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The Hydraulic Fracturing Method

The driving principal behind hydraulic mining, conducted via the induced fracturing of the earth's surface has been around since the 1850's and the age of the California Gold Rush.

Because of water's resistance to compression, it is a responsive medium to pressure. In the middle part of the 1800's surface fracturing was accomplished by hydraulically pressurizing water contained within a closed system on a horse drawn wagon or locomotive car and simply expressed through a hose aimed at an area on the ground targeted for mining. This simple and portable technique saved a great deal of man hours, so was greatly favored over more traditional pick and shovel operations.

Like its successor of today, however, it was neither a safe nor tidy process. Efficiently blasting entire hillsides away in a matter of days, the process clogged streams and rivers and produced a tide of waste and devastated farm lands. The practice was finally somewhat subdued in 1882 under the Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company case, but the quest for more efficient ways of extracting minerals prevailed, driven by explosive growth and competition among the world's leading political powers.

Throughout the industrial age, mining companies sought to apply and capitalize on evolving innovations in the practice of hydraulic mining, eventually coupling the idea of hydraulics with drilling in order to bypass the surface altogether and introduce a variety of explosives and fluids beneath the surface of the earth in order to fracture it underground, theoretically releasing gas and oil from its surrounding geology.

At its root, hydraulic fracturing is a fairly straight-forward mechanical process wherein fluids or gases, like CO2 or propane are injected into a drilled and cased wellbore under extremely high pressure - pressures high enough to counter the weight of the surface rock, known as overburden, in order to fracture the subsurface rock and encourage natural gas to collect and flow up the wellbore, which it is prone to do given that it is a gas and wants to naturally rise.

In order to avoid contamination of underground aquifers and target only specific, gas or oil-rich zones, certain areas of the wellbore casing are cemented. Theoretically, this practice isolates production zones from water-bearing zones. Other areas along the wellbore are perforated, forcing the highly pressurized materials into the targeted geologic zone and cracking the surrounding rock.

In many environments, such as sedimentary sands and shales, this technique has been found to improve efficiency and greatly increase yields of natural gas. The technique has also allowed operators to target "sweet spot" locations deeper underground.

This economic advantage has spurred robust and ongoing investment in research and development while continuing to fuel America's combustion engine infrastructure and growth which has spurred further investment.

By the 1990's shallower coal veins were being targeted and fractured utilizing this technique, and as companies grew more proficient, ever deeper oil and natural gas wells allowed for the exploitation of multiple production zones residing at varying depths within a target formation. For example, a well could be drilled to 7,000 feet, theoretically isolating water bearing zones in order to protect fresh water aquifers, while strategically fracturing tight sands, coals and shales along the way - all within a single well bore.

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Hydraulic Fracturing: A Controversy and A Case for Evolved Negotiations,Part One: A Primer on Resource Extraction and Hydraulic Fracturing by Lisa Bracken

Copyright © 2012 Lisa Bracken
Copyright © 2012 The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  (May, 2012)