An overview of fracking, contemporary controversy about the process, and its current legal status in Colorado.
Fracking, the most popular term for the mining process known as hydraulic fracturing, continues to be one of the hot button legal issues in Colorado and across the United States.
But what exactly is fracking and what should every citizen know about it in order to make an informed decision regarding its pros and cons, including its potential benefits to U.S. energy policy and possible detriments to the environment?
What is Fracking?
Fracking involves injecting a highly-pressurized fluid mixture into underground oil and gas wells for the purposes of increasing their output. Fracking fluid typically consists of water, sand, and various chemicals – usually, but not exclusively, hydrochloric acid along with numerous chemical stabilizers, friction reducers, and so on. These chemicals are used to dissolve minerals and produce tiny cracks or fractures in deep rock, thus giving the process its name.
The fractures are then held open with fracking proppants – typically gels, foams, or slickwater fluids that form part of the injected fracking mixture. Once wells have been stimulated in this way, miners can extract additional hydrocarbons, including shale gas, oil, or coal seam gas, depending on the composition of the well.
Hydraulic Fracturing: A Brief History
The process of fracking has been around since the middle of the twentieth century. According to Wikipedia, in 1947 the Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation fracked the first gas well in Grant County, Kansas. While of limited commercial success, this initial experiment led to a 1949 patent for the process granted to the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company. Since this time, roughly one million oil and gas wells have been fracked in the United States, as have an additional 1.5 million wells worldwide.
By 1973, the U.S. began experimenting with high-volume, or massive, hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in western states. Three years later, in 1976, the process was being commercially applied to gas shale deposits in various regions around the country. Technological advances in fracking, including the introduction of the so-called slickwater technique for extracting shale gas in 1997, have meant that shale fracking has grown in recent years from relative insignificance to providing nearly a quarter of the country’s domestic natural gas production.
Today, more than 90 percent of all wells across the United States are drilled using some form of fracking technology, according to experts in the industry.
The Fracking Debate in Colorado
The ongoing conflict between a reasoned, economically robust energy policy and the need for environmental protection and preservation are at the heart of the contemporary fracking debate in Colorado and around the country.
We reported last November on a decision by three Front Range communities (Boulder-Longmont, Lafayette, and Fort Collins) to approve five-year bans on fracking in local areas. But, the apparent will of the voters in this matter has thus far failed to stand up to legal challenges presented by industry.
A recent Denver Business Journal article (“Judge Strikes Down Another Colorado Town’s Ban on Fracking.”) reports that the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) filed suit against the city of Fort Collins in a successful effort to cancel its five-year moratorium on fracking in Larimer County. This follows another court ruling this past July, which overturned a similar Longmont ban.
In his decision, Larimer County District Judge Gregory Lammons wrote that “the five year ban substantially impedes a significant state interest and the ban prohibits what state law allows.”
Commenting on the ruling, COGA president and CEO Tisha Schuller stated, “The message is unmistakable: Colorado’s communities … already have the tools and ability to regulate oil and gas activity to meet their local needs.”
Perhaps a five-year moratorium on a process that has already provided significant economic benefits in Colorado and elsewhere is an excessive measure. Judges in both Longmont and Fort Collins appear to think so. But, has the will of those citizens still concerned about the potential long-term environmental effects of fracking in their communities been thwarted?
This is a question to be taken up by officials in Fort Collins and Longmont should they decide to bring their cases to appeal. And, because these cases hinge on a pivotal conflict between local and state authority, we at Pippenger Hedberg Law will be keeping an eye on future developments in the ongoing debate about fracking as well.