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After decades of fuel dependency on the Middle East and elsewhere, fracking - the high pressure extraction of oil and gas from shale - promised to make the United States energy self-sufficient by 2030. New applications of horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing have allowed the development of oil and natural gas from shale formations. From 2007 to 2011, shale oil production increased more than fivefold, and shale gas production increased more than fourfold.

In the five years 2010-2014, daily oil production in the US increased 3.7 million barrels, while US net imports of oil dropped 44 percent. The US was the number one oil producer in the world in 2015, overtaking Saudi Arabia. In 2012, it became the number one natural gas producer, passing Russia. The IEA projects that the US and Canada will be energy self-sufficient by 2020, and the US alone by 2035.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced 19 June 2014 that the Russian intelligence service was covertly funding European environmental NGOs campaigning against fracking. He stated that he had “met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations – environmental organizations working against shale gas – to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”

Denis Pushilin, one of the most prominent leaders of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, was previously best known for organising sparsely attended rallies against shale gas exploration in Donetsk. In May 2014, Mr Pushilin said the Donetsk People’s Republic had banned the extraction of shale gas in territory it controlled in eastern Ukraine. Russia had been suspected of pulling strings behind protests against fracking in Bulgaria and Romania, but green groups in both countries rejected charges that they were puppets and dismissed the idea of Russia’s influence as a conspiracy theory.

For the past 35 years, securing access to Persian Gulf oil and protecting the shipping lanes to keep it flowing has been a central tenet of American military policy. It is known as the Carter doctrine because President Jimmy Carter first enunciated the commitment in his 1980 State of the Union address.

Historian and author Andrew Bacevich hopes that the shale oil and gas boom from fracking will cause a strategic rethinking of the Carter Doctrine in the United States. "What the new energy regime could do would be to make it clear that the United States does have choices and one of those choices will be to lower our profile in the Middle East more broadly and in the Persian Gulf specifically," he says.

According to Jeppe Kofod, a member of the European Parliament and representative from Denmark to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, about one-third of US military spending, or about $200bn a year, can be linked to efforts to keep oil flowing. Kofod submitted a paper on the implications of the fracking revolution that sparked a review in the NATO Assembly last year. He thinks that there will be major changes in US military policy as a result of the new energy abundance in the US. "They will do some changes in the military for sure," he says, "less money in military in the Middle East and they will be less willing maybe to go into a new war to safeguard its own interests when it comes to oil in the Middle East".

But President Barack Obama and administration officials emphasise that the US commitment to safeguarding access to Middle Eastern oil will remain strong despite America’s shrinking reliance on imports from the region. In a speech at the United Nations last year, Obama said that the US is prepared to use military force, “to ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region's energy supply."

Hydraulic fracturing (sometimes referred to as “fracking”) is a common part of the oil and gas well completion process that typically involves injecting water, sand or ceramic beads, and chemicals under high pressure into a oil or gas reservoir via the well. This process is intended to create new fractures in the rock as well as increase the size, extent, and connectivity of existing fractures and porosity. Hydraulic fracturing is a well-stimulation technique used commonly in low-permeability rocks like tight sandstone, shale, and some coal beds to increase oil and/or gas flow into the borehole from the petroleum-bearing rock formation. A similar technique may be used to increase permeability in underground geothermal reservoirs.

Knowledge of gas shale resources and even production techniques has been around a long time. In 1975, a DOE-industry joint venture drilled the first Appalachian Basin directional wells to tap shale gas, and shortly thereafter completed the first horizontal shale well to employ seven individual hydraulically fractured intervals. DOE integrated the basic core and geologic data from this well to prepare the first publically available estimates of technically recoverable gas for shales in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.

But even as recently as a few years ago, very little of the resource was considered economical to produce. Innovative advances – especially in horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and other well stimulation technologies – did much to make hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of shale gas technically recoverable where it once was not.

Natural gas production from “shale” formations (fine-grained sedimentary rocks with relatively low permeability that can be rich sources of petroleum and natural gas) is one of the most rapidly-growing trends in U.S. domestic energy exploration and production. In some cases, this fast expansion has resulted in natural gas drilling and production activity in parts of the country that have seen little or no activity of this type in the recent past. Hydraulic fracturing is also being used extensively in Canada and is increasingly being used in other countries in Asia, Europe, and South America.

Hydraulic fracturing in vertical wells has been used for over half a century to improve the flow of oil and gas from conventional reservoirs. However, the current practice of horizontal drilling coupled with multiple applications of hydraulic fracturing in a single well was pioneered in the late 1980’s and has continued to evolve during the following decades. Since the final years of the 20th century, the use of this technique to produce oil and gas from previously unproductive formations has dramatically increased, which has pushed hydraulic fracturing and related processes, in some cases, into regions which have not been areas of previous hydrocarbon development.

Prior to the recent widespread use of directional drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and other enabling technologies, petroleum geologists and engineers were aware that oil and gas resources were present in “tight” or impermeable formations such as shale. However, the technology to extract the resource from the formation in an economic and sustainable manner had not been developed. The resource was not “technically recoverable” and therefore could not be included in USGS assessment results. The recent widespread use of new extraction technologies has enabled the resource to be produced and therefore it can now be counted in assessments of undiscovered technically recoverable resources.

Anti-fracking activists say the technique hurts the environment, while the petroleum industry maintains fracking is safe. Oil and natural gas development pose inherent environmental and public health risks, and studies generally found that the potential long-term, cumulative effects of shale development have not been examined.

The amount of water required to hydraulically fracture oil and gas wells varies widely across the country, according to the first national-scale analysis and map of hydraulic fracturing water usage detailed in a new USGS study accepted for publication in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The research found that water volumes for hydraulic fracturing averaged within watersheds across the United States range from as little as 2,600 gallons to as much as 9.7 million gallons per well.

According to a National Academies of Sciences (NAS) study, scientists do not believe the process of hydraulic fracturing a well for shale gas production poses a significant risk for inducing seismic events that are felt at the surface. Injection for disposal of waste water from the process, however, may pose some risk, although very few instances have ever been documented. NAS has recommended additional research to better understand and address the potential risks.

Fracking caused a 4.4.-magnitude earthquake that struck BC, Canada in 2014, according to the province’s Oil and Gas Commission. The commission said the Aug. 2014 earthquake was caused by fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University said in July 2015 that their team didn't find direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — is hazardous for people's health, yet they believe that the numbers speak for themselves: findings show that hospitalization rates in areas close to active wells are significantly higher than in fracking-free ones.

Unlike fracking for conventional oil and gas, fracking for shale gas requires multiple wells. Researchers at Durham University warned that it could cause the "industrialization" of the countryside because of the number of wells and the traffic. In North England alone it will require thousands of wells to extract just 10% of the shale gas reserves.

In June 2015 New York State prohibited hydraulic fracturing because it poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources and a significant impact to public health. Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens said in a statement: “After years of exhaustive research and examination of the science and facts, prohibiting high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the only reasonable alternative."

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 28-01-2016 00:47:40 ZULU