The founding father of modern hydraulic fracturing, George P. Mitchell, passed away Friday at the age of 94.
He led an amazing life: the son of Greek immigrants, Mitchell eventually became a billionaire.
But he will be best remembered for fine-tuning the process that has transformed America’s energy landscape.
Despite its current ubiquity, the process remains mysterious and controversial. It involves a lot of weird, arcane equipment. And you can’t see it happening since it occurs underground).
There is some evidence it has contaminated water; that spent frack fluid injected into the ground causes earthquakes; and that spilled wastewater has neutered farm animals, though the industry vigorously disputes this. If you’ve been affected by it, you’re sometimes not allowed to talk about it.
At the same time, the increased use of fracking has massively increased U.S. energy production. Oil imports are plummeting. The shale boom has boosted employment. It’s reducing energy costs. And many people are convinced the U.S. will soon become energy independent.
And some say it’s actually helping the environment by reducing emissions.
The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation is among the organisations trying to make sure fracking is sustainable and environmentally friendly.
We recently went on a tour of a natural gas fracking site in rural Pennsylvania to see what fracking was all about.
Cabot's regional office is about 10 minutes south of the town of Montrose in northeast Pennsylvania, near Scranton. It's remote country.
We arrived at the drilling site, this one called The Bray. All pads are protected by security, and visitors must sign in and out.
Here's a drilling pad nearing completion. This one's called The Bray. Even from afar, it's pretty breathtaking.
This is called the choke manifold. This is the point at which Cabot's gas gets transferred to the pipeline that will carry it to market.
The Bray rig will end up drilling 10 wells at a rate of 20 days per well. This is all possible thanks to horizontal drilling.
Horizontal drilling has been around for decades, though it's been improved on over the years of course. But it wasn't economically viable until recently, as oil and gas prices rose.
A rig called a wire-line truck monitors the well's depth and direction via detection devices sent into the earth.
Once the horizontal drilling is completed, Cabot can begin hydraulic fracturing. The company declined to show us the fracking process in action, and it's true the good stuff happens underground. But this image provides a good idea of how it works — it's basically a gaggle of trucks pumping water down the well, which create fissures through which the gas will travel.
After about two months of drilling, when all the enormous equipment is gone, you get this: a simple set of pipes. This is a natural gas well.
Each well is controlled by two separate gas production units (GPUs) — large green boxes that heat up and separate out the gas. The Cabot producing well site we visited, the Heitzenroder, has two producing wells.
These wells are currently in their peak production phase, which lasts up to four years. But they'll continue producing gas for decades.
Looking down from the well site, you can see the containers that were used to store water to be mixed with frac fluid while the site was being drilled (they're empty here). Cabot doesn't use open pits to hold the water that will be mixed into fracking fluid.
We'll leave you with this image capturing the two sides of the fracking-debate coin: while the process may intrude on the landscape, there really aren't that many people around. And many people are cashing in on the income from drilling rights, which is made possible by fracking.
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