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How Hydraulic Fracking Works

Future of Fracking
Natural gas has played a big role in recent U.S. energy strategy, and fracking is a large part of that.
Natural gas has played a big role in recent U.S. energy strategy, and fracking is a large part of that.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Although a simplified use of fracking has been around since the mid-1800s, it was really only in the last two decades that fracking technology developed such that an economical, commercial scale could be achieved. Let's keep in mind that more than 90 percent of the U.S.'s natural gas comes from domestic sources; although the U.S. doesn't have the same kind of reserves that oil-rich Middle Eastern countries possess, it does have enough energy to power every natural-gas powered device for the next 20 years [source: McGraw].

Because fracking for shale gas is such a new enterprise, critics bemoan the lack of research and heavy scientific study that (by all accounts) should accompany such heady stuff. But research is being done, which give both sides of the issue more nuance. One claim that has recently come up is that fracking causes such volatility underground that earthquakes arise from the enormous pressure of the water being pumped in. The National Research Council couldn't find any evidence to support the claim, but don't get out your drill yet: The group did find that the water being shot out of the wells into storage tanks was linked to small earthquakes [source: Associated Press]. So earthquakes were happening, but their cause was different than predicted.

It's hard to deny -- for good or bad -- that fracking has nothing short of revolutionized the mining industry. Due to fracking, the U.S. has seen its oil production soar. By 2013, the U.S. is set to produce 11.4 million barrels of oil per day -- rivaling Saudi Arabia's leading 11.6 million barrels [source: Associated Press]. Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chesapeake Energy expect to drill tens of thousands more wells by 2020, and the national implications have caused the U.S. Department of Energy to become more involved in investigation of practices and safety [source: Kirkland and ClimateWire].

Also hard to disagree with? Making sure the chemical compounds and practices used in fracking are safe for those working and living around the affected areas. Executives at Halliburton made headlines in 2011 when one of them drank fracking fluid to prove its safety. And while it sounds silly, you can give the company credit for making the point that it had actually changed the composition of the fracking fluid so the materials in it were sourced from the food industry [source: Tsai]. Its new CleanStim fracking fluid promises a reduced risk of chemical exposure and -- along with new water treatment and bacterial mitigation resources -- make up the new CleanSuite technology that Halliburton is hoping will alleviate health and environmental concerns about fracking [source: Halliburton].

Sounds well and good, but it's undeniable that it'll take a lot more study to convince everyone that fracking is safe.