You’d be hard pressed to not have heard about hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as frakking, as a means of increasing production of natural gas. Basically, less permeable rock formations have a water and sand mixture pumped into them. The hydraulic pressure of the water literally fractures the surrounding rock, freeing the natural gas deposits to be extracted. Frakking is also useful for certain types of oil deposits.
Frakking is controversial because certain environmental groups claim there are risks of groundwater contamination, or even seismic risks.
Of course, it’s hard to find evidence of those risks coming to fruition. While frakking has only been a trendy topic the last few years, the process has been around for quite some time. Indeed, the first hydraulic fracturing test was in 1947.
Interestingly, the concept of fracturing the substrata of a well has been around even longer, almost from the beginning of oil extraction. And the first attempts actually used high explosives, with limited success. The results were not encouraging enough to economically justify them.
Before hydraulic frakking became economically feasible, there was one other interesting attempt at explosive frakking. Well, actually, three. And they took the concept to an entirely new level.
Yes. You read that right. The Atomic Energy Commission, in cooperation with El Paso Natural Gas Company, had the bright idea to use a 26 kiloton nuclear device about 3/4 mile below the surface to fracture rock, and release trapped natural gas for extraction.
So, early in 1967, in northern New Mexico, they set off the device. And as far as fracturing went, it did just that pretty well. The problem, which should have been obvious, was that a fission device produces all sorts of very, very nasty radioactive byproducts. Normally, in a deep underground explosion, that’s not much of an issue. But tapping the natural gas meant that small quantities of the fission byproducts infiltrated the natural gas. The actual level of radioactivity was quite small. But even by 1967, the idea of a natural gas company sending radioactive natural gas to your average housewife was seen as a poor business proposition.
Nonetheless, bureaucratic inertia meant that the Atomic Energy Commission would try another nuclear frakking test in 1969 (40 kilotons- same infiltration problem) and yet again in 1973, where three 33 kiloton devices were set off together.
The third time was the charm, not in successfully frakking, but in convincing the Atomic Energy Commission that using nukes to extract natural gas was pretty much a waste of time.
Still, it’s interesting, in this era where building a pipeline becomes a focus of national protest, that only a relatively short time ago, it wasn’t all that controversial to be using nukes to support the energy industry. Can you imagine the howls of protest today?