The current boom in U.S. oil and gas production was brought on by the development of well drilling equipment that can horizontally penetrate rock formations and create fractures. This process allows oil and gas wells to tap previously inaccessible reserves.
However, hydraulic fracturing – more commonly called “fracking” – remains extremely controversial in the United States and around the globe.
Environmentalists claim that the fluids used in fracking may be seeping into groundwater reserves and contaminating drinking water in the vicinity of oil and gas wells. Additionally, some critics of the process contend that fracturing shale formations may cause earthquakes.
Fears about an increase in seismic activity led to the imposition of a year-long moratorium on fracking in the United Kingdom. The British government lifted the ban in December, although in a press release announcing the decision, Energy Secretary Edward Davey asserted that the nation is “still in the very early stages of shale gas exploration.”
Davey explained that it will be several years before any production operations begin in earnest, as a slew of drill stem testing and other tasks must be completed before companies can begin pumping hydrocarbons out of British shale formations.
Although the fracking process may draw the criticism of environmental groups, natural gas does burn cleaner than other fossil fuels. As old coal plants continue to be shut down and replaced with facilities that use alternative fuels, it seems that natural gas production will play an increasingly important role in generating electricity in the United States.
In fact, the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicated that power generation from natural gas is now roughly equal to that of coal for the first time ever. The two carbon-based fuels have long been the nation’s top energy sources.
Unconventional extraction techniques create opportunities and risks
Some of the fastest-growing energy plays in the United States are being driven by hydraulic fracturing. Shale formations such as the Eagle Ford in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota account for an increasingly large share of the nation’s total output.
However, extracting these “unconventional” resources can be more complex than traditional oilfield production. Specialized drilling equipment is required, and close attention must be paid to all aspects of the process.
For instance, gas well dewatering and frac fluid extraction must be conducted carefully to ensure that energy companies avoid experiencing the backlash that accompanies an oilfield accident.
Fracking’s future prospects closely linked to changing conditions
Water scarcity is another major challenge facing the U.S. oil and gas industry. The fracking process requires a significant amount of water and a drought-like environment has persisted in some parts of the country in recent years.
Dry conditions have become a particularly serious problem for oil and gas producers in Texas. According to estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), only about a quarter inch of rain fell in Texas during the month of November.
Furthermore, the economic viability of many unconventional plays is closely linked to the market value of the resource to be recovered. Although the price of oil is relatively stable right now, a significant economic downturn could cause a slump in energy prices that presents new challenges to producers.
Oil and gas producers can prepare for whatever the future holds by outfitting themselves with top-quality drilling equipment.