Fracked Into a Corner?

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have given us a natural gas boom—and a whole lot of questions.
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

When the novelist and longtime Vermont resident Annie Proulx came to the Texas Panhandle to research a book, she was struck by how thoroughly exploited the land was, both above and below. Here is how she described it: “There were nodding pump jacks … to the left and right, condensation tanks and complex assemblies of pipes and gauges, though such was the size of the landscape and their random placement that they seemed metal trinkets strewn by a vast and careless hand… . Beneath the fields and pastures lay an invisible world of pipes, cables, boreholes, pumps, and extraction devices, forming, with the surface fences and roads, a monstrous three-dimensional grid.” A Texan passing through that same landscape might not have even noticed the ubiquitous signs of our state’s most profitable industry, so familiar are we with its various hallmarks. The truth, however, is that most of us don’t have any more idea than your average Vermonter how any of these devices actually work, because most of us live far from places like the Panhandle or the Permian Basin. Or at least that’s how it was until around eight years ago, when Fort Worth and its suburbs began to be inundated with rigs drilling for natural gas in the underlying Barnett Shale formation. Before long there were gas wells operating near busy intersections, near schools, even near Cowboys Stadium, and we were all talking about casings and cement jobs and flares and above all, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. For a big slice of urban Texas, the oil patch was suddenly right outside the front door. 

Fracking, in which huge quantities of water laden with sand and chemicals are forced into tiny cracks in hard shale to free the oil and gas embedded inside, is not new. What is new is combining this technology with advanced horizontal drilling methods. Shale drillers can now make a drill bit turn ninety degrees and drill horizontally through a gas-bearing formation for a mile, or even two, before turning on the fracking pumps. This technique, developed over decades by legendary Houston oilman George Mitchell, has made previously irretrievable

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