Fracking is a technique that has revolutionized the energy industry, allowing both greater yields from traditional oil and gas rich areas, as well as the new exploitation of areas that formerly weren’t considered worth drilling. In Kentucky, fracking has given birth to a new energy industry, but also a new wave of concerns about public health, the environment, and even earthquakes.
David Greenlee of Bowling Green, Kentucky is a fracking expert and energy consultant who says that in Kentucky at least, the benefits of fracking outweigh the drawbacks. He says that’s because of the relatively small scale of Kentucky fracking, the tremendous economic advantages, and the minimal risk of seismic disturbances.
To put David Greenlee’s comments in perspective, it’s important to understand the basics of how fracking works. Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, which means using high pressure fluids to break up rocks deep beneath the earth’s surface. To do this, a mine is drilled and fluid is forced in under pressure. Oil or natural gas then flow into the cracks that are formed, making it easy to harvest these valuable fossil fuels.
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Greenlee says that fracking has long been used in oil and gas wells when they are first drilled. In that regard, there is nothing new or dangerous about fracking itself. All of the technology and regulations that help protect groundwater in a traditional well are also in play when fracking is used, because fracking is part of the traditional process.
What’s different today is that fracking is used multiple times in the same well, often to open up fossil fuel deposits that previously would have been considered unexploitable. That’s why areas like Bowling Green and the rest of Kentucky, which are not historically considered major oil fields, can now be profitable.
The main risk that this new, aggressive fracking process has introduced is an increased chance of earthquakes. In some areas, the repeated fracturing of deep rock levels has disturbed fissures and fault lines, especially when the fracking fluid lubricates faults and makes it easier for them to slip. This has led to unexpected earthquakes in places like Pennsylvania.
But David Greenlee says Kentucky is different. For one thing, Kentucky gas wells currently max out at 1500 feet in depth, whereas Pennsylvania’s fracking operations went 6,000 feet deep or more. For another, Kentucky wells use nitrogen to frack, which turns into a gas and disappears rather than remaining in liquid form and lubricating faults.
Is fracking safe in Kentucky? Like any fracking operation, the risk of spills and groundwater contamination remains a possibility—but earthquakes, at least, are unlikely.