State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Boom of Hydraulic Fracturing

On May 7, the final seminar, “Unconventional Hydrocarbon Extraction,” took place for the Earth Institute’s Sustainable Development Seminar Series for the 2012-2013 academic year. The event brought together a diverse group of panelists to discuss the implications of hydraulic fracturing and the unconventional hydrocarbon boom.

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “hydrofracking” or “fracking,” is technique used to extract oil and natural gas. The event was introduced by Peter Schlosser, Earth Institute deputy director and director of research, and Vinton Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering, and Peter Kelemen of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Presentations were made by Kelemen, vice chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Arthur D. Storke Professor; Geoffrey Abers, Lamont Research Professor and associate director of the Division of Seismology, Geology & Tectonophysics; Sarah Odland, business manager of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and former geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey; Anthony Yuen, global energy strategist at Citi Research; and James Meigs, editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics.

mapKelemen introduced the topic by highlighting the multiple aspects of the reserves and extensive extractions of coal, oil and natural gas. He noted how the use of energy has increased by a factor of 10 over the past century, but that the production of oil and gas has also grown due to the innovation of fracking to meet this energy demand. Kelemen showed the audience an animation of the increase in the number of wells from 2007 to 2012, going from 112 to 1,263 wells. With this, Kelemen discussed the economic viability of the Marcellus Shale, the potential impacts on the environment and human health, and how this potential source of energy will affect the outlook of energy usage in the near future.

The presentation then turned to Geoffrey Abers, who continued the topic of hydraulic fracturing by displaying a map with the sites of documented earthquakes related to human activities, including oil and gas extraction, waste water injection, and hydraulic fracturing. Abers asked the audience if they could find the pink dot on the map; dots showing the incidences of earthquakes linked to fracking operations. Abers explained that it’s the higher volumes of underground fluid injections that can trigger potential frequency and intensity of earthquake activities, not fracking operations itself. He emphasized that hydrofracking does not produce a lot of earthquakes; rather, the wastewater injections can induce pressure and cause stress on the fault surfaces.

Sarah Odland’s presentation then focused on the market dynamics of oil and natural gas. Odland argued “we’re moving down the efficiency curve, and moving up the price curve.” Oil prices have more than tripled in the last decade, yet oil supply has only increased by 7 percent. She examined the exponential growth of unconventional oil in Eagle Ford, Texas, and Bakken, North Dakota, and contends that horizontal drilling is the only reason both U.S. oil and gas production are not in decline.

Following Odland’s presentation, Anthony Yuen also expressed that the revolution of shale gas has allowed supply to meet demand, while also continuing to transform the energy industry. There has been a trend to move away from burning coal and crude oil to exploiting natural gas options. He states that “even without carbon mitigation programs, we’ve seen reduced CO2 emissions, acid rain and smog problems by switching to different types of energy sources.” Yuen further explained that shale extraction is a very strategic move for the U.S.

The final presenter, James Meigs, discussed some challenges for journalists communicating hydrofracking issues and facts. Meigs explained that it is important to put things into context and emphasized the need for journalists to “be clear on the facts and find a way to put things in perspective for the public.”

The Sustainable Development Seminar Series will resume in fall 2013.

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