Not sure if I  should write this under “Environment, Light, Not Heat” or this column.  Fracking  is a recovery procedure used in the oil and gas industry.  Recovery procedures are used to extract oil and gas when they do not rise to the surface under their own pressure.  Most oil and now gas extracted in the USA comes from fracking or other recovery methods.  Long gone are the days of the dramatic “gusher” which was the climax of so many films made about the oil business.

Fracking is not new.  It has been used over the last 60 years in over one million cases.  Hard to argue that it is harmful to the enviorment when this vast use has produced few problems, certainly nothing like the problems caused by ships carrying petroleum. 

The fracking proess involves injecting a mix of sand and water into a seam of oil or gas,  more commonly gas.  the mix enters fissures in the seam, expanding them a bit.  The water is then withdrawn leaving the sand to keep open the newly expanded fissures.  The gas flows through the wider fissures, then through the pipe that brought the mix to the seam, to the surface. 

Other recovery methods also use water, but in these cases the water actually pushes the lighter oil to the surface.  And there are other methods.

So what you say, why such interest in a technical procedure known in the industry but obscure among the general public?  Two reasons, first fracking is quickly turning the USA into the largest petroleum producing country once again.  We have an “oil” boom, more accurately called an “oil and gas” boom, turning the land of harsh winters, our Northern Plains, into the fastest growing region in the nation.  The old pharase, “Why not Minot?” has taken on new meaning. 

I saw this entire region en route by motorcyle to and from Alaska.  While western Montana is beautiful with majestic mountains , valleys, lakes and more, the eastern half is flat and decidely uninteresting except for the mighty Fort Peck Dam.  North Dakota offers more flat landscape with little to see other than Rugby, the geographic center of North America, and Devil’s Lake.  A friend of a friend got the job of tourist developlment for Fargo, ND. In desperation he had erected a huge sign over the main road into town proudly proclaiming, ”Welcome to Fargo, Gateway to Montana.” 

While the region offers the harshest climate in the USA and little in the way of touristic interest, it has become a beacon of economic growth in a country othewise facing lackluster prospects.  Home prices and rentals are going through the roof (pun intended).   Anyone who shows up ready and willing to work, goes to work.  Hard to believe that this region could become the economic engine that leads a real economic recovery in the USA.

But all this good news is threatened by the second reaction to fracking,  concern about what the procedure does to the environment.  Lots of scare stories about releasing vast volumes of methane gas into the atmosphere, poisoning water supplies, and even causing structural weaknesses in the subsurface.  Of course the easy answer is what I said at the beginning, the practice has been used for over 60 years in over one million cases with little damage done to the environment.  But easy answers do not work in our “environment war” that features lots of heat but precious little light.  Scare stories, not economic promise, tend to rule the media. 

So what do I expect?  I see the overwhelming benefits of fracking winning in the end and leading a historic surge in US fossil fuel production, leaving an envionmental battlefield littered with scare stories.  More importantly, “Why not Minot?” may actually become the buzz phrase of a revitalized American economy.