Sometimes, I feel like I’m swimming in sand. Since the spring, my work for WCIJ has been focused primarily on covering the implications of the growth explosion in Wisconsin’s sand mining industry. The good news is that the coverage we produced has been really well received, and a couple of organizations recently asked me to speak to groups about the state’s frac sand boom. It’s really cool, but it also makes me nervous, so tonight I went to check out the first session of the Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Forum on Fracking: The Wisconsin Connection, to see what I had signed on for.

Tonight’s session was on Fracking 101. (My friend Emily and I attended together, so we decided to divide up the blogging- you can see her post here) It’s interesting to note that most of the questions during the Q&A were about the frac sand mining. The issue really has people fired up. The panel is passed some of the heated questions on to the next session. Which includes me- eeek.

However, I enjoyed this session because I got to take a break from sand and think instead about the industrial activity which has driven up the demand for Wisconsin’s sand- hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. Alan Carroll, a professor of geoscience at UW-Madison gave a talk about geofuels for the 21st century.

This map shows the active and potential unconventional oil and gas sources across the lower 48 states. Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

This map shows the active and potential unconventional oil and gas sources across the lower 48 states. Carroll explained that her prefers the term geofuels over fossil fuels because he thinks fossil is a misnomer. Geofuels include coal, oil, and natural gas, all basically energy from the sun, turned by plants into energy-storing carbon compounds through the process of photosynthesis.

Conventional oil and gas drilling taps into concentrated reserves of the geofuels. The reserves might be hard to find, but once you drill into them, the fuel flows out- easy and cheap. On the other hand, hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to produce oil and gas from unconventional sources- basically oil or gas that is disseminated through layers of rock (shale) that are not very permeable. I think it’s important to note that the process of hydraulic fracturing is not just used for gas, but also for unconventional oil wells as well.

The drilling process is pretty straightforward. Wells are drilled thousands of feet deep into a layer of rock with oil or gas and a high pressure solution of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped in and blow open small fractures in the rock. The sand holds open the cracks, so that when the water is pumped back up, the oil or gas can flow up and out the well.

Infographic on why hydraulic fracturing needs sand. Credit: ProPublica

Economically speaking, producing natural gas through hydraulic fracturing is more complicated and more costly. Production took off when gas prices rose in the mid 2000s- higher prices made this drilling profitable. The recession dropped demand and prices, so we’re currently experiencing a glut of gas. Hydraulic fracturing for oil is still increasing, in part because there are fewer new conventional sources for oil.

“The rate at which oil and gas have been discovered in the world, in conventional fields, peaked in the 1970s and been tailing off ever since,” Carroll said.

When the conversation shifted to environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing, Carroll spoke about risks to the water supply. First off, each well uses between three to five million gallons of fresh water. The resulting waste water needs to be cleaned (some new companies trying to take advantage of this market niche) or disposed of. Often, the waste water is pumped down into old wells, a practice that has been shown to cause small earthquakes in rare cases.

Several communities have reported contaminated drinking water from nearby fracking. The well design should protect aquifers as the tube is drilled through them, deep below to the desired shales. Carroll explained that the wells are cemented in place to protect the aquifers on the outside and keep the valuable oil or gas inside, but mistakes could occur if the process was done in a sloppy way. Even good technology can fail, as we saw with the Gulf oil spill in 2010.

Carroll concluded that it’s hard to predict the future, but from the title of his talk, he certainly suggested that hydraulic fracturing was producing the geofuels of this century. Using natural gas to produce electricity produces much less carbon dioxide than coal, so it could help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. Our thirst for energy does not look like it’s going away anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we need to produce cheap power at any environmental cost. Personally, I think that recycling the waste water, though the cleaning process will be expensive, should be required so that we are not just trading one limited resource (fresh water) for another. Hydraulic fracturing might hold potential, but Carroll also suggests that the industry probably needed more research and regulation.

“The science hasn’t caught up to the drillers yet,” said Carroll.

For more on the Community Environment Forum from the Nelson Institute- check out my friend Emily’s post on the WI sand connection. You can my latest blog musings on fracking here. Most of what I know about fracking, I learned from ProPublica’s series of investigative reports, you can check them out here .

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