Everyone seems to have an opinion about fracking. The revolutionary and controversial oil-and-gas exploration technique has raised the ire of oil sheikhs, investors and environmentalists while minting billionaires and wiping out tens of billions of dollars fronted by many of their lenders and investors.
But what exactly is it?
Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure through a well. The high pressure of all the components causes rocks to fracture and the sand keeps those fissures open, while the chemicals help ease the oil or gas out. The method itself has been around for decades, but the more recent development is the pairing of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
This has allowed companies to start extracting oil and gas from less-permeable rocks such as shale, opening up vast new fields collectively called unconventional reservoirs. Conventional reservoirs, where extraction widely took place before the fracking boom, involve tapping into more permeable, spongier rocks, such as limestone, from which oil and gas flows, usually without artificial pressure.
Fracking has been groundbreaking for the U.S. and the world. Up until 2000, U.S. onshore oil-field development had stalled; fracking breathed life back into hydrocarbon production. In September 2019, the country became a net monthly exporter of crude oil and petroleum products for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Administration started keeping monthly records in 1973.