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Focus On Fracking Diverts Attention From Horizontal Drilling

Jan 27, 2013
Originally published on January 27, 2013 10:00 am

Mention the recent surge in oil and natural gas production in the U.S. and one word comes to mind for a lot of people: "fracking." Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial technique that uses water, sand and potentially hazardous chemicals to break up rock deep underground to release oil and natural gas.

But there's another technology that is just as responsible for drilling booms happening across the country: horizontal drilling.

Environmental Consequences

Horizontal drilling and fracking have been combined in recent years to make previously unprofitable deposits profitable.

Much of the oil and natural gas that drillers are after these days is sandwiched deep underground in layers of rock.

"A vertical well going through a hundred-foot-thick gas shale, like the Marcellus, contacts that formation for a hundred feet," says Terry Engelder, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University.

That means a driller would be able to extract oil or gas from only that 100-foot section. But with horizontal drilling, Engelder says, the drill bit makes a turn and extends the well out — horizontally — through that layer of petroleum-rich shale. Instead of extracting gas from only a 100-foot section, now a driller can extract it from a section that extends a mile or more.

Combining both technologies has turned once sleepy communities into industrial zones in states such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas. The environmental consequences spawned a new protest movement. It's showing up in your movie theater in the recent film Promised Land and the 2010 film Gasland.

This past summer Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Lennon, sang their fracking protest song "Don't Frack My Mother" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

Ono held a globe labeled "Mother Earth" as her son sang about the dangers of fracking, but they never mention horizontal drilling.

'Naughty Connotation'

While you won't hear about horizontal drilling in a song or see it on a bumper sticker, it's just as responsible as fracking for changing rural landscapes. So why all the focus on fracking?

Chris Tucker of Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, suspects the reason fracking has taken off — especially among the industry's opponents — is the word itself.

"It starts with F, ends in C-K," he says. "It sort of has this naughty connotation to it."

Tucker says fracking has been distilled down to a curse word, "and that's important for press releases and bumper stickers and everything else. Horizontal drilling hasn't been distilled that way."

This focus on fracking and not horizontal drilling has surprised even some of the petroleum industry's critics.

"In our organization we talked about fracking maybe eight years ago," says Bruce Baizel, with Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project. "I never would have predicted that it would have become the catchall term."

Fracking has evolved to mean more than just hydraulic fracturing. Baizel says people now use it to refer to just about anything to do with producing oil and gas.

"It means either drilling or ... hydraulic fracturing or it means the truck that ran off the road and spilled whatever the waste was it was hauling away from the well site," Baizel says.

Groups like Baizel's that regularly go up against huge oil companies have embraced this expanded definition of fracking. Oil and gas drilling employs complicated technology that can be difficult to explain to the general public. But with one common word — especially one like fracking that just sounds bad — it's easier to rally opposition.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. One the face of it, fracking is a relatively simple term. It's short for hydraulic fracturing. And it's a controversial technology that breaks up rock deep underground to release oil and natural gas. But there's another technology that is also behind the recent surge in oil and gas production in the U.S. It's called horizontal drilling. It doesn't have the catchy and slightly edgy sound of the word fracking. And as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, it doesn't fit so neatly in a sign or a slogan.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Here's why horizontal drilling is just as important as fracking. Much of the oil and natural gas that drillers are after these days is sandwiched deep underground in layers of rock. Terry Engelder is a geologist at Pennsylvania State University. In his region, that layer of natural-gas-rich rock is called the Marcellus Shale.

TERRY ENGELDER: A vertical well going through a hundred-foot-thick gas shale, like the Marcellus, contacts that formation for a hundred feet.

BRADY: That means a driller would be able to extract oil or gas from only that 100-foot section. But with horizontal drilling, the drill bit makes a turn and extends the well out horizontally, through that layer of petroleum-rich shale. Instead of extracting gas from only a hundred-foot section, now a driller can extract it from a section that extends a mile or more. Combine that increased access with the pulverizing power of fracking and Professor Engelder says that's what's boosting oil and gas production.

ENGELDER: The reason that gas has been such a spectacular success is because of the combination of these two different techniques together.

BRADY: Fracking and horizontal drilling have turned once-sleepy communities into industrial zones. The environmental consequences spawned a new protest movement. It's showing up in your movie theater - that recent film "Promised Land" - and on the TV show "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON")

JIMMY FALLON: Here to perform their new protest song about fracking. Give it up for Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, everybody.

BRADY: As Yoko Ono held a globe labeled Mother Earth, her son sang about the dangers of fracking. But they never mention horizontal drilling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON")

SEAN LENNON: (Singing) So, please, don't frack my mother.

YOKO ONO: (Singing) Don't frack me. Don't frack me.

BRADY: While you won't hear the term horizontal drilling in a song or on a bumper sticker, it's just as responsible as fracking for changing rural landscapes. Chris Tucker with the petroleum industry group Energy in Depth has thought about why all the focus on fracking.

CHRIS TUCKER: The word fracking, it's sort of percussive-sounding. It, you know, starts with F ends in C-K. I mean, it sort of has this naughty connotation to it. I imagine part of the fascination with the word is frankly the construction of the term.

BRADY: And, Tucker points out, opponents of his industry have run with term. At rallies, protesters hold signs that creatively employ the word fracking.

TUCKER: It's been sort of reduced, right? It's been distilled down to this almost curse-word. And that's important for press releases and bumper stickers and everything else. Horizontal drilling hasn't been distilled that way.

BRADY: This focus on fracking and not horizontal drilling has surprised even some of the petroleum industry's loudest critics. Bruce Baizel heads the Oil and Gas Accountability Project. He's based in Durango, Colorado.

BRUCE BAIZEL: In our organization, we talked about the catchall term for this set of issues and impacts.

BRADY: The term fracking has evolved to mean more than just hydraulic fracturing. Baizel says people now use it to refer to just about anything to do with producing oil and gas.

BAIZEL: It means either drilling or it means, actually, hydraulic fracturing or it means the truck that ran off the road and spilled whatever the waste was it was hauling away from the well site.

BRADY: Groups like Baizel's, that regularly go up against huge oil companies, have embraced this expanded definition of fracking. Oil and gas drilling employs complicated technology that can be difficult to explain to the general public. But with one common word - especially one like fracking that just sounds bad - it's easier to rally opposition. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.