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Geologic formations may contain large quantities of oil or gas, but have a poor flow rate due to low permeability, or from damage or clogging of the formation during drilling. This is particularly true for tight sands; shale has and coal bed methane formations. Eventually, the target formation will not be able to absorb the fluid as quickly as it is being injected.
At this point, the pressure created causes the formation to crack or fracture. Once the fractures have been created, injection ceases and the fracturing fluids begin to flow back to the surface. Materials called proppants (e.g., usually sand or ceramic beads), which were injected as part of the frack fluid mixture, remain in the target formation to hold open the fractures.
A process developed in the 1940’s, and used over 50 years now, hydraulic fracturing is a technique that allows natural gas and oil to move more freely from the rock pores, where they are trapped, to the producing well. A fluid (usually water with some specialty high viscosity fluid additives) is pumped at high pressure into a formation through a fabricated fracture. The pressure of this fluid cracks the rock and opens more fractures in the rock. A sand-like substance is then injected to prop the cracks open and prevent the rock from collapsing back onto itself. With the propping agent (the sand) holding the rock apart, sometimes by less than a millimeter, the natural gas or oil is able to flow through the fractures, to the well and back up to the surface.
Hydraulic Fracturing (aka Fracking, which rhymes with cracking) stimulates wells drilled into these formations, making profitable otherwise prohibitively expensive extraction. Within the past decade, the combination of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling has opened up shale deposits across the country and brought large-scale natural gas drilling to new regions.
The Fracking process occurs after a well has been drilled and steel pipe (casing) has been inserted in the well bore. The casing is perforated within the target zones that contain oil or gas, so that when the fracturing fluid is injected into the well it flows through the perforations into the target zones.
All oil and natural gas exploration, development, and production operations are conducted to ensure that the environment, in particular underground sources of drinking water (USDWs a, or groundwater), is protected. Statutes and regulations have been implemented in every oil and gas producing state of the United States to ensure that oil and natural gas operations are conducted in an environmentally responsible fashion.
While these regulations differ from state to state in their details, their general intent and environmental objectives are consistent. Groundwater is protected from the contents of the well during drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and production operations by a combination of steel casing and cement sheaths, and other mechanical isolation devices installed as a part of the well construction process. It is important to understand that the impermeable rock formations that lie between the hydrocarbon producing formations and the groundwater have isolated the groundwater over millions of years.
The construction of the well is done to prevent communication (the migration and/or transport of fluids between these subsurface layers). The primary method used for protecting groundwater during drilling operations consists of drilling the wellbore through the groundwater aquifers, immediately installing a steel pipe (called casing), and cementing this steel pipe into place. All state drilling regulations specifically address groundwater protection, including requirements for the surface casing to be set below the lowest groundwater aquifer, or USDW.
The steel casing protects the zones from material inside the wellbore during subsequent drilling operations and, in combination with other steel casing and cement sheaths that are subsequently installed, protects the groundwater with multiple layers of protection...