Fracking is the big new gun

  • Randy Udall


New technologies are riderless horses. They have a mind of their own and go where they want.

Someone invents the personal computer, and 40 years later you spend hours each day surfing the Internet. Travel agents disappear, software engineers are born. Outside Las Vegas, soldiers sit in darkened rooms piloting drones with joysticks, raining hellfire down on Taliban fighters a world away.

Disruptive technologies don't care what you think or who you are. They'll sweep you up and drag you along. That's where we are right now with hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling, downhole telemetry, 3D seismic and the host of related technologies that have unlocked shale gas and "tight" oil plays like North Dakota's Bakken field, where more rigs are at work than in Saudi Arabia.

Recent history teaches that geology rocks and science rules. The sexy rocks in petroleum geology have always been porous sandstones and limestones, easy formations willing to surrender the goods. In contrast, black shales, the original wellspring of all petroleum wealth, have been overlooked even though geologists knew them to be everywhere. Yes, you could drill them, and a few did, but generally you were pouring sand down a rat hole.

Now, that world has been overthrown. If Prudhoe Bay's startup in 1977 was the energy equivalent of a sugar-high sending 2 million barrels per day gushing south, the "shale gale" has been a hit on a crack pipe. Since 2000, the equivalent of 4 million barrels per day of new natural gas has hit the market. Two Prudhoes, and no one saw it coming.

Like all revolutions, this one has had unanticipated consequences. It's crashed the price of natural gas, saving your family $200 this year alone. It's idled 10,000 uneconomic coalbed methane wells in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. It's triggered a leasing frenzy across Colorado's Front Range, where the Niobrara play is the hot new ticket.

The blowback is everywhere. Cheap natural gas has enabled utilities to close dozens of sclerotic, polluting coal plants. In response, coal companies propose to export their surplus coal to Asia, enabling China, with its tremendous energy appetite, to nibble on Wyoming and Montana. Fracking has put a dagger in the nuclear renaissance, and created challenging headwinds for renewables. Fracking, together with weak regulations and gutless politicians, is the reason that Pinedale, Wyo., and Vernal, Utah, now have worse wintertime smog than Los Angeles, New York or Houston.

You may say you want a revolution, but generally you don't. Predictably, fracking, the high-pressure injection of massive amounts of water, sand and toxic chemicals a mile underground, has sparked controversy.

It is nearly impossible to turn on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow or FOX TV without finding someone either deploring or celebrating its arrival. Fracking took a whirl in President Obama's State of the Union address. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper records industry-penned radio announcements extolling its safety. Conferences are held, talks are given, hands are waved.

But there's a key difference between the Internet revolution and these disruptive innovations in oil and gas. The former took over your brain; the latter threatens your water, air and the land and wildlife you love, perhaps even your perception of democracy.

Yet the larger story has gone missing. With little discussion and less thought, and with barely a peep of civic protest, modern technology had married ancient geology. What a fateful union, as this power-struck duo has enshrined oil and gas extraction as the dominant land use on our continent.

Since the year 2000, oil and gas companies have leased a staggering amount of land in the Rockies, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Add it all up, and the industry now holds drilling rights to at least 10 percent of the Lower 48, more land than is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, more land than we will plant in corn, wheat and soybeans, about 10 times as much acreage as we've paved -- all given over to oil and gas for at least 50 years to come. Just in western Colorado, for example, Encana, Exxon and a company called Williams own a Yellowstone Park-sized chunk of land in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.

Nearly 50,000 oil and gas wells will be started in the United States this year, more than in all other nations combined. Roughly 90 percent of them wouldn't be drilled unless their target zones could be fracked. Like it or not, and many of my friends seem to hate it, this technology has become one of the underpinnings of our civilization, as central to the way we live as the cell phone or computer.

Tighter regulation of fracking, and indeed the entire petroleum industry, may be both imminent and long overdue, but this particular horse has already left the barn, and is rapidly galloping across the entire planet.

Randy Udall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes about energy in Carbondale, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Mar 29, 2012 02:34 PM
In Montana, water for fracking is fast becoming a controversial issue. At least one oil company has told a water commissioner, who is responsible for making sure scarce water resources are equitably shared, that a $500 fine will not stop them from illegally taking water from a river. So what happens to the ranchers who depend on every drop the river has to offer to grow their hay? Tough luck, guys!
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Apr 03, 2012 11:24 AM
I fear we will one day regret the fact that we did not regulate this technology tighter, on the other hand, it may not matter in the long run, we'll figure something out, we always do...
George Winters
George Winters Subscriber
Apr 03, 2012 01:48 PM
Once the tools and technology get "refined" watch for this home grown extraction boom to quickly move to parts of the world where it can be done a few cents per unit cheaper.
Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson Subscriber
Apr 03, 2012 02:58 PM
A fabulous piece, Randy. Thanks very much for pointing out how much tracking is a very disruptive technology.
Gene Sengstake
Gene Sengstake Subscriber
Apr 03, 2012 04:17 PM
Fracking cannot be undone. We are actually destroying a structure of the earth using a process that we already know causes various environmental problems - not to mention the long-term unknown effects. Common sense alone tells us that this is not something we should be doing - yet people’s demand for cheap energy rules the day - no matter what the cost. And when there is money to be made - there is no shortage of companies willing to fulfill the demand - with little if any thought given to the real damage being done. What can you say when humanity is so far off course they can't even begin to contemplate the consequences of their own actions. That even though such a small part of the whole - each of our individual actions really do combine to create the major problems we are facing today. What it comes down to is that people just don’t care anymore - or at least not enough - and fracking will continue it’s destructive course - for the most part - unabated - - -
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Apr 04, 2012 11:30 AM
Toxic, contaminated water, man-made earthquakes along fracked strata, air pollution, ruined range and farmland, are the real price of natural gas. Who pays?

Until the voting public learns that their domestic food supply will decline in quantity and quality and increase in price due to the environmental impact of fracking, distraught voices will be ignored. Never mind the cost to a ruined rancher; the collective voice of the consumer is one of the few to which politicians listen.

I'm sure pundits will claim that we'll just import more food. Those who suggest such have never learned the folly of over-extended supply lines, something that every general worth his or her stars knows.
Gregory Poschman
Gregory Poschman
Apr 04, 2012 01:56 PM
Udall puts it well. And there is more to the story. While Fracking presents a Pandora's box of possibilities for environmental mayhem, it is going to be hard to pin the blame on the frackers- as the structural damage takes place deep underground and far below the acquifers. Meanwhile the avoidable and intentional catastrophe of insufficiently capped gas wells continues across the country, allowing toxins to enter the groundwater and cause documented health problems. An unethical driller can save $5,000 per well by not capping it sufficiently with the required amount of concrete... and no one will know until the damage is done. This issue will be our generation's "Love Canal." I urge readers to look into this further. A good place to start is by searching for The Water Handler, on Kickstarter and help tell the story of a whistleblower within the drilling industry in Western Colorado.
Traci Amborn
Traci Amborn
Nov 26, 2014 01:30 AM
David Lichtenstein, CEO of Lighstone has talked about the disruptive technologies well over a decade. He embraced this new wave of "computer real estate market" and has adapted to it. He says that it is better if you know how to use it, because there are many hidden options and costs from it. For example, there is the 12 story project in Long Island City who was designed even before it was approved, acquired or imagined in everyone else's head. You can read more about that here: The href="[…]/121009888.
Remember that people are moving away from old (but long lasting) real estate sketches, and setting their eyes on new technologies...