The United States could end its crippling dependence on foreign oil—if public will and water hold out.
Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking", coupled with horizontal drilling, injects sand, water, and additives at high pressure far beneath the earth's surface to release oil and gas previously trapped and unrecoverable.
The practice has revitalized the oil and gas industry in Texas, Oklahoma, and many other western and southern states, boosting domestic oil production and job creation. In Texas, all the way from the eastern Panhandle to the southern High Plains, from the Big Country to East Texas and into the Edwards Plateau, fracking has revitalized the oil industry.
At one time, the U.S. Geological Survey had thought oil reserves in just one formation, the Bakken shale, extending from North Dakota into eastern Montana, were 115 million barrels. In 2008, USGS announced hydraulic fracturing meant recoverable oil reserves in the Bakken jumped 25 times to as much as 4.3 billion barrels, the largest oil bearing formation in the lower 48 states.
By 2015—just three years away—fields in Texas, North Dakota and California, as well as other states, could yield two billion barrels a day—more oil than currently produced in the Gulf of Mexico. Domestic oil production could jump 20% by 2016, potentially reducing oil imports by half in about a decade, according to the Associated Press.
Fractured shale formations are thousands of feet underground, well below aquifers such as the Ogallala, that is essential to meeting water needs of Southern Great Plains states.
According to Chesapeake Energy Corporation, headquartered in Oklahoma City, the second largest producer of gas, a Top 15 producer of oil, and the most active driller of new wells in the U.S., "properly conducted, modern fracking is a highly-engineered, controlled, sophisticated, and safe procedure."
In much of Texas today, fracking is a factor in oil exploration, says Harvey Everheart, general manager of the Mesa Underground Water Conservation District at Lamesa. The district issues water well permits in its area.
"Nearly all oil and gas wells drilled now have fracking activity in at least some zones. Fracking is probably the second ranking use of fresh water in oil drilling technology in much of Texas," said Everheart.
What does that mean to water use and aquifer protection?
Chesapeake Energy is active in the Barnett Shale in East Texas, among other areas, and uses four million gallons of water per well it fractures, equivalent to six minutes of daily water use for New York City. On the Southern Plains, that's the water used in irrigating 6.75 acres of corn for a season, or needed to grow the corn to make 5,100 gallons of ethanol, according to the USDA's Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey.
Current well construction requirements where fracking is used include installation of multiple layers of protective steel casing in the well column, surrounded by cement specifically designed and installed to protect aquifers.
To conserve water, flowback from fracking is used by some companies to fracture more than one well. Flowback can be returned underground using permitted injection wells, discharged to surface water after treatment to remove contaminants, or applied to land surfaces.