth, it’s a very hard substance, very low permeability. That’s why it’s necessary to fracture it and to prop open those fractures to get the gas out.

Ok, so why is fracking booming? Why is it a big deal now? Why is everyone talking about it? Because largely…Two reasons. Well, three reasons. Two are technological, and one is more of sort of a resource reason. So around the beginning of the 2000’s or so there’s a technique called horizontal drilling or directional drilling that was perfected. Basically this means you can steer the drilling bit. You can actually steer it like a car. You can take it down vertically, and you can steer horizontally or you could steer it anywhere you want, pretty much. In order to do this, you have to do two things. You have to be able to drill directionally. And you have to be able to know where you’re drilling to. Right? So the other advance that’s happened is there’s been an advance in technology of knowing where your bit is in the ground. So you have to know really accurately where that bit is traveling through the earth in order to hit the right spot, and you have to be able to drill there in the first place. So those two combined technologies have made it possible to really find the oil, find the shale-bearing oil…the gas-bearing shales that have the oil in them, and then access them, fracture them put to proppant in place, and then recover the gas.

So where are these natural gas reserves that people talk about? There’s large quantities of natural gas stored in the shale. Some of them crop out on the surface, but oftentimes they are thousands of feet below the surface. And that’s where the fracturing really comes into play, because the stuff at the surface is already fractured, and the gas has already been released. So the only place that the fracturing makes sense is deep in the earth where you’ve got shale that hasn’t been fractured and opened up to release the gas. So really what we’re talking about doing is places with deep shale, thousands of feet, typically, in the ground. And some of the big areas that people are looking at, one is called the marcellus shale. It lies underneath large parts of kind of the eastern seaboard, Pennsylvania, that area and underneath Michigan, the state we’re in right now. Underneath that is called the antrim shale. And that’s also a very large potential for producing natural gas from fracking. But all scattered throughout the United States there are these different shale units that are potentially fractureable. And they could recover natural gas.

Last numbers I saw based on this new technology and based on the amount of shale that’s out there, we have somewhere around 100-plus-year supply of natural gas from fracking, which is quite a bit. That’s a number of years available.

So a lot of people are concerned about fracking. We just drove through New York, and there were signs all over the place, “No fracking.” “We don’t want fracking.” So there are a lot of people concerned about it. And a lot of people want to understand, and a lot of people just don’t want to see it happen. And some of the issues that people bring up, a lot of people are concerned about earthquakes. So when you fracture the ground, they’re concerned that that would cause earthquakes, cause instability of the ground. Another big one is ground water contamination. There’s a lot of videos on the Web of people’s faucets, water coming out and burning. So there’s this perception that fracking is going to pollute water; it’s going to pollute your ground water; it’s going to pollute your drinking water. And so that’s a big issue. And then whenever they fracture and recover this and they put all these hydraulic materials into the ground, they also have to pull material out of the ground. So they’re pulling out water that has chemicals in it, things from the ground, and they have to get rid of that somewhere. And so there’s a lot of concern about surface contamination of waters like rivers and streams where that water would go to. And then there’s the bigger issue, I think, of just if we use more of this shale‑produced gas, are we just perpetuating this reliance on fossil fuel that we should just be getting rid of? And that’s kind of, I think, a pervasive opinion for a lot of people. And I actually share that opinion that there is need to get off of fossil fuels for a lot of reasons. And so, you know, this is kind of extending that dependence on the fossil fuels.

So let’s address those one at a time. So the earthquakes. Just recently a study was released by the USGS that said, basically, there isn’t a lot of evidence to say that fracking causes earthquakes. At least not ones that we can feel. Now, it does cause micro-earthquakes, things that we would probably not even feel and that are measurable by delicate devices or precise devices called seismographs. But typically, as far as I know, there’s not been a documented, reasonably large earthquake that we actually could feel that’s been caused by fracking. Now, that’s not to say that it doesn’t cause some shaking occasionally or cause something you might feel, but it’s not a well-documented thing by any means. And I’ve not found a lot of issues related to that. It certainly can cause small earthquakes. Lots of small earthquakes are possible, but are those going to damage your house? Are those going to damage structures? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s going to occur.

Another concern people have is that fracking is going to cause their house to collapse into a hole or something like that. Well, the whole idea of fracturing is that you prop open a crack, and then you leave it propped open. So you’re actually increasing the space in the ground, not decreasing…You’re not opening a space into which something could fall. So there’s not a big issue with subsidence or causing houses to collapse or houses to be destroyed through subsidence, not like you would see with, like, a coal line where there’s an opening in the ground, and things could actually collapse into it.

Ok, ground water contamination. This is actually potentially a really big issue and one that’s still in the process of being studied. It’s one of those questions that needs a better answer, I think. Not quite answered very well yet. And the reason for that is that the things that they use for this hydraulic fracturing, there’s a whole variety of chemicals, most with names I can’t pronounce. And those chemicals are not well understood. Their fate in the ground is not well understood. And where these would end up if you start using them in large quantities in the ground is not well understood. So, I would consider that a question that needs a better answer before we really go whole hog into putting a lot of these into the ground. And some states are regulating these. Some states are actually putting in place rules about what chemicals you can use and what you can’t use. But that’s still in the process stage, I think, at this point. There’s more to be learned there.

Surface water contamination – this, again, is a big issue, I think, in some places. So a lot of times when you’re doing this hydraulic fracturing, you’re producing water that’s in the ground. And that water is typically salty and other things, like sometimes arsenic, sometimes other things in it that come out of the formation, that come out of the rock. And so that is a big issue if you have to put that somewhere, right? You have to put that in a creek; you have to put it somewhere. So that’s something they’re still learning about too, about where you put that stuff, how you treat it, whether you can put it back in the ground again or not, and if that works.

Ok. So, to kind of sum up these concerns, earthquakes are an issue, but probably not a very big issue. Ground water contamination is a potentially big issue, one we need to learn more about. And surface water contamination of waters is also a big issue and something we probably need to learn more about before we do a lot of this.

So what can we do about it? How do we do this intelligently? How do we approach fracking, instead of just maybe not doing it at all, how do we do it so we can do it right? I would say monitoring is huge. You know, if I were to be in the position to decide about fracking, I would say, “Nobody gets to put any wells in for fracking unless they have agreed to do a lot of monitoring of ground water, surface water, you know, chemically analyze the water.” Accountability – oil companies that are doing this need to be held accountable for things that they do. If they have spills or make mistakes, they need to own up to it and make amends for those. And then reporting is huge, I think. There’s been a lot of talk about companies needing proprietary mixtures of hydraulic fluids and things like that. And there needs to be openness, I think, in a lot of this. There needs to be open release of what they’re using, what the chemicals are. You know, if they want to maybe not say how much of each one they use or somehow hide their exact mix, I guess they could try and do that. But we need to know what they’re putting in the ground, as a society. We don’t want them just putting things in the ground we don’t know about. Or at least somebody should know. And then I think more support for research and data collection, maybe through universities or whoever can do this. US Geological Survey could do more of this; just kind of overall support to support more information would be useful.

That’s kind of my summary of what I know about fracking and what I’ve learned through my experience as a geologist, and hopefully you’ve learned a little more about fracking too.


  • Comment by Mike E — October 16, 2012 @ 7:51 am

    “So, I would consider that a question that needs a better answer before we really go whole hog into putting a lot of these into the ground.” The problem is that we’re already going “whole hog” without an answer to the questions that Dr Wampler raises. Wampler says monitoring is huge. I would agree. It is my understanding, however, that funding for monitoring agencies is flat while the industry is expanding by leaps and bounds in Michigan. The issue of monitoring also brings into question the issue of existing regulations. If there are not quality regulations in place to enforce, say, chemically analyzing the water for ALL of the chemicals used in the process on a regular basis in perpetuity (these variables are key), then the regulatory agencies might not even have the tools that they need to protect the population from contamination.

  • Comment by Christopher — October 16, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    Cal – In answer to your question — “In looking forward- should natural gas be used as a base load generation fuel?” — In a word, yes.

    In fact, it IS replacing coal on an increasing basis. The combination of market forces and EPA requirements is driving that transformation. We can argue another day about whether that is good, bad, or indifferent.

    Absent storage, and before developments of new base load generation technologies, we have very few options for base load power. It’s important to look at projected attrition of existing plants and load growth to determine how much new generation we should be building. The pervasive mindset is to indiscriminately build more.

    If we do need more base load, new coal and nuke plants currently have high barriers to market. But gas is a great option for the time being, in part because it is more readily deployed.

    If we continue to aggressively install intermittent generation, gas will become even more valuable because of its agility as compared to coal or nuclear. Its utility as a marginal or load following generator (able to ramp up and down to maintain balance between load and intermittent generation) could nicely compliment its base load capabilities. A good case in point is the BPA, where in the moments when wind blows, non-gas thermal base load generators are not curtailed nearly as much as hydro is.

  • Comment by Mike E — October 22, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    In general, I appreciate your analysis, Christopher. However, it seems absurd to me that you would like to tacitly extol the merits of natural gas while dismissing the argument of whether it is good, bad or indifferent for another day. There are nothing about the current EPA requirements that could be argued to be indifferent or even good from the aspect of long-term human health as well as the sustainability of a climate that supports the ecosystems that humans rely on.

    The conversation cannot continue to simply revolve around the ways that we can maintain the status quo of our present standard of living without considering the consequences.

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