We have all heard of the oil boom in North Dakota. For the past few years oil specialists have been utilizing a relatively new method of extracting oil from underground called fracking (which is short for hydraulic fracturing). Until recently there was no way to get at these vast quantities of oil deep beneath the surface of the earth. However, modern engineering and methods have made it possible to tap into one of the biggest oil reserves in the world. The Williston Basin lies home to the Bakken Formation. This geologic anomaly in northwestern North Dakota has led to some huge oil booms; and some equally huge criticisms.
Benefits of Fracking
There is nothing simple about oil fracking. But I will do my best to simplify the idea. Traditionally drilling for oil was performed the same way that one would drill for water. Driving a hole deep beneath the surface and tapping into an underground “pool” of oil. The Bakken Formation is a little different. The oil in the Bakken is thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, in some areas up to 15,000 feet below the surface. At this depth the oil (and natural gas) is not freely flowing like groundwater is, but rather it is trapped in cracks, fissures, and pockets that have formed in the shale. Simply drilling down does not free the oil, so those drilling shoot high pressured water into the earth (accompanied by some chemicals that are not exactly earth friendly). This fractures the shale, and causes pressure to build up deep below the earth. The water, oil, and gas mixture then shoots to the surface where it is separated. The result is some high quality oil from right here in America. But there are concerns.
Dangers of Fracking
There have been allegations that fracking causes earthquakes. In 2011 a town in Ohio started experiencing earthquakes. While there is a lot of debate on if the fracking caused the quakes or not, the fact is that before fracking, there were no recorded quakes in the area.
Perhaps more disturbing than the potential earthquakes is the fact that this water and chemical solution is being injected into the earth. Currently there is a company that is looking to start fracking on the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains. These mountains are literally an hour from where I live, and a place where I have spent thousands of hours. The Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River flows from them; and the banks of the Clark Fork are near where the fracking is to occur. If these chemicals leak into the river it could contaminate hundreds of miles of river. The drilling community responds to these concerns by pointing out the water and chemicals are pushed into the earth 7,000 – 8,000 feet below the surface, far lower than any water table.
The town of Williston, North Dakota, used to be a rather quiet place. Your typical small town farming community, it was bigger than tiny, yet smaller than big. Once the oil boom hit, this town surged in population. Rent prices skyrocketed, as did the cost of many other goods. With a bunch of young men working the rigs, businesses that specialized in liquor and lap dances popped up. And as can be expected, crime accompanied the surge in population. The Bakken area has become one of the most dangerous places to work. And a large part is not due to the dangerous nature of oil fields, but the crime that goes with the sudden wealth and population.
There is no doubt that Americans (and the rest of the world for that matter) love their oil. Because we use so much of it, we are constantly on the quest to find more. Fracking is a great way to get the oil because it is economical, and it comes from within the United States (meaning less reliance on the Middle East). It provides thousands of well paying jobs for people from all over the country, and has been a major player in bringing the United States out of the last recession. However, there are a great number of concerns, both environmental and social, that need to be addressed and satisfied before it should really be given the green light go ahead.
What are your experiences with fracking and the oil boom?
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